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Shining Lights

The Vintage Illumination Company’s foundation story sounds like the premise of a 1930s stand-up routine. “A man walks into an antique store and sees an old cabbage slicer….” As it happens, that man was a retired Southold executive named Tom Cuneen, and what happened next was less funny than counter-intuitive. It occurred to Cuneen, whose background is in mechanical engineering, that an antique cabbage slicer would make an unusual base for a pulley lamp. So, he bought the slicer, mounted it on an aluminum plate and attached it to a vintage metal lamp shade. Then, after wiring it, he hung it on a wall of his home and thought no more about it.

But then a funny thing really did happen. A thirty-something friend of his daughter admired his “cool” sconce. On learning that Cuneen had designed and constructed it himself, she encouraged him to buy up every old cabbage slicer he could lay his hands on and turn them into marketable lamps. Cuneen was skeptical. It had never occurred to him that people of his daughter’s generation, children of the digital age, would hunger after objects that referenced a bygone era. Their conversation got him thinking, and shortly thereafter, Cuneen and his life partner Trish Hascoat, began to amass a stock of vintage electrical fittings, shades, old lamps, and assorted antique oddities. The couple opened an electronic storefront on Etsy, and orders began pouring in. Some of their finds they sold with minimal intervention, others, Cuneen reconstructed, using antique components to create new lamps in vintage styles. Thus, the Vintage Illumination Company was born.

And then something even more improbable happened. Although their only showroom was virtual and their client base was scattered throughout the country, they began to receive design commissions from North Fork merchants who wanted to illuminate their establishments with vintage or vintage-style fixtures.

“I think lamp design and craftsmanship in the early half of the twentieth century were better than they are today,” says Cuneen, whose converted cabbage slicer lamp retails for about $400. “We try to recreate vintage designs using quality materials or adapt period pieces and components to make a new fixture.”

In 2017, Corey Creek Vineyards, in Southold, hired the couple to design and provide the lighting for its tap room. Cuneen and Hascoat’s brief was to come up with a nautical theme involving rope lights. Their solution was to use a thick white cotton rope that was a little less rustic than burlap, the material that is typically used in nautical design themes. Since then, the design duo has also been approached by other local vineyards about sourcing vintage fixtures for their public rooms.

Meanwhile, Cuneen and Hascoat have expanded their presence on Etsy and continue to artfully deploy things from the past. Not long ago, Cuneen was surfing E-Bay when he stumbled across an old-fashioned space heater. No sooner did he order it than inspiration struck. Manufactured by Westinghouse in the 1920s, the Cozy Glow was equipped with what appeared to be a big-copper-lined dome. But when Cuneen stripped away the black paint on the outside, he discovered that the dome was copper through and through. He bought up a cache of Cozy Glows and turned them into lamps, one of which eventually found its way to another winery, Bella Fattoria, in Hannibal, New York.

Next in the pipeline for the Vintage Illumination Company is a retail venue. Although Cuneen remains pleasantly surprised by the number of clients in far-flung locations who are willing to spend a thousand dollars or more on lamps they have only ever seen in photos, he feels it’s time to light up the North Fork with a brick-and-mortar shop. No doubt, the future storefront will give off a soft vintage glow.