Island lamp maker’s creations have graced the homes of rock stars and presidents
There’s no use crying over a chipped vase; islander Tom McDonald can turn it — and a number of other items — into a beautiful, custom-made lamp to accommodate a variety of décor styles.
“It’s amazing how many items can be made into lamps,” McDonald said. “Best of all, it also is a wonderful way to repurpose a treasured family memento or thrift store find into something that’s actually useful.”
Although McDonald plans to open a retail shop in late summer, he currently works out of his home, a spacious 1927 structure in Galveston’s Williams-Borden neighborhood. Metal frames that will eventually become lamp shades fill the better part of a living room couch, and an array of projects-in-progress fill a small offset workroom that also houses huge rolls of fabric, specialty glues, colorful trims, various sewing implements, a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and a scattering of clothespins. Several small triangles of red and cream print fabric are carefully spaced out on an old-fashioned ironing board, ready to be stitched and pressed into their proper configuration by a vintage Kenmore sewing machine and ordinary household iron.
“This is a very hands-on business, and it also requires a good bit of ingenuity to take various objects and repurpose them in a way that is both attractive and practical,” McDonald said as he picked up a diminutive, partially completed lampshade with dozens of silk pins securing fabric to a frame so small it could fit a child’s wrist.
“No two projects are alike, and I put a high premium on creating shades and bases that are appropriate for one another and for the décor of the room in which the lamp will be placed,” he said.
Because of the individual attention required for each lamp and shade, the standard turnaround time is about 16 weeks, he said.
McDonald is discerning about the fabrics he uses as well, preferring the natural fiber weaves he has ordered from the same New York supplier since the 1970s. Although he also will incorporate fabrics provided by his customers and can dye materials to match any décor, he keeps on hand such classics as linen and silk pongee in classic white and eggshell colors. He uses high-quality polyester for linings and the extra interlinings he considers essential for proper light distribution.
Originally from Chalkville, Ala., McDonald comes naturally by his interest in arts and crafts, he said.
“My father was a welder, but within his profession, he was an artisan,” McDonald said. “I myself had always enjoyed art as a child, but knew it was difficult to make a living at it.”
Enrolled briefly at the University of Georgia, McDonald soon left to work at a lamp shop in Atlanta before opening his own business in Savannah. Eventually, he made his way to Dallas, then to Tyler, before winding up in Houston, where he was affiliated for many years with Robert Wakefield & Co. Antiques and Interiors.
In 2008, McDonald decided to try Galveston’s more relaxed pace, but moved to the island three days before Hurricane Ike struck; he had to evacuate almost immediately. Although he returned to find the front door to his house had been opened, the rising water had missed his first floor by 3 inches and some $30,000 of customer merchandise was unharmed and still in place.
McDonald’s customers range from neighbors to high-profile people. Once, while watching an interview with singer Rod Stewart, he noticed in the background a pair of floor lamps he had created, and his work also has graced the homes of former President George W. Bush and former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
Aside from such brushes with celebrity, the real payoff for McDonald is how his lamps stand the test of time.
“It is so gratifying to go into a home and see a lamp I created 25 years earlier still looking current, still looking fresh,” he said. “Now that’s real success.”