'We bring vintage lights to life': Stanley Wilson's hip designs are flying off the shelves
Wilson's passion for retro industrial lighting was just a hobby. Then came commissions from Lily Allen and Hollywood.
Friday 13 May 2011
It's not yet three years since business partners and couple Stanley Wilson and Sophie Gollop set up their vintage industrial lighting company – and, until a few months ago, they were running things from the kitchen table in their one-bedroom, rented flat in east London.
The pair had been poised to "upgrade" to a live/work static caravan – until Sophie's parents offered the use of a spacious garden shed and the bank said yes to a mortgage on a bungalow. They've since employed one member of staff.
It's not altogether unusual for a start-up. What, perhaps, is unusual is that, despite this small-scale backdrop, their services and products have already been in demand from some big-name customers, including Lily Allen, Danny Boyle and Martin Scorsese.
Which, if you were to believe Wilson, has been down to little more than chance and astoundingly good luck.
Urban Cottage Industries (UCI), the umbrella company for four niche lighting operations (Historic Lighting, Filament Lightbulbs, Fabric Cable and Hollywood Mirrors), supplies traditionally made and original vintage lighting components. Between the businesses, products include: lovely enamel factory lampshades ("Actually, they're reflectors," Wilson corrects); old-fashioned filament light bulbs, elaborately snaking coils on show ("When the technology began, you needed more filament to make it brighter – and old has become a thing of beauty"); old-school-look wiring covered with coloured twisted woven fabric ("It used to have a protective function, but there's PVC underneath for that. Now it just looks nice"); metal bulb cages (ditto: "Lovely things, aren't they?" Wilson says enthusiastically); and illuminated vanity mirrors, straight out of a 1950s movie.
Ever since the warehouses of arty 1990s Hoxton, with their brick walls and exposed ceilings, became hip, we've had a growing appreciation for utilitarian chic. And as for the blanket fashionability of anything labelled "vintage" – well, cue the Lily Allen link: the former pop star bought several of the substantial Hollywood Mirrors for her retro fashion store, Lucy in Disguise.
Boyle and Scorsese, meanwhile, had historical accuracy in mind for their significant purchases. The former was directing Frankenstein at the National Theatre. Arguably, though, the lighting – 1,000 of UCI's filament bulbs and three kilometres of its fabric cable – took centre stage. A vast, eerily flickering light canopy was helpfully highlighted by lingering close-ups.
This was after Scorsese had hired them (just another bit of random luck, Wilson explains). The couple, recounting the story in Gollop's parents' garden with their baby, Doug, gurgling in the background (their reason for leaving the urban one-bed), still grin as Wilson recalls being met off the train to Shepperton Studios by a chauffeur in a four-wheel-drive Porsche. "'There's been some mistake,' I said." He laughs. "It was Scorsese's personal car" There was no mistake: impressively, UCI pretty much lit most of his new film, the 3D period piece Hugo Cabret, out later this year, which is set in a 1930s train station. "Very much our look," Wilson says. If the film is successful, "it'll make us," they say.
Urban Cottage Industries grew, essentially, out of Wilson's background as a lighting roadie, subsequent failure to become a famous pop star, and the eBay account he started to help to finance the ailing band.
He had returned to his native Yorkshire after years of travelling the world lighting events. He loved the industry, and had become an all-rounder, from being the "cable man" to rigging, event production, programming and more. But he was tiring of the peripatetic lifestyle.
So, instead, he and some friends hatched a plan to record an album as successful as Michael Jackson's Thriller. "As one does in one's twenties," he laughs. Their Thriller was elusive, but the means to fund it would prove to be significant. Their "dirt-cheap" rehearsal space happened to be in one of Bradford's many disused mills. The owner, like most, had long ago installed strip lighting but, because it would have been expensive to do so, had left the original enamel metal shades – or reflectors – in place. Wilson began quietly flogging them online.
