Updated: Nov 7, 2021
My wife and I live in a house built in 1986 with big windows, tall ceilings, and a mixture of modern and organic architecture. (My architectural vocabulary is limited, sorry.) Most of the furniture I’ve built is for this house, so most of it reflects a blend of crisp Scandinavian lines with Nakashima-inspired natural forms. I promise I’m not just a bandwagon modernist, live edge addict, or Japanophile.
Our house came with an interesting array of exterior light fixtures, all evoking Japanese shoji lamps, and all a bit different from each other. Pictured below are (1) driveway lamps, (2) a stoop lamp, and (3) deck lamps.
The interior lighting choices were decidedly less imaginative. Enter this blog. With some help from my wife, I designed and built two sets of light fixtures: in early 2020, a set of three wall lamps adorning our staircase, and in mid-2021, a pair of dimmable wall lamps replacing standing lamps near our dining/living room. Here's a preview of the finished products; keep reading to see how they were built.
1: Stair Lamps
I borrowed the design for the first set of lamps from traditional shoji/kumiko lamps, which are admittedly a bit busier and more overtly Japanese than we wanted. My adaptation removed the kumiko from the equation; what remained were rectangles of wood framing unadorned shoji walls, with a light bulb in the middle.
As with most furniture in our house, the wood is walnut—specifically, from a black walnut tree my grandfather milled decades ago near Greensboro. The shoji paper I ordered online in bulk. The lightbulbs are clear, non-dimmable LEDs, normal size.
The lamps feature two basic parts. First, I had to construct the light bulb-holding portion of the fixture. The guts of the lamp included a flat wall plate made of solid walnut that connects to some existing junction boxes in the wall. Connected to the wall plate is a plywood contraption that holds the light socket in place and provides a secure mount for the more attractive lamp frame.
Second, I had to wrap the guts in an attractive lamp. This was a bit more complicated, requiring invisible three-way wood joints at each corner of the lamp, as well as a mechanism to attach the shoji paper to each face. The top and bottom pieces are mitered squares, mounted in chiseled-out mortises between each of the four vertical pillars that form the sides of the lamp. I superglued the shoji paper into a 1/4" rabbet routed into the inside edge of each piece of wood. It’s basically a three-dimensional picture frame.
They turned out nice; a more refined version of the exterior lamps.
2: Dining and Living Lamps
The second set of light fixtures replaced two standing lamps that didn’t fit our house and/or were not particularly effective at illuminating meals and books. My upgrades are undoubtedly brighter and better looking! Of course, I can’t take all the credit. My wife has excellent taste, and I’ve learned to consult with her earlier and more often during the design phase. Based largely on her counsel, these lamps are more Scandinavian and less Japanese, while still retaining some continuity with the other fixtures in or around the house. (They're still walnut and shoji, after all.)
The wood came from a storm-felled black walnut tree that I helped mill at a friend’s house in Pittsboro. Each lamp features a single piece of wood, hollowed out to hold the guts. Though simple, the exposed portions of the wood slab serve as a strong backdrop framing each shoji lamp shade.
Designing the lamp guts was more complicated than the prior set. I spent a lot of time thinking through the ideal number, size, brightness, color, dimmability (that’s a real word), and arrangement of lightbulbs. Ultimately, I settled on a design that would accommodate 4 narrow bulbs, dimmer switch hardware, and lots of wires and connections (including my new favorite electrical connectors: Wago lever-nuts).
By the time I got to the lamp shades, I was a bit out of my element. This was my second time working with plexiglass construction, and although I didn’t get everything perfect, the errors probably aren’t noticeable to normal people. The frame is an elongated five-sided plexiglass box, wrapped in shoji, fitting seamlessly into the wooden base.
Other externally-visible finishing touches included solid brass dimmer knobs and cloth-wrapped electrical wire. (I didn’t feel like tearing up the drywall or snaking lines through the horizontal firebreaks embedded in our exterior walls, so these are plug-and-play.) Overall, the lamps emphasize bold lines, simplicity, and contrast, complimenting the tall windows of our dining/living room.
3: Bonus Foyer Lamp
Bonus for those who read to the end: A third fixture in the foyer, quickly constructed around the same time as the first stair lamps. It’s just two pieces of walnut with a light socket and an exposed bulb, affixed with brass screws to an existing junction box.