Rock Crystal light, C.L. Sterling & Son

Niantic’s Peter Carlson on Life and Lighting Design

in Art & Design

LYME — For years, interior designer Peter Carlson searched for unembellished lighting that would complement his clients’ spaces.

“I was always looking for lights, especially very simple lighting, not an ‘event,’ just something simple that did the job and looked attractive,” he said. “I had a hard time finding anything so I thought if I’m having this problem, then other people must be having it as well.”

One of his odd jobs was driving socialite and cabaret performer Edie Bouvier Beale from Newark to the Reno Sweeney in Greenwich Village. He also worked at Studio 54, a job he said he obtained after working at the Steak Loft in Mystic which was owned by Steve Rubell, who co-owned Studio 54.

That was how Carlson’s lighting company company, C.L. Sterling & Son, began 15 years ago. The company, headquartered in Niantic, is now represented in showrooms in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Miami, Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Seattle and Toronto, as well as Tokyo and Hong Kong.

Peter Carlson (Courtesy of C.L. Sterling & Son)

“We started out producing these very simple architectonic rectangles and simple lights, really good quality,” said Carlson at his home, a refurbished barn in Lyme, on January 9.

Initially he wanted to produce his pieces in the U.S. but the first fabricator he spoke with was going to subcontract the job to China. He tried another place in Canada that didn’t work out. Then, “kind of coincidentally,” he found a factory in Marhina Grande, Portugal.

“It’s family-owned, two generations. It’s large enough to do what we need done but we’re also able to do custom — it’s not just widgets going off an assembly belt,” he said. “The people are lovely. They take care of me. When they come here, they stay here.”

Viceroy light, C.L. Sterling & Son

The factory was able to create Carlson’s designs through a casting process made with molds that dramatically reduced the number of welds needed, creating less labor and fewer opportunities for flaws.

“We make everything out of brass,” Carlson said, holding one of his lighting fixtures, demonstrating the weight of it. “They [come out of the mold with] little raw edges, so you have to finish and polish those and you end up with something like this. You weld the frames together and the quality — it’s solid.”

Rock crystal

While in Portugal, Carlson drew inspiration from a factory with a long tradition of glass-blowing that started with making bottles for port wine and has evolved to making windshields.

“There’s a lot of glass-blowing, but when they have to shut the kilns down, which is not that often, the slag has accumulated in the bottom of the kiln and they go in with a sledge hammer and they smash it out and they don’t have anything in particular to do with it,” he said. “I saw a chunk of this when I was there.”

Carlson experimented with wiring the glass chunks together on a wired brass frame, a process he invented that eventually became his “rock crystal” lighting pieces.

“It’s all hand-wired and it’s really labor intensive, but it’s Portugal and they get good wages,” he said. “These are definitely one-of-a-kind pieces and we have variations on a theme.”

Beginnings

Carlson majored in English and Theatre at Connecticut College, graduating with the first class of men in the history of the school

“I really thought I was going to be an actor, I went to the Eugene O’Neill Center, which had a close relationship with Connecticut College. Then I moved to New York, tried to be an actor and ended up being a bartender for quite a long time, with lots of odd jobs along the way so that I could go out to rehearsals and perform badly,” he laughed.

One of his odd jobs was driving socialite and cabaret performer Edie Bouvier Beale from Newark to the Reno Sweeney in Greenwich Village. He also worked at Studio 54, a job he said he obtained after working at the Steak Loft in Mystic which was owned by Steve Rubell, who co-owned Studio 54.

He discovered he could design while working as a part-time driver for an interior designer who had a Rolls Royce.

“I would drive to clients for him, it was another job — I got paid $10,” he said. “At one point he asked me to do some furniture plans, and I did, and as I was doing it I thought, ‘You know what? I’m actually better than he is at this,’ so that’s when I started doing interior design, having not studied it.”

A lucky break came with his first client who had purchased an apartment on 55th street.

“They trusted me enough, it was a complete gut, and I’d never worked on a project like that before, but I did it. I can’t imagine doing it now, but when you’re 24, you take it on. I’ve been doing it ever since,” he said.

Always designing

Asked where his aesthetic comes from, Carlson paused.

“I like straight lines, I like few materials generally, but I don’t know where it comes from,” he said. “I can remember as a little kid, my grandfather was a lawyer in Boston and there was a printer below and he would bring back all this cardboard colored paper. I was always drawing houses.”

For aspiring interior designers, Carlson recommended working for a designer to learn the business and to discover if the field is the right fit.

“Find a good firm and apprentice to them, because that’s going to tell you more than anything else and find someone whose aesthetic you like,” he said. “Going to school is never bad. It gives you background information, you can identify 18th century [pieces] or 19th century [pieces], that’s good to know. But I think the real learning is being with a firm because that’s when you get to know just stuff that makes it work and you get to understand clients — that’s a facility, if you don’t get along with your clients you’re not going to do very well.”

However, a certain level of design, Carlson said, requires a kind of intuitive sense or instinct that is innate and cannot be learned.

“I think it’s just an aesthetic. You either sort of have it or you don’t. You can’t teach it really. You can teach methods, but you can’t teach the nexus of it,” he said.

As far as the name of his company, Carlson said he reached into his family history to create something memorable.

Peter Carlson (CT Examiner/Hewitt)

“I had a relative back in the 18th century named Charlotte Lavinia Sterling and I thought, oh what a great name that is, and I thought when we get large and successful I’m going to have a portrait made of Charlotte Lavinia Sterling for the board room, and I put the ‘& Son’ because I have a son.”

He said he sells his lighting pieces to the trade — architects and designers — “because that’s the world I know” and is still growing his company, looking for new clients and projects.

He said his ideal project would be working with an architect on a residential space where he could create custom lighting pieces.

“It would utilize some of the pieces we have and also give me the opportunity to design some pieces specifically for that space — that’s the fun part,” he said. “I love the designing aspect of it.”


To learn more, visit www.clsterling.com