Light is a pretty dominant element of my life. I think about it constantly — how to manipulate it, see it, record it, and how to anticipate and predict its behavior. Whether I’m charting the movements of natural light to plan a location shoot or designing and rigging lighting solutions in the studio, playing with light has become an integral part of my day both at work and at home (just ask my wife Erin, she’s woken up to me experimenting with lighting her with my iPhone in the middle of the night). But there’s a certain way of talking about light that seems to be native to those passionate about photography or painting — an excitable and sometimes cryptic form of shop talk that is truly in the realm of the passionate (or obsessive). The kind of talk that Erin dreads whenever I run onto another photographer.
Naturally, I was pretty excited when I met someone recently who was really obsessed with light in a very different way than I was. Andrew Emerson isn’t a photographer or a painter — and his obsession with light and design is expressed in a more practical manner than mine. As the owner of Buffalo, NY based Emerson James, Andrew uses his skills in metal work and industrial design to create unique custom lighting fixtures for businesses and homes.
“I got my start working in a lighting store my senior year of high school. Essentially I was just a delivery guy slash stock guy who did odd jobs around the shop. Eventually it was noticed that I wasn’t a total idiot, so they started to trust me with more responsibilities. I worked my way up to doing minor fixes on lamps and chandeliers and I found that I had a knack for it. I’ve always enjoyed engineering and taking things apart to learn more about them. I spent about ten years there doing restoration and repairs on vintage fixtures, fans, chandeliers, and working alongside electricians all over Western New York and picking up tips and tricks from them. I’d learned a lot, not just about the construction and fabrication of lights, but also enough to be a quasi-expert on how place and arrange lights in a room.”
“At the time I was building some really primitive stuff, like the block lamps I was selling to Ro furniture. It was really just a hobby. During all of this I had taken an internship with a machinist at my father’s warehouse in Lockport, where I learned how to get screamed at a lot, but I learned a lot from him about basic machining, and he very graciously offered to send me to welding school. I learned to do some halfway decent welding, though I’m still ‘Just a pimple on a real welder’s ass,’ as he would say. It gave me a good start, and it gave me a dynamic skill set.”
The Emerson James’ website boasts “We can make a light out of anything” and I really do believe it after seeing some of Andrew’s creations. But despite the prodigious and varied skills on display when you see his work, there does seem to be a clear voice that rises to the surface amongst his myriad creations. Some might seek to identify the aesthetic as industrial, and while there are some elements that make reference to the industrial and post-industrial design movements, there is something refreshingly off-balance to much of his work — and Andrew would be the first to eschew the industrial label, preferring utilitarian to describe his design and fabrication style.
“I cringe when I hear it called that, because the industrial aesthetic has just been done to death. But at the same time, it is what we have all around us here in Western New York, the remnants of a very powerful industry that fell apart. Western New York is a very nostalgic city and we often look back at the glory days of that lost industry, so it’s natural for that to hold a lot of appeal for people. At the same time I steal lots of ideas, and I believe in stealing like an artist, but I steal ideas from the way a table is put together, or the angle of a chair brace. I try to take a little part of all the cool stuff I see and put it into a new composition. Most of my personal design is very simple and functional — if it’s a light I want it to light something up. I also like the ability to manipulate things easily, that’s why you’ll see a lot of things like clutch swivels on my designs. I like to have a lot of adjustability.
The severe symmetry of the purely industrial is muted by the inclusion of naturally imperfect materials like wood and stone, simple bias lines in design or color schemes lend a sense of modernity even when referencing the past, and the organic shapes created by serpentine cables in many Emerson James fixtures adds a balance to the rigidity of his other materials that makes something as ubiquitous as even a power cord a part of the overall design that you will never want to hide.
Emerson James also shares a retail space with with noted Buffalo woodworking and furniture design firm (and alumni of this blog) Wrafterbuilt. Andrew first met his shop-mate, Sean Wrafter, when the two were part of a design team featured on one of those home makeover shows that I’m “secretly” obsessed with — specifically HGTV’s House Hunters Renovation. The two quickly formed a friendship and eventually opened a small showroom together, which later moved the the North Buffalo Hertel Avenue neighborhood.
“Interior designer Candice Urban-Green of BoxCraft took a liking to my work for some reason, and pulled me into the HGTV project – which is where I met Sean. I think at that point we knew of each other’s work, but we quickly started commiserating about our need to have more control over how our goods were being sold and retailed. Sean needed lights to complement his furniture and wood work, and I needed stuff to put my lights on. It was a good fit, and our design aesthetics really complemented each other.”
Both businesses continue to grow, amassing an impressive list of clients, and Emerson James seems poised to expand into more metal work to accompany the already strong line of retail and custom lighting that has become a regular and welcome sight in some of the coolest homes and restaurants in Buffalo. Be sure to stop in at the Emerson James / Wrafterbuilt showroom at 1376 Hertel Ave in Buffalo, NY.