Shedding light on Gil Stancourt, Lighting Designer

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By Deb Durant 

In November 2013, Gil and I began scouring salvage yards for the materials that would later become the focal elements of our collaborative project. In the subsequent months, the project has been developing nicely, so we took some time out to sit down and discuss his thoughts on process, inspiration, and how – at the end of the day – it all gets done.

Where did you start out in life?

On the Long Island Sound – in Huntington, New York.

What’s your first light memory?

Lightning bugs. We’d collect them in a jar – it was fun to see how many we could catch – (typically never more than 5 or 6). We’d just stare at them, endlessly, flying around the jar. I guess it was our version of a redneck lava lamp.

You’re a lighting designer – what was the first project you built?

The first lamp I actually built was made from an Almandine Wine bottle. I’d bought a “Lamp Building Kit” at the local hardware store. It turned out to be nothing more than a pre-wired socket with a cork jammed in it. I kept that lamp for 10 years…

Tell us a little about your philosophy and your work background.

Two sentences: ‘finding new ways to bring old things back to life’ and ‘if you can stack it on a stick, you can turn it into a lamp’. I’ve made a life out of building things from other people’s castoffs. When I was younger and still living at home, I’d announce “I’m going to the dump”, and my parents would cringe because they knew that meant I’d be coming home with more than I left with.

Back in the ‘80’s I noticed that salvage yards and antique shops were charging an arm and a leg compared to what I could find and put together myself, so that’s how my business was born. And here it is 30 years later.  I wake up every day looking forward to what cool thing I get to make next. My shop was one of the first small lighting shops in the Bay Area with a full production studio. It turns out I wasn’t as interested in making production pieces though, what I really wanted to focus on was one-of-a-kind pieces.

OK, tell us. What’s your best trash picking find ever?

Hmmm, tough one. There’ve been a lot of good ones. My best though would probably be a series of fixtures I built from old kitchen appliances, incorporating the old mechanisms into functional new lighting switches. It sounds simple and looked the same as in the original state, but was actually pretty tricky to get right. Using materials in unexpected ways, not the way they were intended to be used – I love that.

What’s the most fun part of what you do?

This one’s easy: lighting a lamp for the first time. It doesn’t matter what project I’m working on or how long I’ve worked on it, that moment when you see it lit up for the first time…

Inspirations?

Sometimes, out in the world, I’ll just see a line. Anything can spur an idea. Salvage yards. Glass. I started making my own a few years ago. Now, I’ll make a glass shade and it will end up dictating what kind of fixture it becomes.

I had no formal art training – I dropped out of school at 16 and am completely self- taught. I taught myself how to learn. This route can lead to a lot of insecurity, because society isn’t handing you proof of your achievements, or even acknowledging you.

It took a really long time to accept the idea of calling myself an artist. A client once called my work art and I said, No, it’s not art. But he corrected me, he said, Yes, it is, and you’re an artist. That moment really affected me – it was a pivotal moment.

What styles influence you most?

My influences are largely organic. I don’t aspire to emulate anyone. I like looking, but they’ve already done what they do. Generally speaking, I do like the lines of Nouveau period. Also Mission, which came out of Empire but straightened all the lines. Also the heaviness but flow of Empire…

Thoughts on your business, now 30 years later?

I feel blessed waking up every day getting to do what I love. In the past, I’ve had office jobs that made my stomach twist in a knot just thinking about starting my day. It was soul sucking, really. But now, to tell you the truth, I don’t even feel like I’m working while I do this.

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