Just the right amount of bright

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The bespoke lampshade shop Blanche Field has been customizing light for more than a century


  • Lisa Simkin, Blanche Field’s head designer, in the East 56th Street store. Photo: Laura Hanrahan

Anyone walking into the East 56th Street office of Blanche Field is immediately immersed in the little-known world of couture lampshades. Every surface in the part-showroom, part-factory, part-design studio and overflowing with wire frames, ribbon spools, lamp bases and shades.

“As much as this looks like grandma’s attic, we kind of know where everything is,” said Lisa Simkin, Blanche Field’s head designer and New York director. “It’s organized mayhem.”

Blanche Field is an old-school business, having been in operation in Manhattan for more than a century. Everything, including the filing system, is still paper-based, with email being the only task done online. Near the store’s entrance, between Third and Lexington Avenues, a team of six women quietly sit at a long table, sewing intricate patterns onto the custom, handmade lampshades on which Blanche Field has built its 112-year reputation. Meanwhile, in the back, Manuella, the electrician, works on converting just about any object you can imagine into a light fixture.

Most of Blanche Field’s customers are New York City-based interior designers looking for pieces for their client’s homes. But Blanche Field has also designed lamps for the SoHo House hotel and club, Chanel stores and the Campbell Apartment in Grand Central.

When it comes to creating a new custom design, Simkin emphasizes the need to find the perfect size for each individual lamp. To do this, she has her clients bring in to the shop the base they want to use.

“Because I have so many molds and samples here, it’s like trying on hats for your head,” said Simkin, who has been with Blanche Field 17 years. “You don’t know what’s going to fit until you try it.”

Once the size and shape are chosen, a wire frame is created. “We have a frame maker who hand-makes every single frame,” she said. “It comes back to the shop, and then the ladies start to work on them.”

Choosing the exact material and style for the shade’s fabric, however, might feel like an almost impossible feat to someone unacquainted with the craft. Pleated or laminate? Colorful or neutral? Patterned or simple? The options are seemingly endless.

Like an interior-design matchmaker, Simkin says she likes to pair the shade’s style to the client’s personality.

“How do we make it yours? Who are you? Who’s the personality that you’re designing for? Even the lampshade has to have a personality,” she said. “You can have a classical lampshade and totally make it whimsical with some little detail, and that to me is the fun part.”

Simkin has seen a Remington statue and even a cowboy boot turned into a lamp. “I always tell people you can take the most inexpensive object, like from West Elm, or a candlestick, and convert it into a lamp,” she said. “You can buy something in a flea market, but put a great shade on it and it becomes a great lamp.”

She mainly works with silks and handkerchief linens, but has created lampshades with Hermes scarves, a silk blouse and even a Levi’s shirt with snaps on it.

“I always tell people bring me a shirt, bring me a good old shirt, because the cottons in shirts are beautiful,” she said.

With the extra care and personalized detail that goes in to each piece, there is a price tag to match. Small chandelier shades start at $165, while larger shades average around $450.

Each day brings its creative challenges, which keeps the office fun and the passion flowing.

“I’m still amazed, I can look at something after 17 years when it’s in my workshop and go ‘oh my god that’s so beautiful,’” she said. “It might not even be my taste or in my home, but I can just appreciate how beautiful it is. Maybe just because I know the work that goes in, the handwork that goes in behind it.”

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