Fancy Lamps | Neil Steinberg | Granta Magazine

Fancy Lamps

Neil Steinberg

From the street, the factory housing the Frederick Cooper Lamp Company is not as ugly...

From the street, the factory housing the Frederick Cooper Lamp Company is not as ugly as most. The building was originally a ladies undergarment plant, built around 1900; it has a courtyard and windows, luxuries that would later be dispensed with in most factories. The four-storey brick building, with a square tower double that height, is a reminder that a factory was once the centrepiece of a neighbourhood, second only to the local church. The tower, like a steeple, catches the eye; it advertises the product with a sign informing the 260,000 cars that pass every day along the Kennedy Expressway leading out of Chicago that Cooper produces lamps of elegance.

‘Elegance’ can be taken as an euphemism for ‘costliness’ and Cooper lamps are indeed expensive. The lamps are made of brass and copper, maple and marble, bronze and china, silverplate and gold leaf. No one has any idea how many different styles they make and the number keeps changing. The cheapest costs $200, and from there prices soar into the thousands for crystal chandeliers.

None of the luxury of Cooper’s product extends to the factory itself. The entrance is through a single flight of narrow stairs leading to a small, not particularly clean, reception area. This was last decorated, from the look of it, in the early 1970s: pea green carpeting, and fake wood-panelled walls. A few well-tended plants, a carved eagle and some handmade sparkly butterflies on the bulletin board save the room from dreariness.

The public face of Cooper Lamp is more attractive: Suzanne Lauren, an energetic woman whose dangly bracelets bear an uncanny resemblance to decorative elements of certain Cooper lamps. She has worked at Cooper for twenty-three years and is now the vice president of design. She is accompanied by her dog, Cooper, a German shepherd that has the run of the front office, a room as cluttered as the reception area is bare. One wall is given over to manila folders; the desks are piled high with catalogues and promotional materials; lamps in various stages of assembly crouch in the corner as if they have wandered off the factory floor.

A lamp is divided into four parts. First is the shade—a screen of paper or cloth that softens the harshness of a bare bulb. Second is the electrical socket that receives the light bulb. Third, holding the socket aloft, is the base which is often decorative. Anything can be used for a lamp base—bowling balls, football helmets, toy trains—but given Cooper’s high-end market, the bases tend to be brass urns, china vases as well as an eclectic range of objects that seem designed to appeal to wealthy widows: brass elephants, bronze bulldogs, Chinese horses, verdigris dancing frogs, copper Nepalese horns, metal palm trees. Floor lamps tend to be more uniform because of their larger size, their bases simple brass poles or turned wooden posts.

Under the base is the part that most non-lamp people never consider: the mounting. This is a little circle of wood or stone or, in less expensive lamps, plastic, that acts as a buffer between base and table top. The mounting is like a pedestal for a statue. Without it, a lamp looks unfinished, like an urn with a lampshade on top.

In practice a lamp has many more pieces than just these four main components; each part consists of many more parts. A mounting might be three circles of wood, each a bit smaller than the one below. A base might be an urn that is assembled out of a dozen various rings and handles and curving sections. An electrical socket includes a cord threaded through a metal channel and a plug and a harp (the loop of brass that holds the shade). A shade can be a complex confection of cloth, metal, cardboard, or even a decorative fringe consisting of one hundred inch-long threads, each one holding a colourful glass bead.

This multitude of parts—wooden feet, stone discs, copper tubes, glass beads, porcelain dogs, brass finials, tin pineapples—dictates the set-up of the 240,000 square foot Cooper factory. Most of the plant is given over to rows of shelves and bins and tables to hold the thousands of dusty parts. The pieces are stored where they are made since the Cooper plant consists of a series of shops. This makes the factory unusual in this age. The typical modern factory either makes something—forging steel rods, moulding rubber tires, dipping chrome plating; or it assembles something—putting together bicycles. But Cooper does both, out of necessity.

‘All the small businesses in the Chicago area stopped—wood carving, plating, metal forming and casting,’ says Frederick Gershanov, who owns Cooper Lamp with his older brother Peter. ‘So all those operations we took into our company.’

