Shades of Light has done what few lighting retailers have accomplished: established brand name recognition across the country as a retailer and manufacturer.
Company founder Ashton Harrison worked for years at a large home furnishings retailer before deciding to launch a niche retail business by herself in 1986 called Shades of Light. Located in Richmond, Va., the store’s eclectic mix quickly attracted a faithful clientele. Even more impressive was the amount of visitors to the area who said they wished there was such a store in their neighborhood. That often-heard desire resonated with Harrison, who figured a catalog would be an ideal vehicle to reach these prospective customers.
In 1995, she ponied up more than one million dollars to publish the first edition of the Shades of Light catalog. In an interview with Retail Online Integration magazine several years ago, she estimated that such an endeavor would probably cost three times that amount today. Publishing the catalog was an expensive project, however, that took some years to turn profitable. Nowadays, the Shades of Light catalog enjoys nationwide distribution and is widely recognized among interior designers, design-savvy consumers, and hospitality specifiers alike.
Four years after the catalog debuted, Harrison took the next step and presented the comprehensive Web site which includes such features as Tips & Techniques,” a blog of design inspiration, plus photographs of lighting from the store that has been installed in customers’ homes, among other features.
Over the ensuing years, Shades of Light has added complementary categories such as rugs and occasional furniture. However, one of the most distinctive attributes is the company’s ability to fabricate custom fixtures that are designed in-house. Unique finishes are also no problem as the business has painters on staff as well as a UL facility to certify its products.
In August 2011, Harrison decided to kick back a bit and let someone else take charge of the business since her husband, Dave, wanted to retire and she found the time was right to slow down. She sold the business to entrepreneurs Bryan Johnson and Chris Menasco, two financial consultants who have known each other for 10 years and were looking to acquire a business and dive into a new industry. “There was a learning curve at first from a technical perspective, but we caught on quickly,” Johnson says, adding, “What appealed to us was the opportunity to learn an entirely new business from soup to nuts and then grow it larger.”
The change-over has allowed Harrison to do more of the “fun” duties such as buying at the Dallas, Atlanta, and High Point markets twice a year, staying involved in designing products, and handling the company’s social media, including Facebook, Pinterest, and the Web site’s blog.
“Approximately 25 percent of our business is in products we design ourselves,” notes contract sales manager Anne Wilkinson, who has an interior design background and previously worked as a buyer for a lighting company before joining Shades of Light.
“We have a 50,000-sq.-ft. facility in Richmond where we make the fixtures, chandeliers, pendants, and a lot of the shades,” Johnson explains. Having that manufacturing capability has allowed Shades of Light to cater to the hospitality market all over the country. The company exhibits at HD Expo in Las Vegas, HD Boutique in Miami, and architectural design venues.
“We’ve become known for unique designs. A lot of people in the hospitality arena know us. We’ve done a little bit of everything: boutique hotels, casinos, bars, and restaurants,” she adds. There are four designers on staff and any one of them can sit down and design fixtures for commercial clients.
Many of the employees have grown up in the business. “Almost everyone on staff is cross-trained in various departments,” Wilkinson says.
“Our head count has grown 20 percent over the past 12 months,” Wilkinson says. “In five years, we’d like to be even larger. Since we have a UL facility, we can do repurposed lighting, where we take an older item and repurpose it as lighting, bringing it up to code. Recently, we turned some vintage bathtub faucets into sconces,” she notes.
Another unique lighting design came from repurposing a 400-lb., hand-hammered, old metal mining bucket for a timber frame house in Colorado. Wilkinson recalls another distinctive lighting design that involved car rotors and big wooden pulleys. “We tend to be fairly scrappy,” she quips. “We have a lot of resources around to get [these unique projects] done. We can do things in quantities of one or two or in the hundreds – and we’ve done plenty of both.”
“Lighting used to be 100 percent of the business, but now it’s more like 70 percent,” Johnson comments. “The balance is in rugs, home décor items, and accent furniture.” Shades of Light recently added custom rugs – made in India – to its mix. A separate purchasing manager handles the rug department. “We’ve really been growing that business,” Wilkinson adds.
Last month, Shades of Light announced an exclusive partnership with DIY bloggers John and Sherry Petersik of Young House Love in Richmond, Virginia. The new Young House Love Lighting Collection is comprised of “happy, wallet-friendly lighting” that is priced at $99 or less. The Petersiks’ lighting uses motifs and themes that Young House Love readers will immediately recognize – right down to the pendants modeled after their favorite Chihuahua.
Keep an eye on Shades of Light; it is poised to conquer new categories in the years ahead.
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