“We don’t make lights, we find them,” says British lighting brand skinflint. They have been giving new lives to vintage lights for more than a decade – and in that time they have saved more than 50,000 lights from landfill. They rescue lighting from all over the world, from abandoned glassworks in Budapest to old Navy ships in shipbreakers’ yards in Gujarat, restoring every light to modern electrical standards without compromising character. Design Milk speaks to co-founder Chris Miller to find out more.
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Tell me about your childhood, education, background, and how you first became interested in repair.
Repairing, restoring, fixing, mending – they were all the norm in my household growing up. We didn’t just throw things away. But it wasn’t until I got a little older that I realized my mindset differed from the predominantly throwaway culture elsewhere. When I look back, I realize it’s this that led me towards restoration as a career path – skinflint was founded on a mission to stop vintage lights from going to landfill; repairing vintage lights has always been an act of care for our planet and our people.
What appeals to you about repairing objects versus creating something new?
And a triple-bottom-line approach underpins everything we do. As a Certified B Corp, we will always prioritize people and the planet over profit. And restoring and repairing vintage lights is how we achieve this. Our vision is to buck ‘fast furniture’ fashion trends, so it wouldn’t make sense for us to design and manufacture new lights and add to the waste pile. Vintage lights were made to last, designed before the notion of ‘planned obsolescence’. That’s why we often find them in amazing locations around the world, outliving the buildings they exist within. The ceilings may be falling down but the lights are still standing!
There are many words for repair with slight nuances in their meaning – mending, fixing, hacking, restoring, repurposing… which do you prefer in relation to your work and why?
‘Restoration’ is the word that best sums up what we get up to at skinflint. To us, it means working with each vintage light to preserve as much of the original character as possible. We ensure each light meets modern-day technological standards but also preserve signs of age and patina; they’re the bits that tell the story of where the lights have been – everywhere from churches in the UK to private residences in Prague and factories in the Eastern Bloc.
What is the inspiration behind it – where did the idea come from?
We’ve always wanted to challenge the status quo; why can’t modern-day homes, hotels, shops, and restaurants be fitted with salvaged and restored vintage lights? In 2009, we put the theory to the test in a Victorian home in North London, and with that, skinflint was born. Fourteen years later we’ve grown, but always stayed true to our founding mission. Our ethos means we continue to make business a force for good and ensure we give back through initiatives like 1% for the Planet every year.
Which repair techniques are you using and why? How did you learn the techniques you’re using and why?
We treat each vintage light differently, there is no one-size-fits-all approach! Some lights are soda-blasted to remove old paint, some are polished, some are lacquered – restoration is a slow and steady process. But regardless of the intricacies, we will always work sustainably and prioritize the environment in our processes.
How do your repairs change the function or story of the object?
The aim of the game is to preserve. We never want to change the function of salvaged vintage lights, just ensure that they’re able to live on to tell their story. That’s part of the beauty of what we do at skinflint – the first chapter in a light’s life might be illuminating old mine shafts, but the possibilities of where it could go next are endless. We work closely with other B Corps like Aesop and Patagonia, who now have skinflint lights that once lit 1940s factories suspended from their ceilings!
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We talk a lot about never compromising character. Signs of patina are an added bonus; it’s these little details that all add to the story of each individual light. They’re great conversation starters above dining room tables! But we will always ensure that the electrical components meet modern-day technological standards. As a proud member of the UK Lighting Industry Association, we’re independently audited, approved, and verified at every stage to ensure that all of our lights are expertly restored to modern standards for faultless functionality.
How have people reacted to this project or body of work? How do you feel opinions towards mending and repair are changing?
Consumer behavior is definitely changing. As individuals, we’re all a lot more aware of our impact on the environment and the proof is in the questions our clients are asking. They want to know we’re working sustainably and that we’re kept in check. And we are! Our B Corp Certification means that we’re legally obligated to consider our impact – and to report on it. It’s the little reminder we need to continue to evolve our ways of working, and making sure the work we do is truly circular. That’s why we recently introduced Full Circle, our product buy-back scheme. It means our clients can return their skinflint vintage lights for a 50% credit towards a future purchase. It keeps vintage lights in existence for longer and we also offer a lifetime guarantee, meaning we’ll repair any lights that need a little extra TLC.
What do you think the future holds for repair and restoration?
We’re proud to be the first vintage lighting company to introduce a product buy-back scheme and we like to think of ourselves as a game-changer in the industry. What we’ve done is demonstrate that a fully circular approach to vintage lighting is absolutely possible. And we hope that others in the industry will follow suit, bringing change to the sector as a whole. We’re excited to see what the future holds.