“Lamps as unique as your thumprint” aptly describes this company, which was just named a Finalist in the Portable Lamp Manufacturer category of the 25th Annual ARTS Awards.
As a child in Little Rock, Ark., Allison West Davis whimsically dreamed of becoming Wonder Woman and, at one point, an astronaut. Her admiration of strong women was probably reinforced by the example set by her mom, Sandy West, who went back to school to earn a Master’s degree in Social Work (MSW) while Davis studied at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, receiving a Bachelor’s degree in Advertising from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
“I wanted to become a copywriter,” Davis says. “However, after I graduated and was applying for jobs in advertising, I started making lamps as a hobby and my career took a different path.”
It certainly wasn’t news to anyone who had met Davis growing up that creative projects were her passion. “I was always into art as a child,” she recalls. “I remember making puff paint T-shirts and jewelry, painting ceramics, and doing other arts and crafts activities. Even back then, I was very detail-oriented.” She continued painting while in high school and took sculpture classes in college. “With my paintings, I would put my thumbprint in them as a signature, instead of signing my name,” Davis notes.
Creating lamps was the result of happenstance. Davis began tinkering around with unusual vases, candlesticks, and boxes that she’d find at antique stores and would bring them to a local lamp shop to be assembled and wired as lamp bodies. She hand-covered the lampshades with ultra-suede and other fabrics and embellished them with beads, feathers, and various materials.
Soon, people took notice. “I started selling through local retailers and designers and traveled to Junior League shows around the South selling one-offs,” Davis notes. “Honestly, I did not know anything about the lighting industry; I just loved designing and making lamps! They are such fun and exciting accessories because they can be made from anything and can illuminate a room in many ways,” she explains.
The idea of working for a lighting manufacturer as a designer never occurred to this fearless entrepreneur. As demand for her designs grew, Davis began researching how to produce the lamps herself. She named her company Thumprints in a nod to her childhood signature for her artwork. “The fact that everyone’s thumbprint is unique was also a perfect analogy for the line,” she recounts. “I like the idea of creating a unique spelling for the company name, too.”
After establishing a following in the South, Davis was ready to expand her reach. “I kept hearing how ‘refreshing’ and ‘different’ the designs were and how excited people were to see an artistic twist on lighting. I was mixing colors, shapes, materials, textures, and mediums to create something unusual. Maybe I filled a void without meaning to do so,” she comments.
Encouraging her daughter to broaden her horizon was Sandy West. “My mom had been to markets before with a retail store. She was the one who encouraged me to take Thumprints to the wholesale level,” Davis explains. West volunteered to work part-time at her daughter’s company after Thumprints’ first market in 2003 was a big success. “My mom came onboard shortly after I started the company ‘just to help out,’” she remarks. “When I was assembling all of the lamps myself, she would paint the sub-bases and traveled to the Junior League shows with me to help sell.”
As the company grew, West gradually became more involved, now heading up the business operations full-time. “She quickly went from being Thumprints’ #1 fan to Thumprints’ #1 employee,” Davis jokes. “I feel bad, because I feel like I took her away from her career as a social worker, for which she worked so hard to achieve. However, I know that she would rather not be doing anything else than helping and working side by side with her daughter.” (West still maintains her license as a MSW.)
Since participating in its first official trade show in 2003, Thumprints has since exhibited in temporary spaces and showrooms in Atlanta, New York City, Dallas, High Point, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Denver. Currently, the company maintains permanent showrooms at the High Point and Las Vegas Markets. An in-house sales manager and an active rep force help keep the company top-of-mind with retailers and designers.
“[Launching the line] took a lot of commitment and hard work,” Davis says of the early days. “We grew slow and smart, which is how I was able to keep up with the original demand since I was assembling all of the lamps myself until 2005.”
Even the best multi-taskers have trouble doing it all. “When you are a business owner, you wear a lot of hats,” Davis observes. “I enjoy all aspects of the business, but it can be [hard] managing my time between the different duties. Not only do I design the lamps, but I work directly with manufacturers throughout the product development process to ensure the products are made to specification and quality standards,” she explains. “I also work one-on-one with clients to quote, develop, and execute custom designs for residential, commercial, and hospitality projects.”
Davis gets to put her advertising degree to work by developing all of Thumprints’ advertising, marketing, and promotional materials – including, catalogs, postcards, and eblasts – and can even be found handling some of the customer service duties.
Fortunately, having her mom on-board has helped ease the burden. “I could not have done this business without her,” Davis says. “Her support, dedication, and hard work have been tremendous and so much more than I could ask for. We say that I am the creative side and she is the business side. She facilitates the day-to-day management at our corporate office. She also travels to markets with me for set up and selling, as well as to meet with manufacturers and customers. She truly goes above and beyond. I love and respect her so much for everything she does!”
Expanding the Domestic Goods
From the beginning, Davis has worked with American artisans and manufacturers. “When I first started Thumprints, I worked with a local potter and woodworkers, and purchased blown glass, ceramics, and other accessory pieces that I assembled into lamps,” she remarks. As the company grew, she had to look at sourcing overseas in order to remain competitive although there was always a percentage of the line that was domestically sourced.
“The Recession has made it increasingly important to me as a business owner to create and maintain jobs in the USA,” Davis comments. “Today’s consumers are recognizing the quality workmanship and value found in domestic products, and they understand the benefits of buying Made in the USA products to support their local and national economy. We are fortunate and are able to offer high quality, domestically manufactured products at a great value.”
In recent years, Davis has observed that consumers are willing to pay more to buy Made in the USA products. Previously, price had been a stumbling block for many domestic manufacturers. In fact, Davis has observed that lately some buyers want only to purchase goods that are Made in the USA.
Today, more than 70 percent of the Thumprints line is made domestically. Made in the USA hang tags help Thumprints customers accurately label and promote the domestically made lamps in the showroom as well as identify them throughout its marketing, catalogs, and sales materials. “We are having great response to our Made in the USA collections and over the past year have seen a huge increase in buyers seeking exactly that,” Davis says.
To clarify, Thumprints does not perform manufacturing at its headquarters, but contracts with select shade, ceramic, and metal manufacturers – as well as plating companies – in the U.S. that hand- craft each piece, according to West’s instructions. By supporting domestic OEMs, Thumprints plays a part in securing jobs for skilled artisans and industrial workers across the country.
“I am continuing to focus on domestically made products,” Davis affirms. “Not only have all of our introductions for the past two years been Made in the USA, but we are debuting approximately 25 domestically made ceramic pieces at the Fall High Point Market this month.
Thumprints has been nominated for the Made in the USA Foundations’ Hall of Fame 2013, which celebrates businesses that exhibit excellence in U.S. manufacturing practices and standards.
On the Horizon
As of press time, Davis is in the midst of another production: the birth of her first child due at the end of the year. Could a children’s lamp line be far behind? “Actually, that is a category I would like to purse someday,” West laughs, “but for now I am focusing on our current categories of contemporary, transitional, and casual table and floor lamps, sconces, and pendants. Personally, I am an art glass lover and am fascinated by the art of blowing glass. We used to have a collection of blown glass uplights – some of which are installed at the Grotto restaurant at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas. I saw them when I was there for market in July and it inspired me to get back to my roots! Glass truly makes Thumprints’ lighting pieces of functional art, and it is a beautiful medium with which to work.
The upcoming year will be eventful for Thumprints with its nomination for an ARTS Award kicking off 2014 in January, a possible return to art glass as a medium to expand the line, plus a newborn joining the Thumprints family.