Interview: Ted Harris, Artist and Lighting Designer

Ted Harris, a Chicago-based artist and designer (of lamps, furniture and accessories) can see things that others can’t; the artist has a sixth sense about items you or I might call “junk.” Ted might, for example, be inspired by a badly damaged globe or piece of furniture that he spots in a dumpster. What follows often involves a daring (and sometimes a bit dirty) rescue mission followed by a hot shower and some time later, a bonafied work of functional art. Ted, who sells his work through Scout and Beverly Hammel, also has two amazing pendants that serve as eco-friendly lighting on display at the Museum of Science and Industry’s Smart Home.

When I contacted Ted, we arranged to meet at his studio on Chicago’s northwest side. I met a number of his professional acquaintances prior to our interview, and without fail, they all mentioned Ted’s incredibly kind demeanor, qualities that were instantly confirmed by the sparkle in his eyes, kind smile and soft voice that greeted me on a humid June afternoon, the afternoon sun hanging stubbornly on the horizon.

Located in a converted factory, Ted’s space has high ceilings, concrete floors and giant windows; I could have easily spent the duration of our time just looking at his raw material, which consists of old, beaten up pieces of furniture, scuffed up mirrors, industrial parts and countless wooden boxes that will eventually be renewed in one way or another. Ted’s currently rejuvenating pieces by lacquering them, then distressing them – a beautiful look that celebrates instead of disguises the objects age.

It’s a good thing the space, which could / should be a retail showroom is so large because a “found” piece might sit untouched for years before inspiration strikes and it takes on a new life (Ted recently made a lamp out of an object he found in 1992).

Unlike so many artists, Ted makes his living doing this, and I was interested to learn more about his background and influences.

I love your work. How did you wind up doing this for a living?

I grew up on the southwest side of Chicago. My mom single-handedly raised five kids, so she had us doing crafts to keep us busy. My brother and I were most into it. He quit eventually and said he realized that my work was better than his.

Ah, planned obsolescence. I’ve read that people in relationships willingly take on or give up roles depending on the talents of the other. I never thought about it in the context of sibling relationships.

What kinds of crafts were you doing? Did you make lamps as a kid?

I made my first lamp when I was eight or nine years old. I took a little piece of wood, drilled a hole in it for the wiring and then applied 20 coats of varnish.

That’s very interesting. I’m always amazed at how our lives echo who we were and what we did as kids. Did you study art in college?

Yes, eventually. I went to Northern (Illinois University) to be a journalist, but I took an art class and decided to do that instead. Nobody in my family knew what I would do with (the degree).

So how did you use it professionally?

To me it always made sense. I started as an apprentice at a design advertising studio and then became a freelance illustrator doing realistic airbrushing. I illustrated ads for companies like White Hen and Helene Curtis.

Did you ever consider working for a company? It sounds like you decided to go the freelance route relatively quickly?

No, I can’t imagine doing anything else.

You were doing very well in what can be a difficult field; why did you give it up to do this?

I’m still painting, just not on paper. I went from creating art in two dimensions to three dimensions.

If I’m driving and see something in the garbage, I’ll pull over and jump in the dumpster. I did that when I was a kid, but I didn’t do it for years when I was illustrating, but then it just came back.

Why do you think this artistic impulse come back when it did?

It came back when it was appropriate. As computer art technology began to replace conventional ways of producing art, I chose not to digitize, but to continue and gradually replace one form of art for another. Seemingly unaffected by this change, a second home in south Michigan was my latest inspiration for my new direction. Browsing with my partner through the many furniture and antiques stores while there on weekend trips proved to be my biggest motivator for change. “I can make this!” I thought, and began furnishing and lighting our space with my things. Before I knew it, my new direction began to overlap my Advertising Art and eventually eclipsed it. Creating lamps and accessories quickly became my bread and butter and I never looked back.

Interesting. What attracted you to dumpster diving?

I believe rescuing and transforming “stuff” from alleyways and dumpsters is inherent and was suppressed for years by going to college, getting a job, etc. Eventually the opportunity to dumpster dive presented itself and I recognized the opportunity and took advantage of it.

