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Bright Ideas:lighter side of junk 

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Vincent Rideout makes lamps out of discarded appliances. Don't ask him why, because he just started doing it a year ago, when his Electrolux vacuum cleaner died. He was about to throw it out, but then a lightbulb went off in his head. "One day it just hit me," he says. "Floor lamps."

He spent several days gutting and rewiring the Electrolux, inserting a thin metal pipe into the hose, and adding a socket and a lamp shade. The original Electro-Light, as he calls it, was born. Soon Rideout began redoing other old appliances. More vacuum cleaners and a series of coffeepots followed. So did a Sunbeam toaster operated by its original browning switch. "How do you like your toast? Darker? Or lighter? When I got that one working, I was jumping for joy," he says. "If I see an appliance that nobody else is using, I think I can make a lamp out of it. Now, if somebody wanted me to make a toaster out of a vacuum cleaner, that's something else altogether."

Rideout was born the youngest of four in Madison, Wisconsin, where he attended high school but never took a shop class. Instead, he found he had a talent for singing and began to train as a tenor. After high school he sang with the Madison Civic Opera and at the University of Wisconsin, appearing in featured roles in Carmen, Aida, Falstaff, and The Tales of Hoffmann. Three years later, he enrolled as a theater major at the university, where he discovered that freshmen weren't allowed to perform. Discouraged, he dropped out.

After a few years of wandering and a summer of singing at Opryland, Rideout ended up in Chicago in 1983 and was soon hired to sing in the Lyric Opera's supplementary chorus, where he spent eight years while working other jobs. He now sings in the choir at Our Lady of Mount Carmel on Belmont and also in the chorale there run by William Ferris. The choirs are off this summer, so Rideout, who works during the day as an office manager, has been spending six to eight hours every night working on his lamps in a back room of his Edgewater apartment.

Since his original creative outburst, Rideout's fashioned lamps out of blenders, samovars, and a bug-spray canister. He also has plans to transform an atomizer, a bowling ball, a waffle iron, a Cuisinart, and a space heater. All his items are recovered from the trash or from junk shops.

"These things are sitting around in second-hand stores, usually not working and eventually going into the burn pile. I can do something more useful with them. They may not be useful in their original form, but they look good, and it would be much cheaper, at least for me, to find an old piece of trash for 5 to 10 dollars, buy a few more pieces for 5 to 10 dollars, spend maybe five to ten hours on it putting it together, and have a lamp that cost me, personally, maybe 40 dollars. If I were to try to buy it somewhere, it would be in the hundreds."

Rideout has been selling his lamps for between $80 and $200, though he says he'll take "whatever the market can handle." He dreams of one day making his living through his lamps.

"I really am totally in the dark as to what's going to happen," he says. "It's a great lark for me. Even if I end up with a home full of old appliance lamps, fine. If they don't sell, I'll stop for a while. I'll find something else to do with my energies.

"I just like them. I like the look of them. I like the lines. So much of what I see made nowadays, you can't take it apart, you can't get at it. There's a certain tactile pleasure I get with tearing these things apart and putting them together that you don't get with many modern appliances. You just don't get that feel. And I don't necessarily think I'm reclaiming these things as much as I'm saying, "Look people, they're not dead. Do not write them off just because they're outmoded. There are other uses for them. Don't forget them.'

"I can't say I don't find anything outrageous about it. I know it's strange. I know I'm one of the only people in the world who gets all encouraged and jumpy and dewy-eyed when someone says, "I have a friend who has a vacuum and they don't use it anymore.' But it's just me using my mind. This is what I see. This is what's in my mind."

Some of Rideout's appliance lamps will be on display and for sale from 11 to 6 this Saturday and Sunday at House of Swing, 1740 N. Maplewood, as part of a show of artistically created household items. For more information, call 278-8513.

--Neal Pollack

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Vincent Rideout by Nathan Mandell.

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