Meanwhile, musical failure was brewing: "We had fans and a record deal. Sharon Osbourne even wanted us to be the house band for her chat show. But we just sold no records."
Towards the end of this period, he found himself in London, having met Gollop, and was working for an architectural lighting firm. He decided to do the eBay thing properly – and turn it into a business.
The couple had moved to Dalston just before it exploded as London's creative epicentre. Nevertheless, it was handy when UCI went official and the flat's roof terrace was the launch-party venue. It was – accidentally – the dream, edgy, arty location. The guest list was further boosted thanks to Gollop having bonded on a hen do with the then-head of the Professional Lighting Designers' Association, who forwarded the invite to her contacts. It went from being "a party with your mates who will never buy any lighting from you" to a hot industry ticket.
The first of a string of high-profile jobs rapidly followed – from fitting out the flagship Levi's store on Regent Street, to work for Reiss, Harvey Nichols, Hermès, Jamie Oliver restaurants, The Wolseley, and the Soho House Group. And Gollop officially got involved. "I was no good at the business side of things," Wilson admits.
Meanwhile, the tiny flat was buckling under the weight of success: orders were being packed on the bed, meetings happened on the sofa, and bigger and bigger deliveries arrived.
Next thing they knew, The World of Interiors wanted to run a five-page feature on them. Wilson had never even heard of it.
Just after the piece appeared, the renowned props master David Balfour happened to be dining at the London restaurant Caravan, which UCI had fitted out with its trademark look: bulb cages, bare filament bulbs and vintage retro-fitted searchlights. Balfour asked who had supplied them. But it was when the props guru's wife randomly picked up a copy of The World of Interiors, and spotted five pages of the people whose lights they'd just been admiring, that serendipity was sealed. Balfour happened to be working on a rather big-budget period film for Scorsese...
Fast-forward and they are living a stone's throw from Gollop's parents – and the shed. Well, it's a bit more than a shed. Sophie's father is Will Gollop, the former racing driver. He liked to build his own cars, and used to do so in the large outbuildings in which the business is now based. In the house, Sophie's mother is helping with baby Doug between stints at packing sample boxes of coloured cable for UCI clients on the kitchen table. A hard habit to break.
They're taking a baby break from the big commercial projects for now, but the domestic market has suddenly embraced the online shop. "Lots of people restoring period properties," Wilson says. And people like the UCI ethos. They deliberately decided not to sell vintage exclusively because "prices go up when things become rare. And we categorically did not want to sell really expensive stuff only to rich people." But the authenticity of what they sell shines through: everything new they sell is made in Europe – if not England – in the same way as it was always made.
Packages go out in hand-stamped, brown paper parcels. With careful advice and instructions included, according to the job – not everything is pre-assembled. "It takes a little skill," Wilson concedes, "but you don't need to be Terence Conran. And it means you can create your own bespoke light for under about £50 – picking the cables and fittings you want to put together."
"It's not about vintage industrial lighting," Wilson says. "It's more about a hardcore group of people who want that DIY approach. Like what Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall does with food – but with lighting. Don't buy it in a packet ready-done. Do it yourself." A bit like Urban Cottage Industries has.
Sophie and Stanley's top lighting tips
* If money is tight, just use simple pendants with bare filament lightbulbs. They are beautiful. Use dimmers to increase their lifespan and to save on energy.
* Don't be discouraged by your electrician. They don't generally have a passion for old-fashioned lighting. We often get indignant calls saying: "I've got this rusty old bit of chain in a box, you've ripped off my client." Be confident and persist.
* People are tempted to buy enamel factory lampshades cheap at car boot sales, but they are missing the gallery (the top part) – a vital component – and you can't buy it separately.
* Manufacturing candles is more environmentally damaging than using incandescent bulbs. We comply with the law and sell only 60 watts and under. The multinationals have thrown tens of millions of pounds at developing energy-efficient lightbulbs, but so far they have not replicated the light output that makes filament lightbulbs enduringly popular.
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