I just had an epiphany as to why I rescue and give a second life to things. My father and mother divorced when I was 7 years old. The reason for divorce was listed as “Abandonment.” Maybe I’ve been rescuing cast off and discarded objects with so much passion because of that. It all really does come down to our relationship with our parents, doesn’t it?

What inspires you now?

I’m inspired by wood, by old objects. Inspiration comes from so many thing . . . it’s very visual. And other artists inspire me; art comes from art.

What other artists or people influence your work?

Larry (Vodak, of Scout) inspires me. I’ve been doing this a long time, but Larry taught me the Scout aesthetic – putting things together that might not belong together. I also like Mario Villa, an artist based in New Orleans.

You have pendant lights showcased in the Museum of Science and Industry’s Smart Home. How did that happen?

Michelle Fitzpatrick at the store “Verde” called me and suggested I send my work to Anne Rascheford, exhibit director at the MSI. Coincidently, Anne is also Larry’s very first customer at Scout. She knew my work from there and was thrilled to have my work as part of the exhibit.

I was green and I didn’t know it. The Museum came to me because I was reusing, re-purposing, recycling old things, time-worn things. I don’t know why but I give them a second life. Aaron Kramer, a well-known L.A.-based artist said something along the lines of, “waste is the lack of creativity.”

Changing the subject, you’re a lighting designer and you’re featured in a green home, so I’m curious, what do you think of CFL’s?

I think they’re economical.

Can I assume that your answer provides some insight into what you think about the quality of the light?

I’m disappointed because I love the shape of incandescents. I wish they’d get creative with CFL bulbs and develop shapes that make them more interesting and not just try to make them look like incandescent bulbs.

How should people light their homes in order for their space to look the best?

Every room should have an overhead light, task lighting, art lighting and ambient lighting, all on dimmers.

Amen. Even a badly decorated room can look fantastic when lit well.

To what do you attribute your success? How have you been able to make a living off the corporate grid?

I’ve been very fortunate, but certain factors help. My raw materials are really cheap, which makes the profit margin really good.

It doesn’t get much more inexpensive than finding something in a dumpster. How do you price your work?

I offer work in a whole range of price points. I want anybody to be able to afford my work.

Author’s note: I purchased two small flowers that were attached to a gilded silver background and then framed. They were $10 each, which I just share to demonstrate how affordable an original Ted Harris piece can be. The two I bought are now available for $50 each, which is still a great deal, so email me. Bad joke.

You are quite prolific and work with many types of objects. How do you manage that creatively?

Everything goes in series. When I’m making a series of tables, everything I find begins to look like a table to me, different types of tables. When I make lamps, I’ll usually make a series of three that are meant to be placed in the same room.

If somebody wants to work with you, how would they go about it?

They can call me or e-mail me. They can bring me an idea or an old piece of furniture, and we’ll see if we can do something with it.

Thanks, Ted.

You can see Ted’s work at the Museum of Science and Industry’s Smart House (which runs through January) or buy pieces at Scout or Beverly Hammel.

Or, Ted can be reached at tedcharris@earthlink.net or by phone at 773-332-1001.


Ted’s lighting is available at Scout, located in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood.


Scout.


With built-in touch activated dimmer. I love this piece.


When even the doorbell is cool . . .


Ted at the Studo.

If you were already familiar with Ted, you might want to consider subscribing because we all like reading about things that we already know.

If you hadn’t heard of Ted, you might want to consider subscribing because now you are more likely to look smart and interesting at parties, which might boost your prospects for making friends and enjoying other fringe benefits that often go along with parties.

Ted, if you’d like to subscribe, that would be lovely.

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7 Responses to “Interview: Ted Harris, Artist and Lighting Designer”

  1. Shawn,

    Your name isn’t really Ted, is it? (I never get tired of that joke).

    T

  2. Hi, thanks for the very informative interview. How much would a set of lamps made from those big coil springs cost? (Two table lamps and a floor lamp, in a bronze-coloured finish, let’s say…)

    T8, the questions I had about Ted’s work that I put in the MSI comment have been answered here. Thank you.

    To TED: Best wishes for your continuing success!