Minnesotan To Meet: Machine Age Lamps’ Shawn Carling September 08 2016
September 6, 2016 8:19 AM
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Tuesday is a busy day for a lot of people whowork at the fair. It’s time to pack up and start thinking about next year.
Shawn Carling has had a booth at the Minnesota State Fair for three years now at the West End market, but it’s how Carling takes us all back in time that makes him a Minnesotan to Meet.
Just a few steps away from the Blue Barn is where Shawn Carling’s fair booth, Machine Age Lamps, is perched.
He calls the Great Minnesota Get-Together a great place to meet and greet customers from across the state.
“It’s exposure. We’re local. We’re based in Lakeville, Minnesota,” Carling said.
After working in Best Buy stores and headquarters for over two decades Carling decided it was finally time to trade in electronics for something a little more old school.
“I started this, I built one for my dad for Christmas one year, and Best Buy offered an early retirement and I accepted it,” Carling said.
From there he went to work, looking for pieces of treasure a lot of times in the trash, pretty soon his collection began to grow and so did his business.
“You have to dig through a lot of junk to find something you like,” Carling said. “We started doing this out of our house. The first two years were out of the garage and we had three stalls and our garage was full.”
Now, he has a large shop and showroom in Farmington, where you can find things like repurposed farming equipment.
“The gear on the bottom is the base of an old John Deere tractor,” Carling said.
Or bright red fire hydrants that act as a base for his latest lamp.
“1920 solid brass steam gauge, we always tell people it could have been on the titanic,” he said, pointing at another lamp.
And sometimes finding those perfect pieces is a lot like finding a ship at the bottom of the ocean.
“That’s the hard part, I always tell people it’s 95 percent of the battle trying to find the good stuff,” he said.
For Carling, the thrill of hunt is what keeps so engaged in the process.
“A gage like this I can only find a couple of these a year, this one here is about 1895,” Carling said.
To some old plane, auto-parts, and piping is just junk, but to Carling it lights up his latest creation.
Art and light: Machine Age Lamps creators seek pieces of paper mill history in Brainerd September 06 2016
For the trio using flashlights to illuminate silenced machinery in the dimly lit, former paper mill, It might as well have been a candy store.
Gears, gauges, gizmos.
Once a tidy city unto itself with more than 600 employees, the Brainerd paper mill's giant mixing vats—formerly serving Wausau, Missota and Potlatch—sit empty. Entire chambers formerly teeming with activity are vacant, awaiting a new purpose. But the search this day was for vestiges of what once was. The older, the better.
The finds are bits of history. Pieces of industrial life that tell a story. Gauges kept in perfect order by weathered and experienced hands salvaged from industrial buildings to find a new life as works of art and light.
"People always ask 'Where do get your stuff and where did it come from?'" Shawn Carling said. Carling left a 25-year corporate management career to create what is known as steampunk lighting. Parts and pieces of agricultural and industrial machinery become one-of-a-kind lamps and tables.
Carling liked to tinker. He frequented auctions, finding things of interest to bring home. But everything changed after he created a Christmas gift for his father. The goal was to create a lamp of parts harkening back to his father's life on the farm. He used tractor parts to create the light. And it set in motion events that would change his life.
After 20 years at Best Buy, Carling left to make steampunk lights. He said he kicked himself for staying a year longer at Best Buy, deciding against taking the first offer for early retirements as the retailer downsized.
"It's a scary thing," he said of leaving something after 20 years on the job to go out on his own and think they could make a go of it. "And it's been a lot of fun."
Carling and his Best Buy colleague Bill Heil, who left the company a year before he did, teamed up to restore and then flip houses. They completed about seven homes before Carling said the lamp business consumed them.
Carling's Facebook posts provide a glimpse at how far and wide those lamps have traveled—an airport in Australia, corporate offices in Malaysia, a Gordon Ramsay's Bread Street Kitchen restaurant in Hong Kong.
"We have them all over the world," Carling said.
A friend sent him an image showing a cast member on the television comedy "The Big Bang Theory" next to one of his lamps. Carling said he's not sure how the lamp came to be part of the set but he knew it was one of his immediately, recognizing the 10-inch gauge from New York.
"It's funny how I can't remember what I had for breakfast, but I remember nearly every lamp and thing I've made," Carling said.
The Machine Age Lamps company began in Shawn and Lori Carling's garage in Lakeville. Lamps, 476 of them, came out of the garage workshop before Carling said his wife grew tired of not being able to park cars in the garage and went out and found a place they could rent. The business moved out of the garage in May. Another 500 lamps followed in short order. Carling estimates he's now up to about 1,200 counting the early lamps that weren't numbered. Now all the lamps have numbers, making it easier for customers to point to a certain style as just asking for an industrial steam-gauge lamp didn't really fine-tune a search.
They walked through the Brainerd mill's lower levels, the shop and the main floor where the paper machines used to hum with life. Heil noted they just barely touched the iceberg.
What are they looking for?
"Old, unique, anything with letters, writing that tells kind of a story about where it's from or what it was," Heil said.
They noted the old parts, down to every gear, were embossed with company names and created with pride. Carling said sometimes they get the pieces like big gauges they know have promise and then wait to decide what to do with them.
"We have two or three drill presses sitting in the shop," Heil said. "They look really cool but we just haven't figured out how to make something usable. ... Eventually it will come to you."
They hoped to have some items to indicate Brainerd for their upcoming run at the Minnesota State Fair.
