I heard some unexpected news today, which has changed my plans for this post. Forty plus years ago, my dad met a #lighting designer that formed a lot of my #childhood memories. Growing up, my parents' home had dozens of his one-of-a-kind creations bedazzling the ceilings, walls and countertops (even doorbells, pie stands and magical fireflies in the trees). Not to mention the numerous amount of his lamps that they gave as gifts to friends and family for special celebrations. We would make at least one trip a year to Bill's workshop - an old garage tucked in the back of a property in a residential neighborhood with various piles of salvage lining the driveway and yard.
We lost track of him for a while and then one day, a flyer showed up in the mail with one of his beautifully hand-written poems announcing his new workshop location. We went to check it out that weekend.
I bought my first piece from Bill probably about ten years ago - a beautiful table lamp with a fabulous old glass shade and a unique lead base that had been #salvaged from another old lamp - a lot of his pieces were made from #repurposed old parts that were brought together to create something new. The curvy neck of the lamp had metal ivy leaves growing from it and the whole piece was painted in a variety of colors. I had originally purchased this lamp as a wedding gift for a dear friend, but as it sat in my old house on my nightstand in the months prior to their wedding, I fell in love with it. And went back to buy them a different piece.
When I bought my current home seven years ago, I knew one of the first places I wanted to visit was Bill's workshop to find some pieces that would bring that special touch to my new home. He wanted to know all about it and what I was planning to do with it as we discussed lighting options. I would ask for his lamps as a Christmas or birthday gift and save my money so that I could get more. The first pieces I bought were two pendants - one with a gorgeous etched and rippled glass shade from the 1890s that hangs in my breakfast nook and another piece that had a large pressed glass French shade with an art deco feel that hangs in my guest room. Ironically, writing that (BIG) check for the down payment on my house did not seem nearly as significant to me as hanging my first fixtures from Bill's workshop in my house.
I was equally as excited when I bought my third piece - a smaller fixture for my bedroom with individual glass rods and teardrops that hang and catch the light in a million directions. I had seen it in his workshop during a couple of previous visits and hoped that no one would purchase it while I saved my money.
When I made the journey to buy that piece, I remember him telling me that "lighting is the jewelry for your home," and boy was he right. The right piece made any dull room glimmer - and I would gladly buy a piece from him vs. diamond earrings that would sit in a cabinet. After I hung it that afternoon, I was even more surprised. It cast a spectacular pattern across the ceiling. I love laying in bed and looking at that fixture.
As I was visiting antique stores, I was always on the look-out for amazing pieces that I could
have him fabricate into another fixture for me. I bought an old floor lamp that was in need of much love from a garage sale a few years ago, and brought it to Bill. He asked me what I wanted to do with it and what colors I wanted it painted. He suggested a double-stranded twisted fabric-covered wire that that mimicked the lamp itself to be used in the traditional style winding down the lamp to the base. He also suggested a amber-colored shade made of mica with a braided leather trim. It would have to be special ordered, but he knew it would look just right. I chose a smaller version of the shade to save money, and he called my dad a few days later to say he knew I was trying to save money, but that he had been working on the lamp and the smaller shade was not the right scale. He knew it wouldn't look right and knew I wouldn't be happy. My dad relayed this to me and I called Bill back and had him order the larger shade. I trusted his opinion and he was right. I love the way that floor lamp turned out and the warm color the mica shade gives off. It sits proudly in my living room.
After my grandparents passed, and belongings were being distributed, two of Bill's lamps that my parents had given them as gifts came to me. One, a set of metal rose candlesticks the he electrified and now grace my fireplace mantel and the other, a small torchiere table lamp that is on top of a built-in cabinet in my bathroom. I also had Bill rework a chandelier that had been hanging in my parents' garage for 30+ years so that I could hang it in my dining room. It turned out great.
Every room in my house has a piece from his workshop. Except for my kitchen. I had called him on July 29th to see if he was around so that I could bring over an old #Halophane shade I wanted to use for a pendant light above my kitchen sink. I knew I wanted his signature curlique incorporated into the piece, and maybe something a little "kooky" (as he would call his more unique designs). I waited around to hear back from him that afternoon, but never did. I was on the road for the next couple of weeks and saw a call from his number as I was running through the airport. I knew I wouldn't be home for a while - and my kitchen reno was going nowhere quickly, so I let it go to voicemail and figured I would call when I got home and ready to get the light made. But there was no message left.
I got home, I got busy, projects got stalled and I never called back. This morning, I was with my dad and mentioned I really wanted to go to Bill's workshop to get this pendant for the sink made. He was game to go along. I called Bill in the afternoon to make sure he was there, and was surprised when a woman's voice came on the answer machine message. At first I thought, "Wow, he's getting fancy." But as she finished saying that I had reached Bill's voicemail, she paused. There was a split second of hesitation in her voice that I could hear, and I knew something was up. Her next words were that Bill had passed away on July 30th. I listened for a bit and then told my dad what had happened. He had me put it on speaker phone, and then call back a second time to listen to the first part of the message.
I think we were both in shock. Bill was never in the greatest health, it seemed, and we were always amazed at how he seemed to survive on cases of Cup O'Noodles and cigarettes. My dad and I went out on an adventure, anyway, over to San Pedro to visit House - a store that often carried some of Bill's lamps. We talked to the owner and asked if she had heard about his passing - which apparently she had, months ago, but did not know what had happened. There was a very visible emptiness in the store where his lamps had previously hung.
A few years back, on a trip with my dad to buy a wall lamp, he mentioned to Bill that we had counted the number of his lamps in their house and that it was over 30. Bill had come out to do custom pieces when they were doing their major remodel in 1983 and they had amassed many smaller pieces in the years since. He was impressed that there were so many, and wanted to come by to see everything some time. He had wanted to come by to see what I was doing at my house with the pieces I had purchased, too. Sadly, that never happened.
About five years ago, I was horrified when I found out a new restaurant owner in downtown Long Beach had removed all of the custom lighting Bill had created in the original space - he had created massive fixtures with molded glass grape shades in different colors and winding metal vines throughout the two-story restaurant. We mentioned it once to Bill and asked if he knew what would happen to it - he shrugged and said he guessed it wasn't in style anymore and that people seemed to want more of the IKEA look nowadays. The fixtures that replaced his works of art were heavily mass produced with zero personality. Maybe his original lighting is tucked away in an attic in that building somewhere to be discovered and reinstalled someday - one can hope.
I wish I had called him earlier to start work on the kitchen sink piece, so that I would have had one of his pieces in every room of my home. But I am grateful for the lifetime of experiences and inspiration that I have had in both of his workshops - that were always filled to the brim with gadgets and gizmos and amazing creations.
I know Bill had a lot of friends, patrons and designers who worked with him and supported his craftsmanship and art over the years and that he will be tremendously missed. But, I felt that his memory should not just slip by so unnoticed, which is why I chose to write this.
He loved #Christmas and Christmas lights and had an amazing collection of strands of antique Christmas lights. My dad had him rewire an old electrified Christmas tree stand last year - fittingly, the last piece we have from him. I will miss his annual Christmas sale and the hand written and illustrated poem that would show up in the mail each year to invite us to it.
Find your local #craftsmen and #artists and support them. Buy their work, display it proudly, because individuality and #creativity seems to be a dying trade and we should celebrate those who see the world through different lenses a lot more while they are still with us. And check-in with them a little more often.
Cheers to you, Bill. I'll be hanging chili pepper lights at Christmas in your honor.
A glimpse of William Swatsek's work (the only one I could find online):