Skinflint: vintage reclaimed lighting

A conversation with Sophie Miller, co-founder of Skinflint.

Airfield landing lights. Circa 1940.

Airfield landing lights. Circa 1940.

In this transient world of throw-away culture, encouraged and perpetuated by planned obsolescence, the word ‘skinflint’ should be celebrated as a notion of saving and conserving resources. Thankfully, there is a tide-turn in the form of increased propensity to try to re-use, repair and re-cycle and an offshoot of this is up-cycling – revamping the old (yet could still be useful) into something contemporary and useful. One British company which takes this conservation to another level is Skinflint. This Cornish based team of designer-craftsmen transform the old with such expertise that ‘beautiful’ can be added to the adjectives to describe their re-creations.


Vintage retro table light.

Specialising in iconic industrial lighting up-cycled from original reclaimed fittings salvaged from obsolete industrial settings across Europe, the Skinflint team scour faded factories, abandoned asylums and put-to-grass power stations for latter-day lighting fixtures and fittings. These historic pieces, often steeped in heritage as iconic brands, that were, in their day, the brand, were built to last and lend themselves to be repaired and reborn as often statement pieces; focal points within a well thought-through interior.


Philips airfield lights.

Each piece is researched and catalogued by the team with utmost sensitive accuracy, which results in utilitarian yet at the same time aesthetic pieces of vintage design heritage; working pieces of art, each with fascinating histories that beguiles the discerning consumer.


Dunlop factory.

We are, therefore, extremely lucky to talk to Sophie Miller who, along with her husband Chris Miller, founded Skinflint in 2008, and here we gain an understanding of up-cycling and up-lighters and how they take the waning and worn-out and turn them into working ‘works-of-art’.

Firstly, for those readers who aren’t familiar with Skinflint, please can you tell us what you do?

Skinflint is an online lighting brand specialising in original reclaimed fittings from 1920-1970.


Salvaged ex military American runway light.

What did you do before establishing Skinflint?

Prior to setting up Skinflint and moving to Cornwall, we lived and worked in London; Chris as a lighting and product designer working for high profile companies such a iGuzzini and Isometrix, and myself, I initially trained as an artist at Central St Martins and then went on to have a career as an art director and stylist working on dramas, pop promos and commercials.


Sophie & Chris Miller, founders of Skinflint.

Why the emphasis on reclaimed and recycled lights, why not new designs?

We are great advocates for taking care of the environment, reducing, reusing and recycling wherever possible. Sadly many modern products are not created with a ‘cradle to cradle’ mentality and are simply built to fail or for a short-term fashion fix. The products we sell were constructed before the concept of ‘planned obsolescence’ and were engineered to function and to be repaired should parts break down. We also firmly believe that good design will stand the test of time and the classic lights we stock certainly look as stylish today as when they were first manufactured.


Industrial wall lights by Simplex.

Do you ever gather information on your products before you sell them, such as where they came from and what they were used for?

Whenever we purchase a light we try and gather as much information as possible at source about the history and life of the product or style. In addition we use manufacturers plates, and our own archive of original literature related to the products (such as catalogues, adverts and manuals) to build that product’s individual story. We try and follow every single lead we can get; just this last week I was in conversation with the Science Museum regarding what I think might be an old portable X-Ray lamp! We do try and build contacts with existing museums and other archives wherever possible too. It’s a bit like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle; you are forever hunting pieces and clues!


How are vintage lights different to modern equivalents, and what influence do you want them to have on a room or interior space?

Vintage lights are frequently used as statement pieces in a modern interior. With their heavy castings, interesting labels and analogue construction they provide texture to an interior. They also offer a talking point as they all come with their own individual story.


Is there a particular interiors style that your lights work best with, or does it vary from object-to-object?

We have such a wide variety of lighting so they really do work in any space. From Art Deco white opaline glasswear and cut glass globes to enamel shades and industrial cage-lights. There is something for every interior.


Retro Czechoslovakian Pendants.

Who are your typical customers and clients?

Our clients are all looking for something interesting and unusual, lights with style and elegance, a story to tell and an investment piece for the future. They also like the ease of purchasing from us and knowing that their vintage light has been safely and ethically restored.


Where do you source your vintage lights from?

Sourcing our lights is an on-going journey for us. Over the years we have built up a large number of contacts who assist us with sourcing new stock both in the UK and abroad. We sometimes have the chance to photograph the lights in their original settings and have found ourselves being shown through derelict hospitals with demolition experts, scrambling round old aircraft at breakers yards and photographing vast halls which once hummed with the buzz of industry.


We are also occasionally approached by people who have found an interesting or unusual light in their attic and wish to sell it which we are always happy to discuss and that can lead to interesting stories emerging.


When sourcing stock, what are the key things you look for in a design?

We have a very diverse range of lights but all of our products share a simplicity and elegance, so we always look for lights that will complement our existing collection whilst adding diversity to it, such as our recent collection of new glass-wear which has a more delicate feel to it than the industrial look for which we are widely known.


Green Vintage Industrial Enamel Shade.


Czech army field lamps.


British industrial prismatic pendants by ‘Holophane’ salvaged from Cockenzie power station, East Lothian. Circa 1960.

What are the challenges when restoring vintage lights, for instance, do modern fittings and developments in bulb technology affect compromise you in any way?

Every light goes through a lengthy restoration process with many stages. The main challenge for us is that each product line is different and as such presents us with new issues each time. As each lamp is completely rewired, modern technology is not an issue because each light is fully modernised.


Is it possible to provide an insight into the artisanal skill in restoring your vintage lights and the different steps that are involved?

On arrival all products are assessed in our warehouses. The first stage in restoration, which all our lights go through, is disassembly which is when any anomalies or quirks are picked up and planned for.


We may have purchased what initially appear to be 200 identical lights from a single site, but at this stage the purchase could turn out to contain 4 or 5 different styles, each of which requiring their own line and their own bespoke restoration process.


The individual components then go out to our subcontractors and undergo a variety of processes including, soda-blasting, polishing, lacquering and rewiring.


Once each component has been refurbished or replaced they all come back to the studio where they are reassembled and then photographed ready for the website. You can view some of the restoration processes on our Skinflint blog.


Finally, what’s next for Skinflint; do you intend working on any other types of reclaimed objects other than lighting or do you anticipate creating any of your own new lighting designs, for example?

We intend to continue to do what we do well! Sourcing and restoring vintage lighting. We are working on new ways of preserving old surfaces to maintain the product’s integrity as much a possible.


We do not intend to produce our own lights – in a world of limited finite resources we are very happy to lead the way with reusing what has gone before and ensuring that these excellent designs are used for decades to come.


Thanks to Sophie Miller for taking time out of her busy schedule to answer our questions. All images © Skinflint.

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