This month we sat down with Dan Emery, founder of East Van Light, who creates vintage industrial lamps with engaging modern designs. Read on to find out more about this inspiring entrepreneurial venture!
Tell me about your background? How did you get into lighting design?
My background is in film and television production, which I still do full time. About ten years ago my girlfriend and got into a string of house flipping projects in our “spare time” – gutting them to the beams and revitalizing them into fresh new spaces. My favorite parts of those projects were always re-wiring the homes and installing all the plugs, switches, and fixtures. Falling into lamp design was just a fluke that came out of my desire to want to continue doing electrical projects outside of flipping houses, but scaled WAY down in scope. After one particular house rebuild, I was left with a few pieces of scrap Birchwood, and I had also recently received a cool antique reproduction Edison light bulb as a gift. I figured it might look kind of cool if I could combine them together to form a lamp. By the end of that weekend I had built three prototype lamps, and even in their rough construction, I loved how they looked. I still use those first prototypes in our house today!
What inspired the unique lamp design you create?
My approach to lamp design was dictated early on by the fact that my prototypes were built using the absolute minimum of parts, and with the limited supply of materials and hand tools that were in my house at the time. This forced me to keep things very simple, which resulted in a final product that was minimal in design, and which left the key components fully exposed on the wood base, giving it an antique industrial look. However, the clean lines and profile of the wood base provided a modern feel that helped to balance the overall design. It was somewhat accidental, but it entirely suited my personal tastes. And as it did not look similar to anything I had seen before, it felt like an obvious direction for me to continue exploring.
How has the city, and your location in it, influenced your work?
All of that early prototyping happened a few years back when I was still living in Montreal, where I’m originally from. Friends and family had all been commenting pretty positively on that first set of lamps, but I hadn’t considered doing much beyond that. But a little over two years ago we had an opportunity to move to Vancouver, and we took it! We landed in East Vancouver right near Commercial Drive, and it quickly became evident to me how prevalent the “buy local” philosophy was in the neighborhood and all around the city. The more I looked, the more I was discovering the incredible wealth of talented and passionate people working hard at doing the things that they loved to do – whether product design, craft brewing/distilling, indie fashion or food – they were just doing it, and doing it so well. And at a hyper-local level, East Van is such a hotbed for that action. Being exposed to this culture in my community inspired me to get started in making more lamps and getting them out there in front of people. And it was an obvious choice that I would name the company after my neighborhood because it has played a key role in ramping up my momentum, and it’s still all happening right here. I was fortunate to have connected early on with an amazing carpenter, Brad Sieber of “ReForm + Design” who works out of the East Van Woodworkers Collective. Brad is also a neighborhood guy, which helps to keep this operation local. He’s played a pivotal role in teaching me a lot about the woodworking process, which has helped to inform my approach to technical design with an eye on facilitating production. Beyond that, he simply does amazing woodwork and knocks it out of the park every time he dives in to construct a new batch of lamp bases. All this right here in my own neighborhood.
What have you found to be the most successful marketing tactic to build the brand?
I think that sharing the story of the lamps is the greatest tactic in marketing the brand. I make sure to share my processes as much as possible through my Instagram and Facebook pages, from scouring the Fraser Valley for amazing wood slabs, through to final completion of the build, it’s evident that the photos and stories of the journey are always the ones that garner the most engagement. The people who buy my lamps want to know the details of how it all came to be; the story of where the wood was salvaged from, how I made choices in cutting down the larger slabs of lumber into smaller bases to showcase as much of the wood features as possible, why I do this and how it all started. In sharing those stories with people, it helps to build interest and excitement, and they begin to form meaningful connections to the product, which in turn drives them to become great ambassadors for the brand within their social circles – even if they don’t end up taking a lamp home for themselves.
What have been your biggest accomplishments so far?
Last year I had to cease all operations for a period of 4 months so that I could work with Underwriters Laboratory to get my product line UL Certified, which means the lamps are designed and constructed to North American electrical safety standards, and that they undergo regular compliance testing to ensure they continue to meet the standard. Working with UL is not typical for a business of my size because the investments are so substantial, and had I known how challenging it was going to be at the outset I would have probably closed my doors for good. But going through that rigorous process helped me to identify key areas of improvement in both materials and design, and this has contributed to the development of a much stronger product overall. So I am incredibly proud to be one of the only producers of a UL certified lighting product in the “handcrafted” category, and to be able to apply that UL certification mark on every lamp that I build.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to start their own business?
I know this is cliché, but I believe if you are going to start a business, or even just take on a large project in general, that you should build it around something that you LOVE to do. A small business is all-consuming, especially in the early days, and it’s pretty much unavoidable. There are so many challenges, headaches, and struggles in making things come together, there are never enough hours in the day, and most often it is up to you alone to figure out the solutions and overcome the challenges. But if you love what you are doing, then it will no longer feel like work, and you will find a way through. Your passion to succeed will become your most important driver, and the rewards of accomplishing each step along the way are pretty much immeasurable, and those rewards are all yours to enjoy.
What’s your favorite part of East Van Light?
Collectively, there are so many moving parts and details to this project, and I really do love taking them all on! But from a single task perspective, I will say that NOTHING beats the excitement of passing a raw slab of Walnut through the planer, and seeing it come out with a clean face on the other side – this is usually the first moment that I can see the entirety of the wonderful grain patterns and features that the wood has to offer. It always looks amazing, and I never get tired of it because every slab of wood is unique and surprising. It’s like an endless exercise in unwrapping presents on Christmas morning!
For me, East Van Light is as much about curiosity and the excitement of new discoveries, as it is about lighting and lamps. It’s become as much about how the product makes people FEEL as it is about how the product LOOKS, and I’m thrilled that people who discover East Van Light for the first time are also connecting with it in a meaningful way.
Check out Dan’s work at MakeIt Vancouver, April 22nd – 24th at the PNE Forum.