by KARA LARSONFeatured in Make It Minnesota's Spring 2015 issue.
The familiar flicker emanates warmth. The inviting light softens a room. And for Brenda Irwin, the craft and care behind her lamps offer something even more unique—the charm of being handmade and locally sourced.
The beginnings of Light Reading, Brenda’s lampshade business, started simply. Brenda reminisces, “It really began in the 1980s when I learned to make shades from Nancy, my sister-in-law. Her cut and pierced lampshades were famously beautiful and the first time I saw them, I knew I wanted to try it.”
And since this inspiring first look, Brenda has been branching out and coming up with new shade ideas for many years. She started selling in craft malls and on eBay and then began to get inquiries about custom work. Soon, shopkeepers asked her about wholesale and consignment. Now, Brenda has opened an Etsy shop and travels to shows like Junk Bonanza, Craftstravaganza, No Coast, and other Midwestern shows like JunkStock Omaha.
Even more recently, her family has become part of the business. “For the past 10 years my family has joined in with their creativity and talent. My husband has become quite the artist using architectural salvage and parts to make floor lamps. In 2010, our daughter Jess began making photo slide lampshades.”
For Brenda, Jess’s involvement has added a great deal to the success of Light Reading. “My daughter Jess is very talented, tech savvy, and fearless when it comes to publicity and sales. She’s trying to help me make better use of the Internet.” Brenda adds, “We benefit from the perspective of two generations. Jess has a creative vision that meshes with mine but is uniquely her own. She works part time with me and is a full time student.”
With the help of her family, Brenda finds that their interest has brought something new to the process—something wonderful. And today, they inspire some of her favorite aspects of owning Light Reading. “Working with my family, selling at shows with my daughter, seeing the fabulous designs my husband comes up with. We enjoy our customers and often receive appreciation photos and thank you notes.”
A business with a quality, carefully made product, a connection to family ties, and an appreciation for locally sourced goods, Light Reading is proudly based in Savage, Minnesota. In describing what it means to be a maker in Savage, Brenda believes that her lampshades end up in the homes of people on a quest for unique decorative pieces. “Savage is a community of newer suburban homes, and people are really searching for unique items to make the house feel less “builder beige.”
She adds, “Lighting is an excellent way to add character to a home. I also think that in the darkness of our winters there is nothing like a lamp in the window or reading corner. Lamplight is warm and uplifting, it welcomes you into a room.”
In terms of adding to the community of Savage, even though Light Reading does not have a retail store, Brenda has sold lamps through local shops and has also supported community fundraisers or silent auctions by donating lamps. All of this involvement adds Brenda and Light Reading to an entire community of local makers. And as a small business owner, she wants to support local makers like herself. On shopping local, she shares, “It means staying south of the river. I go to local antique and thrift stores weekly looking for lamp parts and fine old lamps that need a little work. I’m a member of HandmadeMN, which is an Etsy team. I do shop with those makers online and some live in the southern metro. There are fellow Junk Bonanza vendors that have brick and mortar stores nearby, it’s fun to go say hello and find supplies like grain sacks or old maps which I use for lampshades.”
Light Reading’s shades may be constructed from locally sourced materials; however, the modern marketplace allows for worldwide distribution. Brenda offers, “Of course there are friends and neighbors with our lamps in their living rooms! We ship our products all over the world so I’m sure there are folks in South Africa and Japan and Finland who open the box and say “Savage Minnesota?””
Through Light Reading, Brenda provides custom-made and beautiful pieces for everyday life. What does this mean to her as a local maker? “I love practicality; people use our lights every day. We do a high percentage of custom work, making lampshades for specific rooms or hard to find shapes and fittings for old lamps,” shares Brenda. “Working with local designers is always interesting, very enjoyable. There are so many different creative directions we can go with lighting; from re-purposing vintage materials to new, very modern paper shades.”
As Brenda expands her business and aspires to try new things, she maintains that creativity and innovation have the ability to push a person forward, always. With this mentality, she offers, “We are currently making a line of huge malt sack pendants for craft brewers. Shades from antique grain bags and flour sacks are selling fast. When I get tired of the vintage look, I can switch to modern. Repetition is a necessity for any creative business, but variety is key for happiness in that business.” At the end of the day, Brenda hopes Light Reading encourages one essential feeling—happiness. “A well made product, interesting and different, surprising and fun. I’d like our customers to get just a moment of joy and delight every time they switch on a lamp.”