Being surrounded by Portland’s talented and innovative makers tends to have an inspirational effect on most people. This is precisely what happened to Shannon Guirl, a former television editor, when she was visiting from New York City. Eventually, Shannon made the move to Portland with her sights set on joining the ranks of the creative elite with her own company: Caravan Pacific. Caravan specializes in handcrafted, high-quality wood and ceramic lamps. The beautiful lamp designs are sleek and classic, with a nod to mid-century modern style. Caravan’s lovingly handmade products (which have been featured in major design publications like Design*Sponge and Apartment Therapy) have certainly captured the essence of Portland’s creative community. We sat down with Shannon to learn more about the inspiration behind Caravan Pacific and what the future holds for this wildly successful business:
E+E: How did Caravan Pacific start?
Shannon Guirl: Caravan Pacific began from a question I started asking myself after I visited Portland a few years ago: “What can I make to be a part of Portland’s maker community?” I was really struck by how strong and supportive the community is here and felt a deep need to be part of it. I was really impressed by the breadth of things people made and how well they made them. I went back to Brooklyn and spent the better part of two years struggling with ideas for several businesses (one was making expletive-laced cards for guys!), but thankfully, a definitive moment led me in the direction of Caravan. I was collecting mid-century lamps for my home and found a rare beauty online, which then arrived on my doorstep shattered in pieces. I was pretty bummed about it, but as it turned out, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I could see how the lamp was put together and the parts involved. Even though I didn’t have any previous experience in ceramics, wood turning, or designing, I somehow convinced myself that I could make a mid-century lamp. It was a big leap of faith but I felt like I needed to get outside of my comfort zone if I was going to make something truly worthy of the scene here. I started researching the history of these lamps and getting in touch with some of the older lamp makers in the US, and realized that I had stumbled upon a little piece of America’s manufacturing history. I became fascinated by this connection and the whole endeavor became less of a project and more of a calling after that.
E+E: What were you doing before and how did it lead into what you are doing now?
SG: I worked as a cinema/television editor and assistant for about 12 years in New York City — something quite different than what I do now! I had always loved the cinema and desired to be a career editor for most of my life. As I delved further into the field, I realized that sitting in front of a computer for 10+ hours a day was not where I wanted to be. I yearned to make something with my hands and connect with other makers. I started working for Etsy about a year after they started — first as a screen-printer, then as a videographer. I interviewed several makers and artists about their work and inspiration, which put me in a position to absorb what they did and was really influenced by it. I think the seed was planted there, that I needed to do something different with my life and create something.
E+E: How many people are behind the manufacturing of the products?
SG: It’s a very small but tight-knit crew. I’ve hired two wood turners here in Portland to help me with the wood production, and Mudshark, a ceramic production facility in NE Portland, produces the ceramic parts of our lamps. I’m kind of a one-woman band when it comes to the rest of my business. I do some of the glaze work, along with assembly, wiring, packing, shipping, marketing, etc. It’s a hard day’s work in the end, but totally worth it! I really love the process of assembling lamps — it’s my favorite part of the whole business bcause I get to see the finished product come together and admire the talent and hard work of everyone involved.
E+E: How long does it take to create one lamp? What is the process like?
SG: It’s a long and short process. As the guys I work with are usually making several pieces at once, it can take 2-3 weeks to get all the parts together. The most intensive part is making the ceramic bases, which must be slip-cast, polished, fired and glazed — a process which takes 2-3 weeks at the production level. The wood parts are faster to produce, but also require a great deal of attention and skill. Blocks of wood are carved into shape on the lathe by hand with the turners I work with. Once I get all the pieces, I assemble the finished product (it usually takes me about 10 minutes to put the entire lamp together and wire it). When I first started, it was taking me about half an hour, but after a few hundred lamps, I’ve gotten it down to a science.
E+E: Do you have a favorite style/product that you like to make?
SG: Definitely the Alberta. It was my first lamp and I owe a lot to the experience of designing it. I now know so much more about the materials and processes used to make it — it’s given me a lot of confidence as a designer. It also reminds me that with some hard work, whatever you dream of can become possible.
E+E: Did you find it difficult or challenging to get into the “Portland maker” scene?
SG: Portland is such an incredible town for creatives! I feel like I fell into this giant supportive network of people overnight and am so thankful for it. Being a maker is really hard work and you need others around you for moral and creative support. Portland definitely provides that in a way I think many other cities don’t. A few valuable connections for me came from walking past a door with sawdust flying out of it and popping my head in to say hello. People here have time for each other and see the value in helping each other out. I love being part of that.
E+E: What do you see for the future of Caravan Pacific?
SG: I just moved into a new studio in NE Portland and am working on building out a space for product development and ceramic production. It’s a lovely space that I think is going to lead to several new products and opportunities in the future. I would love to find a metal-worker in town to collaborate with, and have been designing several different products with elements of ceramic, glass and copper.
E+E: What’s your favorite thing about Portland?
SG: The simple pleasures that abound here and wonderful people to share them with.
4719 NE 30th Ave
Portland, OR 97211
Written by: Lauren Kodiak
Photos by: Caravan Pacific