I came to woodworking later in life, when I was in my forties, a circumstance which has always made it a much more contemplative vocation than it might otherwise have been. Anyone who designs solves problems, but I often find myself looking into the making of things quite a bit afield from boards and screws and woodworker’s glue, just wondering how other people solve the problems they encounter. Eventually, you end up with an endless curiosity, and I take it with me everywhere. I especially took it with me to KBIS in February this year. I saw so much that was interesting and new and innovative, but quite paradoxically, one of the most fascinating products I saw is both old and new. It’s at the top of this blog, the picture of Nate Lefever assembling a brand new copper lantern from Bevolo Gas and Electric Lights, using designs that were developed at the end of World War II and techniques that surely go back several centuries.
Watching the patience and consummate skill with which he assembled these lanterns, it was as clear as anything could be that Nate had found his niche when he went to work for this company. In the picture that tops this blog he is rounding the rivets he placed a few minutes earlier. Bevolo takes no shortcuts. Solder fastens joints faster. China builds it cheaper. Bevolo does it with integrity.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “There is more to life than increasing its speed.” These days we live in the antithesis of the world Gandhi advocated. Every company, it seems, must automate, must use the most efficient methods possible, monetize their operation, cut every corner, find ways to make it a bit cheaper while maintaining quality—a total impossibility, but they tell themselves that lie so they can justify their actions. But in an old, old shop in the oldest section of one of American’s oldest cities, is a tiny group of people dedicated to doing it the right way.
One of the most charming cities in the United States is New Orleans, Louisiana, and in that city itself surely the most picturesque sector is the French Quarter. Those fortunate enough to visit come back raving about the architecture, the ambiance, the charm, the food, the people, the music, the whole ineffable feeling of being alive in such a place. And surely one of the more enchanting aspects has to be the many quaint gas lanterns that grace the French Quarter. Interestingly enough, many of those lanterns have been burning now for some sixty years, and whether it’s old or now, it’s a fairly safe bet that it was made right there in the French Quarter at Bevolo Gas and Electric Lights.
These are lanterns with a charm and grace all their own, made the right way and in the right place, in this country, not overseas on the cheap by people subsisting on starvation wages. No, sir. They make their products here, and they hire the finest artisans they can find because work at this level requires people with passion, not assembly-line-slugs. They are doing more than simply making the products of a century ago, the classic lanterns with which they began. Those are still available for those who prefer the charm of the old, but there are also many contemporary designs because a company that is not growing is soon dying. These lanterns can run on gas or electricity and can be used indoors or outdoors and, with any kind of reasonable care, pretty much the rest of your life. All of their products, both old and new, are made of copper because of its projected life of 300 years and with the same tried and true techniques. To cite just one example, solders, at certain joints in the finished lanterns, can break. The solution is rivets, because they won’t break, but they take longer to install, and, as any corporate bean counter justifying the more “cost-effective” course would point out, time is money. Bevolo uses rivets.
It’s a family owned company, now being run by the third generation, Drew Bevolo. Like any CEO, he can tell you how many sales his company had last month and how many countries they currently ship their products to, but he can also do something most of the rest of his fellow CEOs cannot; he can walk the walk. How many of us can handcraft one of these elegant lanterns out of a single sheet of copper, using an historic frame of reference, and making it one of the most elegant lanterns you’re likely to see at any price? Mr. Bevolo can. It’s because after he’d tired of the stock market and went back to New Orleans to help with the family business, his uncle put him to work at the very bottom and ordered him to learn all he could about the work that makes the company prosper. Such a schooling helped immeasurably because when Mr. Bevolo eventually took control, his financial acumen told him where the company needed to go and his hands-on knowledge gave him the necessary techniques.
There is a certain feeling, an obsession for rightness, that seeps into your psyche when you’re working by hand, as opposed to simply standing in front of a machine that stamps out parts. Really, it brings to mind a quote from Louis Nizer. “A man who works with his hands is a laborer; a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman; but a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist.”
Since taking over the family business, Mr. Bevolo has done more than simply reorganize the company; he has gone on to design a number of lanterns that have sold very well, while still retaining many of the firm’s classic designs, lamps whose soft, flickering glow still light the French Quarter and the hearts of all who see them.
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