Cooper has an enormous woodshop where rough planks of maple are turned into lamp bases. While there are numerous electric tools—planers and sanders and band saws and radial saws—there are also plenty of hand tools, some with wooden handles: chisels and augers and mallets. A plywood board displays cutting-wheel bits at the ready. They are objects of surprising beauty, resembling little steel suns and crosses and starfish.

Bedpost-shaped lamp bases are common and the lathe work for such bases is done here. The really time-consuming part is not turning the wood but setting the cutting knives on the lathe to produce a particular pattern of curves and bulges and ripples. So, rather than keep changing the settings on the lathe bits, the knives are kept in place and locked into the machines when needed. Dozens of the pointy, yard-long assemblages are stored leaning upright on a rack, in a kind of library; an example of the post each set of lathes produces is placed in front of the knives that produce it.

This is a very old fashioned way of doing things—no bar codes, no computerized imaging of the lamp bases, just the objects themselves guiding workers to the lathe set-ups they need. This is typical of the overall Cooper system; a person new to Cooper would have no way of locating a particular bolt of leopard-print cloth for a particular lampshade. There is no general system tracking where things are, other than the memories of the workers, several of whom have been here for almost forty years.

The average vista that presents itself, as you walk through Cooper Lamp, is completely inert—lifeless rows of parts, on shelves, or in large, square, heavily scarred wooden bins on iron wheels. ‘I saw one at an antique store, selling for a thousand dollars,’ Lauren says.

The factory is surprisingly quiet and dim; lights are kept low to save money. Occasionally you will hear the whine of a saw, or the low murmur of Mexican or Polish or Korean music a certain worker is listening to on an ethnic radio station. Cooper has 150 employees. Workers are usually by themselves when you encounter them: you typically meet an older person, sitting on a stool at a workbench, in a small pool of light, bringing a hand tool to bear upon one of the dozen or so lamps spread out before them, all in a uniform degree of partial completeness. There are no conveyor, belts, no quotas. Nobody seems in a hurry.

‘You can’t use anything sharp because it will scour the pieces,’ Richard Beitler explains. He is standing at a table and using steel wool to burnish fifteen swan-handled urns, each of which has been assembled from seventeen different pieces. ‘You rub on it, rub on it, it’s glossy and you want it matte, you change the direction from a buffing motion to a rubbing sideways in the opposite direction. See how it flattens the colour out? How it dulls it?’

He wears cotton gloves—once white, now deep black except for the cuffs. He is working his way through a batch of a hundred of these urns. He says that buffing each urn should take about twenty minutes if you do it properly.

‘That’s if you’re God,’ he says. ‘I can do it in fifteen.’

Beitler has worked here for ten years, and says you can tell at once when a lamp has been rubbed by hand. Machined lamps, Beitler says, are ‘very uniform, very glossy. When you do a hand finish, it looks like its been sitting around. It has a warmth to it, a nice texture, tone, patina. The bronze hand finish looks great. You can’t do it on a machine. It has a very nice antique look. It’s very beautiful.’

Cooper Lamp should not be here. Cooper should have vanished in the great death of American manufacturing that gathered steam in the last half of the twentieth century and has accelerated in recent years. The United States has lost almost twenty per cent of its manufacturing jobs just since 2000. This was the year that Cooper’s biggest local competitor, Stiffel Lamps, collapsed under debt, selling off its assets—which included a headquarters building that dated back to 1871—and tossing hundreds of people out of work. Cooper Lamp should have been torn down to make way for the expensive town houses going up all over Chicago’s North Side. These are occupied by professionals who then begin to complain about the noises and smells of whatever industry remains around them. The Stiffel factory, which once turned out 250,000 brass lamps a year, now holds loft condominiums.

The choice seems to be either perish, like Stiffel, or move overseas where labour costs are a fraction of what they are in the United States. Anyone vaguely familiar with Chicago business can reel off a list of the departed. Just last summer, the red wagons of Radio Flyer, made in Chicago for ninety years, relocated to China. Brach’s Candy, produced in an enormous West Side plant, moved down to Mexico to dodge high American sugar tariffs. A thousand workers lost their jobs.

