The problem with designers or engineers is that if you hand them something beautiful, or intriguing, they just can’t resist taking it apart. Michael Grassi is that irritating person. The artist and designer is the founder of Kidderminster-based It’s a Light.
From the workshop and stuffed cellars of his lovely Victorian house, he dissects, fiddles, toys with and constructs a range of bespoke and short-run handmade interior lighting made from familiar – and sometimes unfamiliar – everyday objects.
Michael describes his work as “repurposing – acquiring ordinary manufactured objects that have enjoyed a past life and turning them into objects of desire”. And lighting is one of his pet obsessions. “My house and my wife and business partner will testify to this. I am always fascinated by objects and I can’t resist imagining their reinvention”.
Michael grew up in rural Shropshire, at Burford, near Tenbury Wells. His father was an Italian prisoner-of-war who stayed on after World War Two, went into farming and married his land army sweetheart. His mother worked at Burford Gardens, home of the national clematis collection.
“I grew up on a mixed farm,” recalls Michael. “There was a lot of poverty in Italy when my father was growing up, and after the war he decided there was nothing to go back to. So he settled into doing what he knew best, and managed a farm.”
Anyone who walks the countryside will know that, far from being a bucolic dreamscape, a working farmyard is usually strewn with bits of broken machinery. Michael says: “My father always fixed things out of necessity, so I grew up with the habit of never throwing anything away in case it could be useful.
“I was always picking up interesting bits and pieces and wondering what I could do with them. From about the age of ten I started to help my father fix machinery, or create parts that would help repair something that was broken. At school I was fortunate to be taught metalwork and woodwork, how to strip things down and rebuild them.
“My group of friends were into bicycles, and we’d create customised bikes, largely because we couldn’t afford new ones but also for the thrill of it. One friend had a big delivery bike with a basket on the front, the heaviest of the lot, so when we were out we’d share the riding of it so we could all keep pace.”
Michael’s choice of a career in art and design was not initially greeted with unbridled enthusiasm by his family. Despite the reaction of his father, who had plenty of hard work and a career on the farm mapped out for his son, he enrolled on a general art and design foundation course at Stourbridge College of Art.
“It was largely thanks to my tutor David Wright, who came round personally to see my father to persuade him that I had a talent and therefore a career in art and design. David kept a smallholding as well and one of his donkeys needed his hooves clipping. My father set to it, an instant bond was formed and I went to college with my father’s reluctant blessing.”
Michael then completed an art foundation course and a textile design course which gave him a thorough grounding in colours, patterns and textures. He settled on graphic design and qualified in Visual Communications at the Faculty of Art and Design at Wolverhampton Polytechnic, now the University of Wolverhampton, in 1976.
While at college he and wife Judith, then his girlfriend, used to walk around the town’s derelict gas works and streets of 1970s slum clearances picking up interesting flotsam and jetsam – screws, bolts, unidentifieds – which Michael says: “I use them to this day. I always knew I’d find a home for them.”
His professional design career began in 1977, working with glass designer David Hammond at the Thomas Webb Crystal site in Stourbridge. The Crown House Tableware Group was formed and Michael, as their first in-house graphic design manager, built up and led a team of six designers, working on the famous tableware brands Thomas Webb Crystal, Dema Glass, Denby Tableware, Edinburgh Crystal and George Butler Silversmiths.
Back home, Michael’s first repurposed light was the ‘Brollite’ in 1977. “It was born from necessity”, says Michael. “I needed a light with a large hook which I could hang up in my workshop, so I created a light combining an old metal angle poise lampshade with an umbrella handle. I still use it in my workshop and I’m working on a new version.”
Michael created grassidesign, his graphic design company, in 1987 with Judith, his wife and business partner, herself a successful fine artist. “We had moved to Bedford where I ran a design team of eight in a brand new studio. I was spoiled. But it didn’t last and when the company was bought out I was made redundant, prompting my decision to go it alone. I loaded up Judith, our daughter Sophia and our possessions, plus dog, and headed back to live with my parents in Shropshire, whilst we searched for somewhere to live and work. All our worldly goods were stored in one of the cowsheds….”
The grassidesign studio went on to be a success, with clients ranging from single entrepreneurs to large companies, public bodies and charities. But with the childhood tinkering still itching in his fingers, Michael created It’s a Light in 2013.
As an inventor, lateral thinker and natural hoarder, Michael tirelessly scours skips, car boot sales and junk shops for parts and inspiration for his range of lighting. Sometimes these are purpose-made, such as the shade carriers (which also go by the delightful name of gimbles) and others which he adapts.
Many designs have an industrial or engineering feel to them, as they are made from objects such as recycled film cameras, tools or kitchenalia, and sit perfectly in contemporary loft and warehouse-style interiors and the present hankering for all things vintage in bars, restaurants and galleries.
Some of Michael’s creations have a touching backstory. “I’m occasionally approached to make a light from an item that has a particular significance for someone,” says Michael.
“A friend had bought an old Bolex 16mm cine camera from a flea market whilst on a trip to Italy. He knew I would be interested in this and would love to make a light from it. It reminded us both of a much-missed late friend, a professional photographer, who used this type of camera at the beginning of his career. The result looks wonderful, and I’d like to think he would approve”.
These lights are no Heath Robinson bolt-ons and idle fripperies. Michael’s work is truly exquisite, with every detail researched and every finish perfected. There’s humour, too: one of his recent creations, made from a 1960s Super 8 cine camera, carries a tiny “Butlins, Pwllheli” enamel badge. “I like to think of the owner on his two-week industrial break with his family, filming the knobbly knees competition.”
All of the lights are produced in very small numbers. Each one is totally handmade and all are fully Portable Appliance (PAT) tested to UK and European standards. He even designs the packaging, transport boxing and labels, and many lights come with their own ID dog tag for authenticity and provenance.
“I tried to source the making of the tags locally as they’re aluminium but disappointingly no-one seemed interested. A company in Latvia responded immediately and got the job.”
Michael says that his background in industrial design enables him to appreciate and respect the beauty and engineering of the original objects. He clearly loves materials and finishes, and his enthusiasm is contagious. When we meet a second time, I take a box of copper rivets I found in the back of my garage, and now find myself picking things up, and wondering...
Throughout his design career Michael crossed paths with many small and interesting components, including furniture fittings, boat, bike and car parts, wardrobe fittings, automotive parts and lighting. “Design is a form of engineering,” says Michael.
“We still make a wealth of fantastic parts and products in and around Birmingham and the Black Country, and wherever I can I source my lighting components from local manufacturers.”
He lists Philippe Starck, Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Eames among his inspirations: “I have always believed that a good designer understands that a core business – call it a bread-and-butter range if you like – is essential to a successful business.
Good and great design is all around us, and great design doesn’t have to mean expensive. The success of grassidesign has taken me back to the playroom – that birthplace of creativity – to develop a commitment to bespoke craftsmanship, good design, repurposing and beautiful engineering.”
Michael has concerns about how design education is delivered today: “Design students must be allowed the full run of their imagination. I’m concerned that, in addition to paying college fees, design students now have to buy everything they need even at the experimental stage of their ideas, so finance becomes a controlling force at the outset.
“UK design students are still some of the best in the world, with young designers like Thomas Heatherwick producing truly ground-breaking ideas, but if innovation and creativity is to be encouraged we must continue to support and invest in talent and apprenticeships. Design, engineering and manufacturing are inseparable, and are disciplines that our country’s wealth and success was originally built on. We owe it to our predecessors to keep pushing the boundaries.”