The lamp sits on a table behind the sofa in Thom Niforatos's Glen Ellyn living room. It has a tree-trunk base--a nod to art nouveau designer Louis Comfort Tiffany--and a shade of green and purple stained glass studded with seashells and inset with images of grape clusters, scarabs, and red-eyed dragonflies.
A commission by Chicago designer Richard Hoosin, the lamp is leaden looking when dark, but Niforatos says that something unearthly happens when he tugs on its chain. "When the light comes on I just stare at the lamp, and I am taken away by the sight of it, displaced in a way," he says. "The experience is mystical."
The otherworldly effect produced by Hoosin's combinations of stained glass and shells is intentional. "Stained glass is created by man, and if you're working with it alone you're limited," he says. "The difference in my stuff is the shells. They come from God. The light shining through them makes for a presence, a force. It's profound."
Hoosin, a deliberate, white-bearded man of 56, sells his creations out of a green-walled store in Lakeview. He and a small staff, including his brother Jeff, make the colorful lamps in a cramped studio in back, using a copper-foil process pioneered by Tiffany. Limpet and scallop shells, imported from the Philippines, Haiti, and Mexico, give the shades their distinctive look. Hoosin also designs lamps with gemstone and Prairie-style shades, as well as small rabbits and peacocks that light up and exotica like glass boxes containing beetles, blue morphos, walking sticks, and bats. "We can't keep the bats in stock," says Hoosin.
But it's the lamps that inspire genuine devotion. Niforatos, who owns two, has given a dozen as wedding gifts. "The lamps are alive to me, like living art," says theater photographer Jennifer Girard, who keeps four of them burning in her second-floor apartment in Lakeview to welcome her home each night. The lamps are now sold around the country; Steven Spielberg, Vanessa Williams, and Cher are among the owners. John Goodman recently wrote in for a replacement finial.
Hoosin first happened upon his metier during his early years of rambling. The son of a liquor salesman, he grew up in Albany Park, and then dropped out of the University of Wisconsin to become a photographer. When a proposed book of pictures he'd taken at the 1968 Democratic National Convention fell through, he headed west to Berkeley. "It was like dropping off the end of the world and finding a new planet," he recalls. "The nature, the flowers, the hills behind the city. It was the days of the flower child, before drugs corrupted things, and the naturalness of life affected my soul."
After years of flitting about--back to Chicago, then to Phoenix, and back to California--Hoosin landed in Monterey, where he took a class in stained glass and started making windows professionally. "Then in 1974 a friend suggested that I make a lamp out of seashells, which I would buy from a shop by the wharf," he says. By the next year he was in Chicago again, and the seashell lamps were turning into a passion.
"Rick was this nomad who looked like Bob Dylan, with all this Afro-y hair," says Robert Briggs, then the owner of Ratso's restaurant on Lincoln Avenue, a hippie gathering place where Hoosin worked as a manager. "He would raise his eyebrows when he had some grand idea. He was in one metaphysical embrace or another. Then the lamps took him over, which made sense--Rick was a thinker-tinkerer. Anyway, the lamps changed him from being an itinerant to sticking with one thing." Briggs ended up investing in Hoosin's lamp business until the two men had a falling-out.
On his own Hoosin continued to fashion lamps, working first out of a Clybourn loft and then at a shop on Wells. "The lamps were pretty primitive in those days," says Spiros Stamelos, an orthopedic surgeon and early customer. "Rick would use these big white seashells shingled on a frame. The lamps were nice enough, but they weren't elegant. I told him he needed to become more artistic."
Raised a Conservative Jew, Hoosin turned Orthodox as he mastered his craft. In 1981, he says, "I suddenly felt the power of the Old Testament." He perfected the use of a metal lattice around the base of the shades, which allowed him to work with more delicate shells. These days a small Hoosin table lamp starts at $200, standard table lamps run from $500 to $1,000, and floor models go for up to $1,800. The lighted animals and boxed insects start at $65. Each creation is signed and numbered, and commissions are welcomed.
Today Stamelos is startled by his old friend's focus. "He's become a purist," he says. "Now I tell him to do this and that, and he says, 'The colors you're talking about don't go.' Today he's all about his religion and his work. He goes to temple and he thinks and talks about lamps."
Hoosin Lampworks is located at 1121 W. Belmont (773-296-1800); its Web site is Hoosin.com. It's closed Saturday, in keeping with the Sabbath; hours are 11 to 7 Monday through Thursday, 11 to 3 Friday, and 11 to 5 Sunday.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.