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An Illuminating Q&A with Vintage Edison’s Jim Ligon

Vintage Edison owner Jim Ligon shares his electric take on how his lighting company began, where it’s going and every humorous detail in between.

Compiled by Brooke McGrath

Taking what he learned from numerous life experiences, Jim Ligon launched his own lighting company, Vintage Edison, in 2010. “I always say that my company is the intersection of the two things I know best: booze and electricity,” Jim says, hence the name Vintage Edison.

Growing up in New Orleans, Ligon helped out at his grandfather’s electrical contracting business. “If you were born a male in the family, it was just expected that you would work for the company,” Ligon says, so he did, learning the trade while helping out on small jobsites. When he got older, settling in Kansas City, Ligon tended the bar at popular local restaurant JJ’s, where he hated the thought of throwing out perfectly good wine and liquor bottles. Fast-forward to present-day where he has married the two concepts that he knows best—electricity and booze—creating custom, distinct light fixtures for a growing clientele, both commercially and residentially, locally and nationally.

Q. How did you come up with the concept of taking old wine and liquor bottles and boxes and turning them into illuminating art?

A. The concept of Vintage Edison evolved over time. As an adult, I spent a lot of time tending bar. Through the years, I always felt weird about throwing away all the cool-looking empty bottles. I realize now that there are so many options as far as recycling, but when you think about it, it still takes time, resources and energy to do that. I started saving unique bottles, thinking someday I’d figure out something cool to do with them.

One day, I was chillin’ at home and noticed that I could use a lamp in a dark part of the room. It was then that I got the idea to make a light out of cool booze bottles. Here’s the thing I didn’t realize, though: Once you take the labels off and shine a light through the bottle, it takes on a whole new life. I mean, there are so many cool shapes and sizes and some of them are even hand-blown glass. I’ve had people come by my studio and compliment my work not even realizing that the glass fixtures were upcycled liquor bottles. That’s what I mean about “taking on a whole new life.” Something that was destined to end up in the trash or recycling bin suddenly becomes something else, and it’s beautiful and provides not only functional light but also warmth and comfort in a space.

Q. When did you officially launch Vintage Edison?

A. After making that very first piece for my house in 2010, I posted a photo of it on Facebook and received lots of positive feedback and a few inquiries about if any were for sale. I decided to make a few more using different bottles and different sizes. I was then contacted by Cellar Rat wine store about setting up a display for First Friday. From there it was a gradual process of selling a few here and there, all the while honing the craft and refining the look and technical aspects. I did that for a few years, mostly as a hobby, all while working a few nights a week behind the bar at JJ’s. After the fire, I decided that instead of looking for a new bar gig, I’d go all in and make Vintage Edison a full-time thing. At that point, I opened up a little shop space in the Crossroads at 1737 Walnut and have been there for almost three years now.

Q. What’s your business motto?

A. The Vintage Edison motto is, “Really bad livers make really great lights!” [Joking aside], I think of it more as a personal goal to always do good work. I grew up in an old, very blue-collar neighborhood and worked in a family business with some very proud and hard-working men. They paid so much attention to the little details of every job, no matter how big or small. I was very fortunate to have several role models in my life, which included my grandfather, father, uncles and older cousins. They instilled in me the value and importance of taking pride in your work, so now as an adult and business owner, I honor them by putting everything I have into every single piece that I create.

Q. Describe your works of art.

A. The best way to describe Vintage Edison in a neat little capsule is “stylishly functional statement lighting created from upcycled wine and liquor bottles.” Most of the work I do is custom designs, anything from little nightlights to huge chandeliers. The cool thing about that is conceptually every piece is uniquely created for the individual client. When you have a piece from Vintage Edison, you can feel great about the fact that it’s the only one like it in the whole world, and it was made with love just for you.

In addition to custom designs, Ligon sells these tabletop lights ($70) at retailers including TallulahbBelle’s, Eclectics, Milagro Midwestern Spa & Collective, and Normal Human.

Q. What’s the first piece that you ever sold?

A. The first piece I ever sold was a little tabletop shadow box light in 2010. It was purchased by a friend for her mother. I was at her house recently and was kind of embarrassed because it was sold to her at a time when I was still trying to figure out some technical aspects. I took it back to the studio and reworked it, so now my first piece is as good as the very last one that I did.

Q. Do you have a favorite piece?

A. I don’t really have a “favorite” piece. It’s funny because when I first started doing custom installs, I would always feel like I was leaving a little piece of me behind. It’s a hard feeling to describe. I just felt like I spent so much time with each piece, making it from scratch, and it was a little sad to say goodbye to it. One day, after finishing a job, a client thanked me, and it was then that I realized that it was OK to feel a little sad about leaving something that I put my heart into, but that piece would provide nice ambiance and warmth in that person’s home. Now, when I’m packing up and leaving a job, I focus on the client and how they can’t stop looking at their new fixture and how happy it makes them.

Q. What’s the biggest light fixture ever commissioned?

A. I do a lot of commercial work for bars and restaurants. I have installs all across the U.S. The largest piece is an 80-wine bottle chandelier for a restaurant in Chicago. Also, Louie’s Wine Dive is a client, and my lighting is a part of their design specs. Whenever they open a new place, I do several pieces for that location. At this point, they are in Brookside, Des Moines, Davenport, Omaha, Indianapolis, Minneapolis and, coming late October, Overland Park. I’m working on that one right now. Residentially, I just did a smaller version of the Chicago piece for a great house in Lawrence.

A smaller version of Ligon’s largest work, an 80-bottle chandelier for a restaurant in Chicago, in a Lawrence residence.

Q. Most random request?

A. The most random request I’ve ever had was when a gentleman approached me on a First Friday and asked if I would make a light out of his recently deceased wife’s shoes. I thought he was joking, but then I saw the pain in his eyes and realized he really missed her, so I made him a light out of his dead wife’s shoes.

Q. What does 2016 have in store for Vintage Edison?

A. It looks to be a pivotal year for Vintage Edison. I’ve reached the point where I’m ready to expand my scope; I’ve been paying attention to available spaces around town. My vision is to have a storefront/design studio/work space, and the idea for the space would be to have 60-70 percent of my stuff on display, but then also feature some other custom lighting as well as incorporating stuff that I don’t currently offer. Cutting-edge LED options as well as cool outdoor lighting are examples of that. I feel like it’s a good time for me to do it, and I think there’s a great niche for unique lighting.

I’m always checking out the stuff in retail stores, and there are two things I frequently notice: It’s expensive for what it is and it’s pretty stale. Lighting should be more than utilitarian. The human eye is drawn to it. You walk into a room, and it immediately becomes a focal point, so shouldn’t it make a statement? Why would you spend so much time, energy and money trying to make a space “yours” and not have the lighting be priority No. 1? With all that in mind, I just don’t get why anyone would pull something mass-produced off of a retail shelf and have it installed just because they “need some lights.” Wouldn’t it make more sense to have someone design something specifically for your space…at pretty much the same price point?! I’ve been funking it up in that regard for a few years now, and the logical next step is to go all in and offer better lighting solutions for any lighting need you might have. I want to be the guy who rids the world of mediocre lights. Jim Ligon in 2016: Get behind that!

To set up an appointment, contact Jim at 816.686.3571 or vintage.edison@yahoo.com, and check out Vintage Edison on Facebook to see all his custom creations.