Skinflint was founded by husband and wife team Chris and Sophie Miller. The first time they met, Chris tried to convince Sophie to sell him a set of opaline pendant lights she had rescued from a condemned Victorian hospital (she said no). With Chris’s background in lighting design and Sophie’s background in art direction they combined their skillsets and love of travel into salvaging and restoring beautiful, long forgotten lights.
Sophie grew up between London and Cambridge, with an architect father, so design was always central to their family life, as she explains:“I studied fine art at Central St Martins College and graduated in the mid 90’s. I’ve always been a creator and I’ve always ignored the divisions between things. When I was studying fine art I was also doing film – lighting is integral to both so for me painting, drawing, set design, collecting and restoring beautiful things is just part of the same picture, you can paint with light, create with it. You can instantly change the mood of a room with light.”
After graduating Sophie worked in film and television as an art director, buyer and stylist on music videos, BAFTA winning BBC dramas and commercials for brands such as VW and Christian Louboutin.
“I worked constantly for about seven years on a really wide range of projects,” she continues. “I decided to move on from the industry because I wanted a better work/life balance, which working in film didn’t afford me. I still wanted to work creatively and I have always collected lovely objects – when Chris and I were younger and backpacking around India we carried home this very beautiful and very heavy electric fan in bits in our rucksack, we just knew we wanted to combine our skills and love of design.”
Chris Miller trained as a product designer at Sheffield University before working as a lighting designer for Isometrix Lighting and Design and iGuzzini UK.
In 2007, while working as lighting design consultants Sophie and Chris were asked to pitch for a residential project in Primrose Hill, one of the most exclusive and expensive residential areas in London. “We were very small at that point, we didn’t have the store we have now and we were up against some big names, so honestly we didn’t think anything would come of it,” says Sophie. “We got the job and the owners insisted that every light sourced should be an original, reclaimed vintage light.”
This lead to an 18-month hunt that spanned the UK, finding the right pieces to complement the project’s architecture and design. “We built up a lot of contacts and sourced a lot of lights. That project really extended our knowledge base. It was a natural progression for us and combined both of our passions. We’re also very passionate about the environment. The ethos of everything being reclaimed, recycled and reused is really important to us.”
Through the myriad of contacts the duo have built up over the years, lights often to come to them. “People will contact us when they’re refurbishing a space, when they get round to taking out all of the old lighting they’ll call us and let us know they are available,” Sophie explains.
Their latest salvage is from a church in Surrey, England. Dating back to 1925 the lights were installed when the church was first electrified. A central part of the community, it is highly likely that the church was one of the first buildings in that area to have electricity.
Their search for light has taken them all over Europe, to factories, hospitals, schools and even abandoned asylums.
“We didn’t manage to salvage any lights from there but we took a look around Bodmin Mental Asylum before it was demolished, it was fascinating finding out the history of the building. People would be transported from the courthouse where they were convicted of their supposed mental disease in an underground tunnel that ran into the Asylum. It was a really eerie place, patients were segregated in wards named after the areas they came from because the Victorians believed that mental illness travelled in the air.”
The designer’s latest line of restored oxide lights hail from the old Rolls Royce factory in Derby. “That was a pretty special salvage,” Sophie enthuses. “It’s so much a part of our heritage and it was a really interesting collection of lights. There was such a wide cross section of lights from a single site, outdoor shades, bulkhead lights and indoor shades. The quality of the lights was amazing. People used to invest a lot more into lighting than they do now and that has a lot to do with mass production, the lights we salvage tend to come from the 1920’s and stop somewhere between the 60’s and 70’s once value engineering stepped in. These lights have outlived the buildings they were initially intended for.”
Iconic vintage lighting brands such as Revo, Holophane, Benjamin Electric and G.E.C have all been restored to meet modern standards and found a new lease of life in a wide array of contemporary hospitality and residential projects thanks to Skinflint.
The needs of the lights vary, each one is individually assessed and their path through the restoration process is carefully planned and a schedule of works is drawn up for each one. The out-dated wiring and old components are removed and safely recycled then replaced with new fittings, Lamp size is taken into consideration and in order for them to fit a modern lump and illuminate from the specific point the original makers had in mind, a lamp holder is installed which places the lamp precisely at the right point for the fixture. The rest of the parts are sent to a subcontractor who may be aqua or soda blasting, polishing, linishing, oxidising, waxing, sealing or powder coating depending on the needs of the light.
The parts are then returned to the workshop, reassembled, tested and photographed by the team, ready to be sold on the website and used in residential or commercial projects such as Padella in Borough Market.
“That was one of my favourite projects we’ve worked on,” says Sophie. “They opted for the Opaline Czech pendants from the 1950’s and personalised them with their own logo, they’re such beautiful and timeless products. It was a nice marriage of the old and new.”
So what’s next for Skinflint Design?
“We’re working on next year’s spring/summer collection which will be very exciting and a bit different to anything we’ve done before and we have some beautiful cut glassware coming, which I’m very interested in at the moment. We’re always learning about new lights, researching their history, and working out different ways we can treat the metal or preserve it. It’s an on-going learning experience.