Shades of Genius
April 16, 2015
Text by Allegra Muzzillo
Cynthia Beebe parlayed a fascination for lampshade making into a wildly successful business, designing and crafting shades for the country’s top architects and designers.
Interior designer Cynthia Beebe specializes in tough cases. Not of the people ilk, however, but of the lampshade sort. Nearly every day, she receives an urgent SOS from a designer requesting her expertise in meeting a challenge. The calls are welcome; indeed, they are the very lifeblood of Beebe’s Westport-based business—BB Custom Lampshades—where she designs one-of-a-kind lampshades that sell to the trade.
Beebe’s career trajectory didn’t start with interior design, though it was always her first love. “At the time,” she says, “my father said the industry was largely a man’s world.”
So, for fifteen years, she worked in advertising, developing and marketing new products for blue-chip companies like Avon, Revlon, and Procter & Gamble. When her position was downsized, an unperturbed Beebe enrolled at Parsons School of Design in New York City to study design—and never looked back. “If you have an open mind, you tend to gravitate to what you’re good at,” she says. “Thankfully, what I’m good at tends to be what I like to do.”
Beebe’s calling for custom shades (“A niche business, that’s for sure,” she admits) began in 1989 with a chance introduction to a shade maker who sparked her interest in the field. Within two years, she was teaching lampshade-making classes at night throughout Fairfield and Westchester counties. What she calls her “green-light moment” occurred when, after showing her latest creations at the legendary antiques firms Florian Papp and Stair & Company, the owners asked her, “Where have you been?”
BB Custom Lampshades, begun in 1992, is unique in being designer-run. Beebe conceives every product herself, although she outsources specialized labor such as hand-painting, embroidering, and lamination. A stable of professional artisans executes her vision after they receive hand-sketched templates from Beebe herself. “For example,” she explains, “I send drawings, including dimensions, and communicate how deep the arch in a scalloped edge should be.”
Beebe keeps no stock in her colonial-style townhome-cum-showroom/workroom, only a few lampshades and a large library of fine art, design, and trade books to which she regularly refers for inspiration on shapes and their applications. She uses materials ranging from leather and woven paper to silk and linen. Much of her work is done via e-mailed images (before the Internet it was all house calls) and measurements.
Beebe’s most sought-after creations are composed of hand-sewn silk fabric that’s pleated or shirred over a wire frame. Reworked shades in traditional linen or cotton chintz also form a large part of her business.
Not everything she does is traditional though. She also designs contemporary-style hard-back shades, as well as shades with fabric that’s laminated onto a backing that may be thick and opaque or thin and translucent.
Lightweight paper shades—primarily bond paper, parchment, or wallpaper over translucent backings—are perhaps the most versatile of her products, while cut-and-pierced paper shades are popular with architects for their clean-lined and carved-in-relief look. “They give such a warm, ambient glow over light,” says Beebe. Perhaps most labor-intensive are her woven-paper shades, often requested by clients in Palm Beach, Florida, who find their delicate layering and vellum weaving well suited to the architecture and design popular in that historic area. “My math must be so spot-on in measuring out each strip of paper, and in predicting where it will drape over the upper and lower rings,” she says.
Box and sunray pleating, smocking, even string shades (vertically aligned strings that produce filtered light) are all within the breadth of the designer’s capabilities. She has crafted hundreds of shapes, too—from modified bells to fancy octagons.
Beebe has garnered worldwide recognition for her expertise and innovations, and has lectured at Scalamandré and the Cooper Hewitt Museum. Gracious Home ordered hundreds of her proprietary French-ribbon-wrapped shades (inspired, she says, by a Neiman Marcus Christmas tree decorated in ribbon bows) after she developed her first one in 1994.
It might be surprising to learn that Beebe is most influenced by the fashion industry. But, she explains, “lampshades are just like dresses. They can be tailored and simple—like box pleating or color blocking—or they can be very elaborate and embellished.”
For an interior designer who is so well known for unwavering originality and artistry, it’s no surprise that Beebe is shining a new light on her field. •
BB Custom Lampshades