Stiffel’s collapse was blamed on the company’s failure to flee to China. Cooper survives by one of several strategies that—at least so far—have thwarted the competitive advantage of manufacturers in the Far East. The saving fact is this: really expensive lamps are a niche market, with a tiny demand compared to the overwhelming global hunger for cheap lamps. When the Chinese build lamp factories, they want to make lamps that can be sold by the hundreds of thousands, for $20 apiece at Wal-Mart, not lamps that cost $500, of which Saks Fifth Avenue can maybe sell a hundred over the course of a year.

‘We offer a very high quality product,’ says Lauren. ‘Our shades are hand sewn, using unique fabrics. We use unique materials. We put things together in a unique fashion and as a result we have a very good name among the designers and decorators, and the stores. We sell to very high-end stores, some of the best department stores: Macy’s, Marshall Field’s, Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, Horchow.’

Laboriously constructed, high-end goods are one way for American companies to survive, at the moment. Another is to embrace technologies that trump the benefits of cheap labour. A Chinese worker might earn $6,000 a year. But a Kawasaki industrial welding robot doesn’t earn any salary at all.

Set amidst black hillsides of slag, the Ford Assembly Plant, on the South Side of Chicago, is a shapeless, windowless expanse of white concrete buildings and bay doors. The pipes and steel metalwork which cover the building give way to brick at the entrance which is flanked by the models of new cars currently being put together inside. Though Fords have been made on this spot since 1924—the plant originally made Model Ts—the factory has been completely rebuilt thirteen times. A few traces of the original structure remain—a brick wall, part of a roof, and an entranceway.

A large blue sign set on an easel greets visitors. Today it declares 003 days without a lost time accident, which is rather like someone bragging that he has not taken a drink since lunch.

Visitors are ushered into a bright, clean conference room containing a horseshoe laminate table and no fewer than eighteen managers, representing the various aspects of the huge 2.8 million square foot plant. There is a Quality Control Manager and a Material Planning and Logistics Manager, a Human Resources Manager, an Off-Shift Manager and even one whose title is Lean Operations Manager. They are enthusiastic, their language peppered with code phrases and production mantras. The engineers, in particular, speak in a language that the layman can barely grasp.

‘Right now we’re going through surface transfer for ’08,’ says head engineer Ken Couey. ‘We’re always driving toward the CAD nominal—this fixture is an exactly moulded fixture of the CAD nominal data.’ CAD stands for ‘computer-aided drawing’. Couey is talking about the idealized computer image of a perfect car that is the blueprint the actual automobiles are constructed from. An automobile consists of roughly 10,000 individual parts—tyres, bolts, axles, panels, cams, knobs, pistons, seals, hinges, shafts, wires, gauges. By the time they arrive at Ford Assembly, some have already been put together leaving only 2,400 components: an instrument panel, for instance, which is the entire dashboard of a car, arrives in one piece, gauges and buttons and all, ready to be installed.

The Ford plant is like an aeroplane hangar—high ceilings criss-crossed with white steel trusses. It is never particularly loud, and occasionally a bank of exquisite, new-car smell wafts delightfully by. The entire factory radiates control and order—clean, well lit, floors freshly painted. Everything is methodical, even to the smallest detail: the fire extinguishers at the clearly marked fire stations are not only sealed in protective plastic bags, but those bags are emblazoned, ford fire extinguisher.

The easiest way to understand the intricate process that gathers these thousands of parts and binds them up into a car (at the rate of a new finished automobile every 64.8 minutes) is to break the process down into two central tasks.

The first task is the actual assemblage. Henry Ford is famous for creating the assembly line, an innovation he pioneered in the years before the First World War, but the line today has nothing so rude as a conveyor belt. Rather, it is a complicated, snaking track of individual, computer-monitored racks that hold the growing cars and move them through the factory. Like Cooper, Ford Assembly can seem oddly empty at times, with no workers in sight, only lines of unpainted cars, their sides shiny naked metal, inching slowly along. At times the line even doubles back and arches above itself. The cars then hang on harnesses instead of rolling, as if on parade across the ceiling.

