Let there be light: Award-winning engineer uses unique materials to sculpt lamps

Dan Morrison works at the intersection of art, industrial and mechanical engineering.
Deena Theresa
Right: Balance Lamp.Ri Left: Clamshell Alchemist sculptural lampDan Morrison

When Dan Morrison was 15, he saved up all his pocket money to buy a carburetor for his car.

"It was such a beautiful thing! Made of cast aluminum, it had these little brass levers and opening flaps," he says.

"Half of me wanted to bolt it onto engines, and the other half wanted to put it on the mantelpiece because it looked lovely as an ornament," Morrison's eyes light up as he describes the device.

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Few people would call a carburetor 'beautiful.' 

This, Morrison agrees, is the starting point of what he does.

To his eyes, beauty lies in engineering. At Blott Works, Morrison works at the intersection of art, industrial and mechanical engineering to create whimsical but functional statement pieces inspired by architecture, machines, birds, and other forms.

His hand-built clocks and lamps, made of materials with industrial and decorative heritage, aren't one of those pieces you would want to sit back and admire. Rather, they beckon to you.

Engineered art

To illustrate, his Balance lamps can be extended or retracted by gently rolling them forward or backward. 

His bird lamps, which include a Crane desk bird lamp, a bustard mechanical lamp, a hawk, and even a duck tabletop lamp, have a rack and pinion gear mechanism that can lengthen the neck of the bird. You could also adjust the angle of the beak itself by loosening and tightening the eyeballs.

Another marvel, a Clamshell Alchemist sculptural lamp, comprises a hand-carved oak clamshell that opens to reveal a light source shining up from the lower shell. The clamshell can be operated by turning a brass handle connected to a rack and pinion gear mechanism. 

And then there's the Pebble Clock with kinetic timer, the first piece he designed for Blott Works with his friend Andy Plant. A brass knob on the timer moves a stainless steel chain and brass pointer around the periphery of the clock case. Releasing the knob starts a journey around the clock. 

Evidently, his pieces are mechanical marvels with an architectural, clean aesthetic. They seem to have a personality of their own, with an added element of play.

Turning back time

Let there be light: Award-winning engineer uses unique materials to sculpt lamps
Dan Morrison at his Hawk mechanical desk lamp.

The award-winning artist and engineer lived a few lives before embarking on a journey within his workshop near Manchester, England.

Born in London at a vicarage, Morrison majored in engineering design and appropriate technology at Warwick University.

"We were told that it was the first course in Europe that focused on renewable energies and socially-useful engineering. At that time, we were the hippies of the engineering world because of what we studied," he tells IE

In the 80s, after his graduation, Morrison began making musical instruments.

"In my 20s, I spent hours in bands, and theatre, performing and composing. It was different from what I do now, but there has always been a combination of technology, art, design, and music. After that, I did a Masters' in Computer Science in London, spent some 10 to 15 years as a programmer in the early days of the internet," he says.

A different trajectory led him to become a funeral director. "I thought it could be a really interesting job, as my dad was a vicar and there's kind of a little connection to him. It was all about helping people in that time of life. I applied and got the job. It was very rewarding, but I'm more of a doer and maker," he continues.

The maker, who has been taking engines apart ever since he was a teen, stayed true to his vision. "I'd always think that it would be nice to end up in a workshop of my own. Right now, mine is in a cellar downstairs," he says. 

For the past eight years, he has been trying to celebrate engineering and design.

"The workshop is a tiny one, with some very simple tools and a lathe. This is where I spend all my time. I do go out sometimes, but I'm very happy down here," he tells us.

Interesting Engineering (IE) sat down with Morrison to pick his brains.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.

IE: Walk us through your design process.

Dan Morrison: I have a love for engineering, art, and design, which I've always wanted to combine and make something unique. Most people have one or the other - they are either about the function or the beauty. For me, they are both intrinsic and part of the same thing. I wanted to use metal and wood together to have that mechanical or scientifically engineered feel to them. And, of course, I wanted it to be functional. The first thing I prioritize is the mechanism - like the gear linkage - and the next is the design. Working in theatre for a long time has influenced me in the way that every piece of my work has a character and a personality.

IE: What is the aesthetic and practicality behind using metal and wood?

Let there be light: Award-winning engineer uses unique materials to sculpt lamps
Right: Crane tabletop lamp. Left: Daisy Crane tabletop lamp.

