Recently I had a few people ask how I got started creating lamps. It’s not an easy question to answer. It’s kind of a funny thing, to stumble upon something that becomes intriguing… then a challenge, and finally a passion you cannot live without. For most of my life I thought that working in film and television was going to be what I did with the rest of my life. Now, I don’t know where I would be if I hadn’t taken the jump to create my first lamp and start a business. When I think about that vulnerable place between having an idea and taking the first steps towards turning it into a reality, it can be a lonely place full of self-doubt and hard realizations. It really helps to have a good guide to steady you so you can make that first, precarious jump.
For me, one of those important guides was Gordon Martz.
I first stumbled on Gordon’s work online while doing research for my first lamp design. I spent hours looking at different lighting styles but I couldn’t find much on how they were created. When I clicked across a site featuring worn and weathered lighting catalogs from the mid-century era one night, it was like a lightning bolt struck me. There was Gordon, captured in black + white in his studio in the 1950’s, finishing pieces on the wheel, pouring 3-foot-high plaster molds, brush glazing lamp bases, lampshades and patterns stacked endlessly behind him. As I looked at the photos, my idea of making a lamp and starting a small company didn’t seem so far-fetched. I wondered if he was still alive and sent an email out to the website archivist, Craig McCormick, that night.
Gordon and his wife Jane ran one of the seminal factories for table lighting production in the mid-century era, Marshall Studios. The studio was famous for its large collection of table lighting and home wares made from earthy clay and glazes, as well as hand-loomed lampshades, which Jane sometimes decorated with natural materials and rooster feathers. At its zenith, the studio had 50 employees and shipped out over 1,000 lamps per month. Gordon designed much of the lighting, stamping “Martz” in his decisive script at the bottom, and was invited to be part of MOMA’s “Good Design” Exhibit in 1953, among other accolades.
Gordon and I struck up a relationship over emails and phone calls over the next few years as I slowly began to make my way through designing and making my first lamp. I remember one time in particular; late in the studio one night, covered in slip that had spilled out of one of the molds and exhausted from pulling another 60-hour week at my day job, I called him with questions about a casting problem I was having. Really I just wanted to hear his voice and know that someone had been there and done that. Gordon could be a little aloof at times, I’m sure hearing about the trials of a novice ceramist was probably not how he wanted to live out his retirement, but he came through and offered several hours of advice and tips with a great deal of encouragement as I struggled to sort things out.
When I visited him with Craig in 2014, he had moved into an assisted living facility in the South. He had somehow convinced the groundskeeper to convert one of the outbuildings into a ceramic studio. A sprightly 94, he led us down the short path to his studio and showed us the different sculptures he was working on. It seems like his hands were always in clay, that its textures and endless plasticity were never far from his mind. A quick look around the studio offered glimpses into Gordon’s past and future. Old lamp bases were tucked away amongst the new sculptures he was carving and trimming. After a lifetime of working in ceramics, he was still exploring, still searching for the perfect balance of shape and form.
Sadly, Gordon passed away this fall. My sympathies go out to his family and to those who had the pleasure of knowing him. He possessed the rare talent of being able to combine his vast practical knowledge with a unique artistic style that shaped America’s mid-century era and inspired many artists and designers today. More than his legacy of work with Marshall Studios, I’m inspired by the true dedication and passion he showed for his craft throughout his life. It seemed to give as much back to him as he gave to it. Thanks Gordon.