Rick Singleton brims with excitement as he shows off his latest find, a set of weathered vintage metal ski poles recently purchased for $1.50 at the Montgomery County Thrift Store. He is not sure what he is going to do with them, but no doubt parts of them will wind up in one of the cunning fixtures the lighting artist fashions from found objects.
Singleton, 47, earned a degree in fine arts from Louisiana State University and moved to Washington, DC, in 1986, intending to paint but finding himself drawn in other directions. After working briefly for a stained-glass artist and a sculptor, Singleton took a job repairing and refurbishing lamps at Gaylord’s, a family-run lighting store. There, he began creating lighting pieces out of items he discovered on weekend shopping excursions to flea markets, thrift stores, used furniture outlets and salvage houses.
“I’ve always been really good at working with tools, taking things apart and putting them back together,” he notes enthusiastically. “I became fascinated by the idea of seeing something, restyling it and making it into something different.”
What to others may be junk to Singleton represents potential. Estate sales of dentists and doctors or people with basement workshops especially appeal, and he has amassed a collection of old motors and pistons; pulleys; vintage flashlights in various sizes and colors; photo, dental and medical equipment; vacuum cleaners and other household appliances; capacitors; x-ray and television picture tubes; and erector sets.
“Some people,” Singleton admits, “think I have a problem.”
What he has is a discerning eye and an indisputable ability to create stunning design pieces that blend industrial elements with whimsy. A cathode ray tube or a photo enlarger becomes a table lamp. A drab, utilitarian medical light from the fifties gets stripped, refinished, repainted and reinvented as a halogen torchiere. Metal strips from erector sets, with their neat rows of precise holes, outline shades on table lamps, wall sconces and elaborate, multi-tiered chandeliers.
Singleton’s preferred materials include aluminum, brass, Bakelite, copper, reclaimed mirrors, acrylic and mercury glass. His style is hard to pin down (Gothic, Art Deco, Arts and Crafts, Bauhaus and Steampunk references happily coexist in his world), but a common thread is the softening of hard angles and surfaces via circles, spheres, rings, curves, round die-cuts and glint.
Singleton’s reputation as a lighting artist flourished once he made connections in the restaurant world. In 1996, a good friend commissioned him to create a fixture for her vintage clothing store. Her boyfriend turned out to be nightclub entrepreneur Joe Englert, who tapped Singleton to build fixtures for the Big Hunt, State of the Union, Lucky Bar and other spaces. The word on Singleton was out.
At a showcase in 1998, Michael Babin, owner of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, saw one of Singleton’s erector set chandeliers and bought it for Evening Star Cafe, his flagship Alexandria eatery. As Babin’s restaurant empire grew, Singleton’s pieces proliferated in his properties.
Singleton’s crowning achievements are his most recent. Working closely over the past two years with Catherine Hailey, Babin’s wife and the designer of Churchkey on 14th Street near DC’s Logan Circle and Rustico in Northern Virginia’s Ballston neighborhood, Singleton hit his stride. The chandeliers he created for both spaces are nothing short of breathtaking.
Playing up the Gothic feel of Hailey’s design for Churchkey, an elegant bar catering to well-heeled beer aficionados, Singleton used fixtures unearthed at DC’s Rough and Ready as foundations for two main chandeliers. “The original structures were like theatrical props, made out of tin rings five feet in diameter, very flimsy,” explains Singleton. “So I attached 12-foot-long aluminum armatures to the ring facing and covered them with reclaimed mirrors. I turned Gothic cups that were hanging off the arms of the piece right-side up and put in eight-inch glass cylinders.” A 12-inch diameter mercury glass ball hangs in the center of the piece, giving it a sunburst appearance.
In Rustico’s back dining room hangs one of Singleton’s Sputnik designs, an orb chandelier fashioned from two spherical topiary forms joined by rusted chains. In the center of the larger, lower sphere, Singleton installed a central brass ball from which filaments emanate in a starburst pattern, giving the fixture a celestial feel.
Not including the sourcing of materials—especially challenging when making multiples—large-scale fixtures easily require upwards of 40 hours to complete, says Singleton. (That he was laid off from his job at Gaylord’s last year was a blessing; he now devotes himself completely to his craft, which, he feels, legitimizes his work in the eyes of his clients.)
When asked whose work he references, Singleton does not hesitate. “I don’t really pay attention to what a lot of other artists are doing. I get my inspiration from actual pieces, objects, nature. When I come across works of other artists that I really like, it’s more or less what I’m already doing.”
In the tiny studio (a converted closet) of the Lake Barcroft house he rents with his partner, Pablo Zurzolo, erector set pieces, escutcheons, radio parts, sundry bric-à-brac and tag-sale lamps in various states of disrepair surround the patch of table space where Singleton works. On a metal shelf behind him, a doll’s head stares at his back. Her new owner has turned the top third of her composite skull into two hinged semi-circles that open to reveal light bulbs. In Singleton’s world, that’s a bright idea.
David Hagedorn is a freelance writer best known as a food columnist for The Washington Post. He resides in Washington, DC.
Singleton’s work has appeared in a number of area show houses, including the 2009 and 2011 DC Design Houses. Along with painter John Matthew Moore, Singleton maintains a gallery and showroom in McLean, Virginia; appointments are suggested. For further information, visit ricksingletonlighting.com.