The workers, when you can see them, are small figures standing in the heart of the machinery. There are 2,000 workers at Ford Assembly. They are divided into task teams of between five to ten people, depending on what they are doing. They dress casually and chat among themselves, handling electric wrenches that hang on tubes from the ceiling, or lifting door sections using robot-assisted suction devices. They are members of the United Auto Workers Local 551, but they work harmoniously alongside non-union labour—four hundred Kawasaki industrial robots, used primarily for welding. Each six-foot-high robot moves back and forth on a rubberized track resembling half a tank tread.

There is an almost poetic grace to the various swoops and gestures of the robots. A half finished section of car slides in, and a frame moves in and locks it in place. Then four robots, one at each corner, roll forwards and start to weld, throwing out sprays of sparks—molten metal—each time the pinchers close with 1,200 pounds of pressure, to make the weld. Ford, which likes to keep track of such things, says there are 2,700 welds in an average car.

To visualize how the robots move, take your hand and make a variety of gestures—a fist, a flattened palm, a peace symbol—as quickly as you can while twisting and turning your wrist abruptly. In that way, the robots rush and pause, rush and pause, with something of the grace of a hand, something of the clumsiness of a dinosaur, and perhaps a little dinosaurian menace, particularly since they do their work behind cages, as if they might break free. The cages are to keep workers from walking too close to the scope of the robots, which could crush them just as effectively as movie robots, although without the malice.

After each task is done, while the freshly welded car section moves away and a new one takes its place, the robots draw back and settle into a kind of repose, their welding beaks tucked under their bodies, as if resting after their exertions. What is actually happening is that since impurities build up on the circular copper welding contacts, the robots are cleaned automatically after every welding.

The robots are not blind, but use lasers to look at what they’re doing. The pieces they are assembling are not all the same—there is, for instance, a half millimetre variance in the metal door panels, and those half millimetres can add up, so the robots need to adjust. At one station, car roofs are being lowered into body assemblies and welded. The robots first position the roof for the best fit, so that it is as perfectly centred as it can be, then burn it into place.

Sometimes different types of car go through the line at the same time. The body of the new Ford Five Hundred can slide into place, be attended to by the welding robots, and then be followed by a Freestyle—a different sized body that requires its own unique pattern of welds. The Ford engineers are immensely proud of this. Until very recently, an assembly line would have to shut down for weeks or months to re-tool for a new line of cars. This is a revolution. Like the stockpiled lathe set-ups at Cooper, the changing production line at Ford is a reminder that one way factories stay in business is by minimizing the time they spend preparing to make things.

In the process of welding a roof, the only time humans intervene is to remove the roof section from the rack of incoming parts and place it into a frame where the robot can pick it up. The arrival of that roof section—a square piece of metal set on a rack—demonstrates the second great task at Ford assembly: getting the right part to the right place at the right time.

This is more difficult than it sounds; the delivery of parts is almost as complex a challenge as the construction of the cars themselves. A chance discovery in the dusty stock pilings at Cooper can lead, fairly quickly, to the designing of a new product: a bin of old, wooden perfume-bottle stoppers can inspire the creation of a lamp with a bamboo-like base made of stacks of those stoppers. Nothing can be haphazard at Ford. Parts arrive continually. They have to, since Ford tries to have only enough inventory to keep the plant operating for three hours.

The three-hour turnaround is an incredible feat. It means, when the morning shift arrives for work, the parts they’ll be installing after lunch are just arriving at the plant, and those they’ll need by quitting time are still on the trucks, heading to the plant. Ford does this because it costs money to hold inventory, and reducing the time a part is in Ford’s possession to the barest minimum serves to narrow the gap between when a part is paid for, and when it goes out into the world and earns its keep as a car, helping draw to Ford the $7,000 average profit it makes on every vehicle it sells.