I use a particular type of aluminum that has been anodized - a lot of the grey color you see is hard anodization. What's lovely about that is, for me, it then becomes an industrial process, not decorative. It has a tough finish, but at the same time, it has a lovely matte gunmetal grey to it. So, it's beautiful, but it's purely for practicality. That is the essence of what I do. And I always try and combine wood, which is usually oak, as it's a good, strong industrial wood with an English connotation. I also add a bit of brass to give the object a bit of extra pizzazz. It's a delicate balance with all these things. There are also a few stainless steel fittings for that bit of sparkle. I keep reworking these four or five materials, which have a Blott Works identity now. It's good to constrain yourself; otherwise, you end up endlessly exploring new things all the time. It's nice to work with a simple set of things.

My aesthetic would probably be soft industrial, with wood comprising the organic part and the metal supplementing the engineered portion. I don't think many of my customers play with a handle every day, but just the fact that you can is so satisfying. There's something very lovely about simple engineering for me. People are making beautiful things, but they tend to make them much more complicated. Most of my time is spent simplifying design.

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There's something very lovely about simple engineering for me. People are making beautiful things, but they tend to make them much more complicated. Most of my time is spent simplifying design.

IE: Why is the interactive element vital to your work?

It's fundamental to me. Instead of working, you could be playing with this lamp on your desk - you have this lovely thing that is not only beautiful and functional, but also interactive - and it puts a smile on your face. A lot of my customers tell me that my lamps make them smile because it's beautiful, a little bit daft, and it's got personality. The handle with a rack and pinion gear is the simplest bit of technology, but people go 'wow, it's so smooth.' Engineers, architects, and people who have been involved in that kind of world like nice things that are going to be a bit of fun as well. Not too serious.

IE: You mentioned that it was good to constrain yourself. How do you see your work evolving?

Let there be light: Award-winning engineer uses unique materials to sculpt lamps
Left: Pebble clock with kinetic timer. Right: Wing Nixie desk clock.

Yeah. Well, there are two things there. Artistically, I'd like to evolve in all sorts of ways. But now, most of my time is spent on Balance lamps, mainly from the business point of view. It's quite hard to make a profit from the other things I make. These Balance lamps can be made a lot less expensive than the other ones. So for me, at the moment, the focus for the next year or so is going to be doing more of a production line. I'm making 50 at a time now. Normally, I make one or two at a time. But you come back after two months to make another one, and you realize that you've forgotten to make it and can't find the notes. It's not the most efficient way of making things.

So to answer the question, I think I'd like to go more down that line of those new lamps. What I love about them is that they've got all the same materials that I use for everything else - everything's stripped down and simple. And it's just about balancing gravity - just a counterweight and a central hub that pivots around everything. I'd like to work more on the gravity-balance side of things. I'm 60 years old and I haven't got many years left. So I'm trying not be too ambitious now. And so, I think it's less about the new stuff and more about consolidating what I've got already. And maybe variations of that, because of time, and I don't have quite as much energy as I had ten years ago.

IE: What do you do when you're not in the workshop?

As you know now, I've had quite a few different careers, so that's a lot of different lifestyles - living in London and going out every night and all that kind of stuff. What I love about my life now is that I'm in one place, keeping it simple and putting all my energy into my work. So in my time off, my wife and I go for walks and run a bit. We've just got a new puppy Chihuahua called Winnie - she gets a lot of our time because we love her so much. I also like a bit of Netflix and YouTube. Then, I have a group of friends I meet for a pint in the pub. I like motorbiking - I have a gang, and we go off tours a couple of times a year. We're off to Spain and Portugal next month.

I like to go dancing but like to be in bed by 10 pm. So that kind of makes it difficult. But...I like just being down here; I got everything I need. My wife is upstairs. Why would I want to go out? 

IE: Is there any specific creation of yours that your wife likes?

Oh, that's a good question. She likes my work and is proud of it. She's a teacher and has a business tutoring children in the middle of town. And so whenever I've got one of my lamps or clocks waiting to go somewhere, we always put it down there, at her workplace, because she insists that the parents and the children see it. I think she likes the bird lamps, and the cranes. She's got a crane on her desk at the moment, which is always in all the pictures. 

IE: Lastly, why the name 'Blott Works'?

Blott is my Great Aunt Mary's surname. She was really like a grandmother - she raised my mum. Mary Blotts was a fantastic and no-nonsense woman, absolutely indestructible, caring, and loving, but very strong and inspirational. She died when she was 101. And I always loved her name, as well as loving her. So I wanted to use it. I'm not sure what she would make of my lamps...probably turn over in her grave. But for me, it's like a bit of a tribute to her.