Sunday, February 01, 2004, 12:00 a.m. Pacific
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Lamp craftsman fills Seattle shop with rustic Northwest memorabilia
By Heather McKinnon
Seattle Times staff artist
The knock is answered by Darold Andersen, a tall, white-haired man with a glint of humor behind his glasses, and the stranger steps over the threshold into Mort's Cabin.
"Are you Mort?" he asks.
"I'm Darold, son of Mort," Andersen laughs, and begins the story of his store and its namesake, his father. In a few minutes they're talking with the ease of old friends; within half an hour, the customer has a new education in Northwest art — and a typical case of sensory overload.
"This was my primer visit," he says and turns to go, but he's stopped again by the collection of worn fishing creels, wooden tennis rackets and antique snowshoes hanging above the door. He promises to return when he has more time to decide which treasure to buy.
Mort's can be a little overwhelming to the uninitiated. Western kitsch shares shelf space with Roseville pottery, primitive furniture jams the tiny floor space, elk and deer heads glare down from on high and, everywhere, there are Andersen's lamps.
Andersen's passion, which he shares with an almost spiritual fervor, is the natural beauty and history of the Pacific Northwest. His inspiration comes from a lifetime of summer days spent at the family cabin his father bought in the early '50s on the Nisqually River, just 10 miles from the gates of Mount Rainier National Park.
"I'd be outside in the grass, looking up at the trees, smelling the bacon and the breakfast being cooked, and hearing the conversation between my parents. That was like the sweetest time," he recalls.
Andersen's handmade shades and eclectic inventory of vintage lamps, Western art and rustic odds and ends can re-create that time and place for the unfortunate transplants and urbanites who have no cabin memories to call their own.
Mort's customer Kenan Block calls himself a frustrated cowboy who covets Western design but finds most retail offerings "really tacky."
"His stuff is wonderfully authentic," he says of Andersen. "He has wonderful old skis and snowshoes. He really gets it and gets the wonderful history of this region."
Though he's been making his one-of-a-kind, parchment-shade lamps for years, selling through lighting retailers and antique shops, opening his own store just south of Seattle's University District a little over a year ago was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for 58-year-old Andersen.
"I called it my 'Oprah moment,' " he says.
Andersen didn't jump into retail without a safety net, preferring to keep his full-time job driving a Metro bus until he can retire, another four or five years down the road.
"I'm very, very cautious," he says. "I'm hoping to make it to 63. And then I'll be able to devote all my energy to this."
Andersen taught himself the art of making shades, trying different papers and fabrics until he found the rustic cabin style he's becoming known for now.
"Everything is really a work in progress," he says. "Everything is an experimental thing, and a lot of it is by accident. I'm not really knowledgeable about materials, but I listen to what people say."
He points to a dappled, parchment lampshade edged with narrow deer-hide strips as an example.
"I got a deer hide, and I cut my own laces. It sounds terribly difficult, but it's not — it's amazing. By accident I got glue on it (the hide), which sealed it and gave it an antique look."
Andersen started out using wire frames and lamp bases found at yard sales and thrift stores, but now commissions other artists to do a lot of that work.
Most of the bases are made by Wisconsin potter Kevin Hicks, who takes Andersen's ideas and creates unique pieces in keeping with that Northwest cabin style. Andersen couldn't be happier with Hicks' contribution.
"When you get a piece like that," he says, pointing at a soft green pottery base carved in the shape of enormous begonia leaves, "it just makes me overflow with emotion in creating something. Some of these pieces just make me weep, they're so beautiful."
Son of Mort does tend to get attached.
"When someone wants something and they tell me where it's going, I sometimes try and talk them out of it," he says. For him, a salmon base with an antique parchment shade just doesn't belong in an Egyptian-themed home theater in Phoenix.
Sentiments like this make you wonder how Andersen keeps his store in the black.
"(For him) it's not about making money, its about creating," says Renee Peru, who sold Andersen's lamps for years at her Seattle store, Antique Lighting.
"When they're that much of an artist, they're really not business people," she says.
"I'm getting better," Andersen claims, though he still looks almost embarrassed at how much some of his pieces sell for. (Shades run from $58 to $900; lamps are $89 to $800, with an average price of around $300, Andersen said.)
He's starting to add some new items to his inventory. Brown-spotted glass balls reminiscent of Japanese fishing floats hang from the ceiling, and mass-produced bark frames display old black-and-white photos of the Andersen family.
"I don't think I'm selling out, do you?" he asks. He knows he could make the picture frames himself, just like he made the fireplace in the corner, gathering the river rock, bark and willow twigs from the family cabin. But he acknowledges that not everyone can afford handmade objects, and he can't afford the painstaking hours they take to create.
Every product has a story
When the store opened, Andersen tried working in the small curtained-off area at the back, but there were too many interruptions, so now his Wallingford home of 20 years serves as a studio. The house is filled with the art and odds and ends he's been collecting since he first decided to hang on to his Lionel train set as a child. And it's stacked with boxes of fabric, photos, sticks and stones, which might some day be part of one of his creations.
Every finished product has a story, either of creation or inspiration, which Andersen delights in sharing.
"These I made from old flannel sheets from the '60s," he says, pointing to a photo of trout leaping across three small shades. They now decorate the home of interior designer Pam Baty, who also purchased paintings and pottery from Andersen.
He points eagerly at another picture, an oilpaper shade dripping with a fringe of red beads atop a base complete with hanging bat, which stemmed from a memory of exploring an Idaho cave as a child. It's his "bat lamp."
"Maybe the beads were too much," he says quietly, though there's no one in the store to overhear.
Andersen's humble manner and sweet nature have endeared him to his customers as much as his creations have.
"I just love him," Baty says. "You want to go back, even if you don't find anything, you like just seeing him."
No big-bucks mentality
Faithful clients now have to wait in line for Andersen's work. The artist/bus driver is backed up with new orders until spring, and to make matters worse, he's now attracting national attention.
Rustic-style guru Ralph Kylloe, who owns two stores in New York and has published 13 books on the subject, got a look at the Mort's Cabin Web site and e-mailed Andersen immediately about stocking his lighting and including it in his next book.
"Are you rich yet?" he asked in the e-mail.
No, Andersen isn't raking in the big bucks right now. Maybe he could, but the artist in him can't stomach the leap to mass production.
"I don't like doing cookie-cutter, the same thing." Andersen says, shaking off the thought like a sudden chill. He does repeat some products, like his most popular sellers, small wall sconces set high on weathered antique skis. But he makes each unit by hand, one at a time. And it shows.
Heather McKinnon can be reached at email@example.com