The consequences of such a quick turnaround time is increased risk: if one of those 2,500 parts is missing, production stops—cars are assembled in a fixed order, from the frame up, and a single absent or defective component can bring the $1 billion plant to a halt. Most of the factory floor space is taken up not with the production line, but with one vast loading dock, with forklift trucks hurrying, say, racks of bumpers to where they are needed. Floors are painted with yellow lane markers, and there are stop signs and street lights. Pallets are high with colour-coded bins—bright purples and greens and reds—and computers keep track of where every part is at all times, even as they journey to the plant.

The parts don’t have far to travel. It would be impossible to keep to the three-hour inventory rule, if they did. Sixty per cent of the parts are made in what Ford calls ‘the Chicago Manufacturing Campus’, a dozen suppliers, employing another 1,400 people, encamped around the assembly plant—companies with far-less famous names such as Facil LLC, Flex-N-Gate, Plastech Engineered Products Inc., and Summit Polymers. Ford estimates that, by having the suppliers right there, half a mile from the assembly plant, they save fifty dollars in shipping costs on each new car built.

Even the transit of the arriving parts from the loading bays to the assembly line was given careful study. ‘We used Euclidian drawings to show exactly how far it takes to get material from one area to the next,’ said Couey.

The average car-buyer never contemplates the challenge of getting properly machined front left-side doors to the Ford assembly line, just as few lamp buyers think about the hidden achievement of Cooper Lamp which isn’t the burnishing and working of the materials that go into their products but the less romantic challenge of getting the finished lamps to their destinations. ‘One of those things you never think about is how important the packing is,’ said Lauren. ‘If it can’t get there in good shape…’

If a lamp isn’t packed properly—and sometimes even if it is—it will break en route, and the customer will send it back. Floor lamps are particularly problematic, because they are long and less robust and customers have a tendency to half unpack them and then tug, hard, throwing them permanently out of alignment. Every floor lamp leaves Cooper with a bright, yellow sticker on the box reading, do not pull on any part of this lamp to remove it from box. It doesn’t always help.

Just as welding robots have revolutionized car assembly, technology has come to the aid of packing lamps. Thirty-nine years ago, when head packer Ruby joined Cooper, the lamps were packed in excelsior, a material which she describes as something that ‘looked a little like hay but it wasn’t hay’. Then came Styrofoam popcorn, a substance that no one remembers fondly, due to its genius for spilling and getting everywhere. ‘Everywhere,’ says Lauren. ‘We tried everything. Oh boy did we hate those—I don’t know who hated those more, us or our customers.’

Now the packing material is contained within rolls of grey plastic bags that are filled with a beige polyurethane liquid—actually two liquids, shot from a pair of fifty-five-gallon drums, that, upon interacting with each other, undergo a chemical reaction and begin rising, like warm bread. Once filled, a bag is tossed inside its box, then a lamp is set on top of the bag as it slowly puffs upwards, and another bag is filled and set upon that. The foaming bags fit themselves perfectly to the contours of the lamp, protecting it from the rigours of shipping to—in this case—the Akane Lighting Company in Kawaguchi City, Japan.

There is one baroque, horror movie aspect to the rising foam packaging. Its uncontrolled growth would normally split apart the cardboard carton. To prevent this from happening, each freshly filled and sealed box is briefly slid into its own custom-made plywood vice—they look like little coffins—which keeps the cardboard carton intact in the thirty or so seconds it takes for the expanding to stop.

The Ford and Cooper plants are identical in one respect—both pause production for ten minutes, twice a day, at nine a.m. and at two p.m., although at Ford these respites are called ‘daily shutdowns for relief for our employees’ and at Cooper they are referred to with less ceremony as ‘breaks’.

This is a reminder that, for all the focus on the things that factories make, a factory is also a place where people live. A factory worker spends almost as much time at his or her station as in bed. For all the impact that each individual new lamp or new car may have on its owner’s life, the effect is dwarfed by the impact that the making of thousands of new lamps or the making of new cars has on a person.

