When Ed Sexton and Doug Taylor happened across a long hidden, nearly forgotten treasure trove of handblown vintage Murano lamps from the 40s, 50s and 60s, they bought the entire inventory and SWANK LIGHTING was born.
An East Coast company originally imported these gorgeous high-end lamps from the finest Venetian glass houses including Barovier & Toso, Barbini, Seguso, and Venini. They were sold exclusively at a New York City store. Later these lamps were offered at fine department stores such as Macy’s, Bloomingdales and Marshall Fields.
Changing tastes and mass production techniques in the 1970s compelled the company to focus fully on their gilded iron furniture business, leaving a large cache of beautiful Murano lamps crated, untouched and all but forgotten in their warehouse.
When Ed and Doug came upon what can only be described as a 20th Century archeological find, they purchased the entire contents of the warehouse. They took seven months to uncrate these timeless works of art from Murano and Venetian craftsmen. They then completely restored the Murano lamps using UL Certified hardware.
We caught up with Ed recently to discuss SWANK, which is definitely one of The Hamilton Co.’s favorite lighting sources!
Where did the name SWANK come from?
We wanted a name that helped tell the story of who we are. When we started Swank we had just acquired a huge cache of vintage Murano lamps and we already had a large collection of Mid Century Modern as well as Hollywood Regency Furniture. Our initial plan was to sell lighting and furnishings from the period of both styles so we looked for words like Glam, Glitz, Elegant and Swank to simply describe a mood and lifestyle as well as the products we would sell. Swank just came out the winner and I’m so glad it did. That name is gold in the bank. People want to know what Swank Lighting is when they hear it or read it. Had we chosen a different descriptor or used our initials or last names, that wouldn’t be the case. And it may just be because there is a major porn company named Swank, but something about the word sounds a little “naughty” and that appeals to me. Our web site was referred to by the Dallas Morning News as “Lamp Porn”.
With Swank Studio: where did the individual inspirations come from for your lines Joe Cariati, Rock Candy, and Cast in Classics?
From day one, designers and customers would call us requesting the look for less. We fought the urge and encouragement from others to go to Venice and establish a relationship with a modern glass house to import a less expensive contemporary line, preferring to find the perfect American glass artist to expand our line. Joe Cariati is FABULOUS! We are delighted to have found him.
For Rock Candy, we discovered an artist here in Austin. Wade Warnken who was working with recycled glass rock to create small sculptures. When we saw his work we immediately knew we wanted to make table lamps out of his work. So Rock Candy was born. That line is very successful. We’ve even sold a pair to Nate Burkus, an Oprah discovery. And recently we have made arrangements with Fenton glass to buy some of their waste glass in new vibrant colors. Those will be available this fall.
And most recently and most exciting, we have given in and gone to Italy where we found a great glass house on Murano to help us create a contemporary classics line. They are blowing some of the most beautiful pieces of glass for us that I’ve ever seen. We are designing the lamps and they blow the glass for us. The line is slightly less expensive than vintage but the designs and colors are so wonderful that it is rapidly becoming our most popular line. Currently we have six or seven designs on our site but we will have over a dozen by the end of summer. And each style will come in several colors!
What is your most popular selling lamp today?
Vintage is still our most popular line, but the Contemporary Murano collection is rapidly approaching and will eventually overtake Vintage.
How have you seen the trends flow since your inception?
We constantly see shifts in color trends. Right now everything is all about Blue. And last year it was Green and before that it was Pink. We are happy with whichever way that wind blows because we have every color in the rainbow covered. As far as design trends, we have seen designers begin to prefer our lamps be mounted on simple Lucite bases. In the beginning it seemed they wanted wood bases in gold leaf, silver leaf, lacquer, or stain. I actually credit the wonderful Dallas designer, Jan Showers for this shift. Jan says two things that I always quote. She uses Murano lamps in every project as a shot of “candy color” and Murano glass should be mounted on clear Lucite bases to allow the “glass to be the star”.
What’s your personal favorite of the Vintage Muranos?
The stacked balls. Balboa, the company who imported all of our glass in the mid 20th Century, and whom we purchased the remaining inventory from, used round Murano balls in so many ways. They had three levels of pricing or categories of customers. The top line was for their own boutique “Paul’s Gifts” in Manhattan in the 40′ and 50’s, where they did much of their custom work also. In this top line they used 3 or 4 or 5 stacked balls of various sizes, which of course cost the most because more glass was used and they looked so grand. The second tier was the lines they sold through department stores like Bloomingdales, Macy’s and Marshall Field’s. Here they would use two or three balls stacks. Usually a large 9-inch ball on bottom with a 7-inch ball on top, which we call the Deborah Owens lamp after the Designer in Dallas who buys those from us for most of her projects. We use that design a lot, even in the Joe Cariati line.
And the last line or lowest was actually created for the S & H Green Stamp Store. Remember those? My Mother collected green stamps, but she never bought a Murano lamp from them that I know of. So this line was of course the least expensive, and they always used one Murano ball, and lots of inexpensive decorative material to glam it up such as brass flowers, or ceramic flowers, and usually mounted on a small inexpensive piece of marble or brass. But at least the customer could walk out of the S&H Green Stamp Store having bought a Murano Lamp all the way from Italy. Paints a pretty mental picture doesn’t it?
What is the history of the figurines in the Figurine line?
Murano artists have always done beautiful figurine sculptures with lots of animals, flowers, and fruit. The human figurines actually originated as items to sell to tourists in Venice and of course most of the characters are dressed in their wonderful Carnival costumes. The masquerade ball is of course a huge Venice tradition, much as Mardi Gras is in New Orleans. In Italy the tradition goes back much further and was basically a creation of Venice. With the fall of the Venetian Republic at the end of the 18th century, the use and tradition of masks gradually began to decline, until they disappeared altogether. Still today however when you walk through the French Quarter of New Orleans you see Mardi Gras figurines and masks for sale in the various stores. The Murano glass figurines are Venice’s version of that. We purchased the remaining inventory from Balboa and we are selling them with Figurine Lamp Mounts designed by Swank or just as separate collectibles in our soon to open Accessories section. Balboa imported them to sell at their boutique, Paul’s Gifts which was located on Broadway in the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s.
Who are your biggest clients?
Designers are clearly the largest category of customers for Swank. And that is where we see our growth. We have been in business 5 years now and we have never had one single return. In fact virtually 100% of our customers tell us the lamps look so much more beautiful in person than they do on the web site. Those who visit our showrooms know that first hand. Then we have collectors who snatch up the really rare stuff as soon as we post it on our web site or on 1stdibs. More and more we’re seeing the end user come directly to us thru the web site. However we offer an industry standard discount to trade accounts that register with us. We sold a pair to Barbara Bush when she was in the White House, but they turned out to be a Christmas gift to one of her staff members.
The Art of Living blog is written by The Hamilton Co. Contact us at 805-284-8835 or via email at [email protected] or [email protected].