"It would be kind of fun to find something here that has some cool writing on it." Carling said, noting the fair is one of their biggest shows and people stop by looking for local companies, names of cities and ties to the state. "We're always looking and always digging."
Recently Machine Age Lamps had a crew filming at their metro shop. They were using a GoPro to record images of their search in Brainerd to provide footage on how they get the pieces that go into their creations. The goal is to have their own reality TV series. They've already had some experience in front of the camera.
"'Handcrafted America' reached out to us," Carling said, adding the TV show crew flew to Minnesota and spent three days filming at their shop. They were on first season of "Handcrafted America" in episode 7.
So the trip to Brainerd provided two opportunities, to show viewers how they get raw material and to come up with those individual pieces that will make useful mixes of industrial art and light.
"It's a lot of work but it's so much fun to go and find this stuff and dig around things and drag stuff home that we shouldn't be bringing home," Carling said.
So they went, flashlights in hand, past the offices near the employee entrance by the former human resources department, up the broad stairs, down the narrow hallway and into the giant plant. Inside the plant, they stopped to look at gauges, metal name plates, those giant empty vats. A massive hole in the concrete now marks the place where one of the paper machines once stood so large it dwarfed those walking along its expansive sides.
A two-blade floor fan and an ancient computer monitor were also attention grabbing for Heil and Carling. But clear cylinder fuses, more than a foot long, containing an unknown liquid, that came from a big power area of the plant, really got their attention.
Heil said for most people it's something they've never seen before and then some old-timer will see them and say 'I used to change those.'"
It's all part of the industrial history Machine Age Lamps salvages, saves and resurrects into an art form.
Made In Minnesota: Machine Age Lamps December 04 2014
5 Minnesota-made shops at the State Fair September 20 2014
by Allison Kaplan, senior shopping & style editor at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine
Food gets more attention, but between eating things on sticks, there's a lot of shopping to do at the Minnesota State Fair—and it goes way beyond magic mops and yard sticks. Here are some cool Minnesota-made things you can buy at the Fair —including several new products.
Machine Age Lamps — New this year. Steampunk art light fixtures designed from salvaged early American factory parts and made in Lakeville. Find them in the new West End Market. http://machineagelamps.com/
MakeShift Accessories — Also new this year, Devin Johnson of Northfield makes everything from cuff bracelets and pendant necklaces to money clips and chess boards. Every piece is handmade with 100 percent salvaged and up-cycled materials. West End Market. http://www.makeshiftaccessories.com/
Faerie House – Bell Barr of Edina has been hand making whimsical ceramic houses for indoor or garden for 16 years, but this is her first time selling at the Fair. East side of Cooper, between Randall and Wright. www.faeriehouse.com
Minnesota Local Brew – Straight out of their shop at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport, this local retailer offers hats, shirts, drink ware and more from Minnesota brewers, including Surly Brewing co. Summit Brewing Co., and Finnegans. Corner of Carnes Ave. and Underwood St.
L'Paige Lipstick – Locally made, long-lasting lipstick and other cosmetics, now in its 22nd year at the Fair. Upper Grandstand. https://lpaige.com
The Minnesota State Fair’s West End Market has a new store: Machine Age Lamps. Vintage industrial remnants and tractor parts turned into light fixtures with bulbs that look hand-blessed by Tom Edison. It’s the work of Shawn Carling, who’s enjoying his first year as a fair vendor. A birthday gift got him started.
“My dad’s the kind of guy, if he wants it, he buys it. He has everything. So I wanted to get him something really different and unique, and started to pull out old photos of a tractor we had, a Farmall 560. I’ve always tinkered with stuff, always had a knack for fixing stuff, so I found some parts and turned it into lamp. I thought it was funny, but people said, ‘Can you make one for me?’ ”
Thus a career was born — partly out of necessity.
“I worked for Best Buy by for about 25 years and got an early retirement when they downsized. I’ve been doing this ever since.” No regrets: “I was a corporate office guy, marketing, and it turns out I was miscast.” He laughs. “Every day is a Saturday now.”
Where do you find all the parts?
“At first, it was really difficult. I was looking at flea markets and Craigslist; my wife was e-mailing scrap yards that pull tractors apart. Now people send us e-mails all over — yesterday I got one from John Deere Model B radiator tops, and was I interested?”
So the Old Iron exhibit of ancient tractors on Machinery Hill must look like a tempting source of material.
“I always think these guys will be upset when they see the lamps. They’ll say I’ve been looking for that radiator top for two years!’”
Clients range from a guy who wanted a lamp made from the dash of his old tractor and some scraps of the barn to Gordon Ramsey: He just did three lamps for the TV chef’s new restaurant in Hong Kong. Three hundred models in a year and a half, and not always to clients whose decor is “early barn.”
If you don’t care for tractor parts, they have lamps made from aviation gear as well. And in a nice twist, Shawn’s dad, Charles, helps make those.
Twenty years from now, will someone will be converting an old dead iPad into, say, a device that syncs with subatomic vibrations to bathe the user in a field of calming invisible rays?
“Boy, I wonder. A group of kids come past the stand, and they were arguing about Xbox vs. PS3, and I thought, what could we possibly turn into lamps in 30 years?” Good question. Something that’s no longer used but could be repurposed for a new generation. Maybe … incandescent bulbs?
That innovation is Machine Age Lamps' hallmark has been proven once more, as our steampunk lighting solutions bagged the "Most Innovative New Product Award" at the 80th Annual Minneapolis Home and Garden Show. Our product was hailed alongside 13 other equally deserving winners at the event, which concluded on March 2 at the Minneapolis Convention Center.