Both factories stress the empowerment of their workers and the ability of their employees to exert control over their work and their lives. This is easier to see at Cooper Lamp than at the Ford factory. Cooper workers make their work areas into their own personal environments, posting pictures of grandchildren and home towns, stringing their work benches with Christmas lights or cheesecake calendars. Lauren introduces them one by one, talking about their various strengths, the innovations they suggested, the tools they helped develop—sometimes something as simple as a section of hacksaw blade that happens to be perfect for pushing the edge of a cloth lampshade neatly beneath its trim.

At Ford, the workers are kept ten or twenty yards away from visitors, and there is scant evidence of any kind of individuality. At Ford, culture comes from the top down just as the car components do. Some rules are for safety—no exposed jewellery allowed. Some are for cleanliness—no chewing gum. Others instill a sense of esprit d’corps and productivity. A series of triangular signs exhorts safety and quality and delivery and similar lofty sentiments.

The workers at the Ford Assembly Plant are divided into ‘Kaizen groups’—Kaizen being the overarching Japanese production philosophy which stresses teamwork, quality, cost-cutting and improvement. Detroit was caught napping by the Japanese car revolution of the 1980s, which left American products seeming woefully expensive and shoddy by comparison. American carmakers such as Ford leaped to adopt Japanese quality-control standards. ‘Kaizen’ is just one of the Japanese terms incongruously banded about in an afternoon at an auto plant on the South Side of Chicago.

For instance, there is a cord running the length of the assembly line, referred to by workers as the ‘andon cord’. Any worker can pull it and stop the line, and the problem will be displayed on large display boards ringing the assembly line.

‘Andon’ is Japanese for ‘paper lantern’, and originated in the Toyota Production System, where workers are encouraged to take a personal role in making sure that mistakes either don’t happen or are immediately corrected, a philosophy one Ford executive put as: ‘Don’t create it, don’t take it and don’t pass it along.’

With all deference to Ford and Japanese quality assurance, that is what Cooper employees—members of Professional, Technical, Office, Warehouse and Mail Order Employees Union, Local 743—have always done. Another challenge of lamp construction is to get it balanced so it can stand up straight. Picture a lamp that is constructed of wooden spools on a metal core—if the spools are not stacked with perfect precision, the core will be crooked and the lampshade will never hang properly. People spending $500 for a lamp return them and get their money back if the shade doesn’t hang properly. So many things can go wrong in the found objects—the Cambodian silver cups and Thai dragons—used for lamp bases. The pre-drilled centre poles can be off and their bottoms might not be entirely flat, and the Cooper workers spend a lot of time laboriously correcting these flaws.

Cooper is proud of the initiative of its individual workers. When I ask Suzanne Lauren how Cooper Lamp keeps a step ahead of the Chinese, she doesn’t talk about the niche of luxury lamps; like the Ford engineers, she speaks of innovation, and offers up their latest model of cord-free, low-light lamps being introduced under the ‘Lightini’ brand. ‘We had a very good customer come in whose wife had just bought a series of antique bookcases, and spent the entire weekend on-line trying to find lamps because she didn’t want to drill holes for lamp cords in them,’ Lauren explains. ‘So that’s how this started.’

The lamps—small with fist-sized granite bases and brass shades—are powered by three C batteries and can run continuously for about a month, before needing to have the batteries replaced. ‘We’re working on a rechargeable one, that’s in the pipeline as we speak,’ she said.

Replacing batteries, or even recharging a lamp once a month seems a bother but Lauren points out that the true market for these lamps is not rich ladies with expensive bookshelves, but restaurants, where the new lamps would replace candles. Replacing a candle every night is a far greater inconvenience than changing a battery once a month. Cooper is just about to start attending the big restaurant shows, promoting the lamp not only for its convenience, but for its ability to save businesses money. Restaurants can significantly cut their insurance rates by replacing candles with the low light lamps, a fact of which most of them are unaware, Lauren said, ‘until we tell them.’

