When he moved to the U.S. to marry his wife in 2003, a woman he had met through selling some of his antiques on Ebay, McMullen left electrical engineering and ventured into antiquing. For five years, he imported antiques from England to Lynchburg and eventually took a job at the Roanoke Antique Mall, commuting there each day from his home in Evington, he says.
Artist Rick McMullen poses for a portrait with some of his lamps. He’s been making the unique creations since 2015 and started his business, Urban Alchemist, six months ago.
“People walk in and go, ‘Huh?’” he says. “It’s an eye catcher.”
“At the risk of sounding cheesy, it’s kind of like my brother’s light will still be shining,” he says.
Tags Rick Mcmullen Commerce Electricity Economics Lamp Electrical Engineering Ken Towler Light Bulb Michael Hudson Hand Camera
Rick McMullen turns an old trombone into a lamp while working at his home on Monday Jan. 29, in Evington.
The objects in the Evington basement look a bit like the creatures one might find in the laboratory of a mad scientist. You start to get the feeling that if you wait long enough, the fingers on the hand might start wiggling, the light bulbs in the fans could start spinning, or the bulb protruding from the camera will start flashing.
After he retired in 2015, he tried his own hand at it, encouraged when he read about a man in North Carolina who had turned his lamp-making craft into a business.
Now that he’s not working, McMullen has combined his love of antiques with his knowledge of electrical engineering in his eclectic lamp-making business, Urban Alchemist, which he started six months ago.
McMullen originally got the idea to give old objects a newer, brighter purpose when he saw some steampunk-inspired lamps while working at the Roanoke Antique Mall. But as an electrical engineer, he determined they were poorly put together and thought he could do better.
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“The first question I often get asked is how much is it,” he says. “And occasionally, I won’t tell them. I’ll specifically say, ‘Ask me what it is. Let me tell you what it is before I tell you how much it is.’”
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Evington man takes love of electrical engineering, antiques to create unique lamps
Though he sells at the occasional craft or antique fair, McMullen says he works mostly off commissions. People see his products or hear of his work and reach out, asking if he can turn an object of theirs into a lamp.
“You’re limited only by your imagination,” he says. “Anything can be made into a lamp, it just takes a little bit of ingenuity and forethought and application.”
“It’s almost like reinventing something,” says Ken Towler, board member of the Bower Center for the Arts in Bedford. “… The saxophone was a musical instrument and now it’s a reading lamp.”
“It’s dented, it’s battered, but they were proud of making that. … It’s that level of skill and pride and craftsmanship that draws me to that older stuff.”
When asked if he’s thinking about how he would turn it into a lamp, the answer is nothing more than a coy grin.
Almost two years after he started creating these unique lamps, McMullen is now always on the hunt for the perfect piece for his next creation.
The lamps, like most of McMullen’s pieces, make great conversation starters, Towler adds. After all, how many houses have giant alcohol bottles lighting a room?
“He takes what a lot of people would consider junk and turns it into functioning artwork,” says Towler, who has bought two of McMullen’s lamps, one of which was a display-sized bottle of Johnnie Walker. “… It’s not painting, it’s not pottery, it’s not mosaic, it’s not macramé. There’s some other people that do it, but he’s one of the better ones, taking a toaster and turning it into something. … You just have to have that type of imagination to take it where you want to go. And he definitely has a little [bit of a] different imagination.”
An odd assortment of objects lay along the shelves in the basement workshop.
“For me, this is very fulfilling,” he says. “It’s great that I still get to handle this stuff and I get to do the electrical side of it. And the creative side, [because] electrical engineering can be very dusty.”
“Modern stuff, it’s all made in China and its plastic. It’s all disposable, there’s no merit,” he says as he switches bulbs on the newly completed trombone lamp. “This stuff, these spotlights, these fans, this stuff was made when people still had pride in what they did, in what they manufactured.”
The statement couldn’t be truer when, a moment later, McMullen’s face turns thoughtful as the tripod-perched camera the photographer has brought flashes while capturing his picture.
All the while, McMullen, who turns 64 this week, fostered his love of antiques by collecting odds and ends.
He gestures to the brand name stamped on the trombone that reads “Jupiter.”
“I’ve said it to people before. Don’t ever invite me to your house,” he says. “Because from me arriving to me leaving, all I’m doing, I’m looking at everything you own with a view to making it into a lamp. That’s all I’m doing.”
Star Wars Darth Vader desk or table lamp from repurposed DV helmet and mask on modern lamp base with integral on/off switch. Fitted with 3W red LED bulb so runs cold and uses very little power. #starwars #darthvader #lordvader #repurposedlighting #theurbanalchemist #starwarslight #darthvaderlight
Like the old trumpet, most of the objects McMullen transforms have some age to them. They might be dented, faded or slightly bent. It gives the end product life, he says. It shows the history of what the original pieces once did.
A mannequin hand protruding from an antique collar box in a way that is wholly reminiscent of Thing from “The Addams Family,” a light bulb clasped firmly in its hand.
Super nice owners and loved the creativity of the pieces they sell!!!
A current commission of his is a trumpet that was owned by Avoca Museum Director Michael Hudson’s late brother, who was a member of his school band and planned to be musician before his death in 1999 at the age of 17.
Bought this piece of antique medical equipment to repurpose as a cool floor lamp, but am unsure what it originally was. Heavy cast iron, about 4′ high. Ether dispenser? Embalming fluid stand? Something else? Does ANYONE know? Came with three one-gallon glass jars, and the central pole swivels, see 2nd pic. Also has a six-port manifold. #antique #antiquemedical #antiquedental #antiquemedicalequipment #medicalcollectables #antiqueembalming #whatisit #mysteryobject #antiqueanesthesia @medicalandcollectables
Artist Rick McMullen poses for a portrait with some of his lamps.
Born and raised in Yorkshire, England, McMullen spent 30 years working as an electrical engineer on offshore oil rigs, as well as in hazardous areas and nuclear power stations. He traveled the world working on these assignments, using the trips as opportunities to visit places he had never been.
“Because the mouthpiece is stuck and won’t come out, it’s been kept in its case — lovingly, but I can’t even close the case because the mouthpiece gets in the way,” says Hudson, who admits that for safety purposes the instrument is essentially unusable. “… It’s been sitting in a half ajar case since 1999. Rick is finally doing something really cool with it.”
The blades in the fans have been replaced by light bulbs, as has the lens in the camera. The colander, which covers yet another bulb, has been attached to that old toaster.
Beautiful goods and knowledgeable owners who know about all periods of furniture/accessories.
At first glance, they appear perfectly ordinary — just normal household objects in need of fixing.
It started with musical instruments he was given from a band director. From there, he moved into old fans. Soon enough, he was transforming everything he could get his hands on — cameras, toys, liquor decanters, rotary phones. Even a pay meter.
At the workbench underneath these contraptions, the mad scientist himself, Rick McMullen — or, as he prefers to be called, the Urban Alchemist — whistles as he works a strip of cloth-covered wire through the twists and turns of an old trombone.
Hudson says he can’t wait to see the finished product, which he sheepishly adds was supposed to be a surprise present from his wife for his birthday.
McMullen will use a newer piece to finish a lamp if needed, admitting he does cannibalize working lamps to get parts for his artistic creations, like he did with the base he took off a floor lamp for the trombone lamp he just completed.