Cooper Lamps was founded by Leo Gershanov, the father of the current owner. He was born in Russia, was drafted into the Tsar’s army and captured by the Hungarians during the First World War. He jumped off a train in Slovakia, and worked his way, first to England and then the United States, where he started all sorts of businesses. He was selling eggnog when he saw in the Chicago Sun an advertisement to buy the studios of Frederick Cooper. Cooper had been an artist and sculptor whose work, popular in the 1920s, was often incorporated into lamps. When Gershanov responded to the ad, he met another man also interested in the studios, Benjamin Markle, and rather than bid against each other, they bought the studio together and went into business.

It was a good time to start making decorative lamps.

Frederick Gershanov explained that after the Second World War there was a huge demand for lamps. The copper needed for the electrical cords and sockets had been in very short supply. ‘So there was a huge pent-up demand, because of the new housing, and they turned some of the statuary they were making into lamps.’ What we think of as garish, late 1940s lamps—your basic hula girl statuette lamp—are the result of desperate lamp makers turning whatever decorative objects they could find into lamps.

In recent years, however, it is all Cooper can do to stay afloat. The loss of American manufacturing jobs is not merely a story of cheap foreign wages. Soaring real estate prices are part of the problem, too. One by one, the children of the founders of vast suburban furniture stores realized that they could make more money selling the land under their stores than they made selling furniture.

‘High-end stores that were our best customers, these high-end stores had lots of land in the suburbs, or in the downtown area,’ Gershanov said. ‘Their founders retired or their kids said, “Hey, I can sell this land and make as much money as working seven days a week.”‘

Fewer fancy furniture stores mean fewer fancy lamps.

‘There are just a certain number of tables in furniture stores that can take lamps,’ said Lauren. ‘Competitive is an understatement.’

The greatest harm low price imports cause to a place such as Cooper Lamp is not the fact that they encourage people to buy cheap lamps. It’s that, as the years go by, cheap lamps are the only lamps they know, and the whole idea of a well-made lamp begins to seem exotic and even ridiculous. Or they never find their way to a furniture store because they buy their lamps at the supermarket. A person who might have fallen in love with the metal palm fronds and faux-marble painted wooden base of Cooper Style # R625 (the Tropical Palm lamp, designed by Raymond Wakes) and might have decided to pay the freight costs, never stops to look at it because they’ve already bought their lamps at Target.

‘Everybody’s got lamps now,’ said Gershanov. ‘Drug stores sell lamps. So it’s a very difficult environment.’

We have come to accept low quality goods, if they’re cheap enough, as standard, and this drives up the price of high quality goods even further. There was time when a humble office worker would visit a tailor and buy a suit; now handmade suits are a luxury of the wealthy. The average person can’t conceive of paying $500 for a lamp in any circumstances. Even Cooper has found that there aren’t enough well-to-do people to justify trying to sell its most labour-intensive products, such as lamps with intricate inlaid wood designs. ‘We used to do beautiful, beautiful, beautiful marquetry, but unfortunately there’s no market for it,’ said Lauren. ‘It’s gone. Very minimal demand.’

Once a product requiring a highly specialized skill is phased out, it is almost impossible to bring it back, even if the demand for it were to resurface. Professions vanish. Cooper won’t be able to sell inlaid lamps again because they won’t be able to find anyone with the skills to make them. To the owners of Cooper Lamp, it can seem, on bad days, that no matter how hard they work, it is only a question of time before their factory goes the way of Dad’s Root Beer across the street: yet another manufacturing shell to be turned into lofts for young professionals.

‘There’s no market for our goods,’ said Gershanov, in a gravelly tone. ‘There’s no market…’ and here his voice trailed off to a whisper, ‘for our goods’.

On February 9 2005, just as this issue of Granta went to press, the Frederick Cooper Lamp Company announced it was to close on June 30. There are reports that a buyer has already been found for the building and intends to convert the factory into lofts. Fred Gershanov told the Chicago Sun-Times: ‘I hope it gets the best possible use. It’s a beautiful building.’

Neil Steinberg

Neil Steinberg is a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times, where he has been on staff since 1987. His memoir, Drunkard, was published by Dutton in 2008.

More about the author →