Mr. William Lange has a business proposition for you: manufacture and market his cheery globe lamp design, and enjoy a share of the profits.
He dangled that opportunity before me, several times, during the year I balked at writing about this. Each time I patiently explained that’s not how journalism works, and if I wrote about his lamps, he first must understand we did not have, nor could ever have, a business relationship.
Then there was the issue of what his lamps look like.
“I don’t want nobody to see them, copy them,” he told me, at first. But during our negotiations I explained he would have to take the risk; I can’t write about lamps that I can’t show readers.
Mr. Lange is a persistent man, and that caveat did not deter him. So shortly before Christmas I found myself on the Metra heading to Oak Lawn to inspect the goods.
Lange picked me up at the station in his tan Buick and drove me to his neat home where he has lived for 65 years.
“Behind me was a farm,” he said. “It’s sure built up around here, I will tell you that.”
Born in Danville, Lange turns 92 on Friday. We share an interest in concrete: he spent nearly 50 years driving a cement truck for Material Services.
“I got in at the start. I was the No. 1 driver,” he said. “All those high rises in the Loop? I bet I poured 50 percent of them. All the expressways — the Congress, that was done twice. The Stevenson.”
The lamps come in two models. First, I saw the molded head of a Grecian statue, flanking his garage. “I got a sculptor,” he said. “She made the mold. Then I took it down to a place that made an aluminum cast for it.”
I’m no businessman, but I can see those statue heads blinking in the bars of every Greek restaurant in America.
Then he took me into the basement.
“Oh my God,” I said. Three dozen globe heads, glowing, changing colors. And a pair on mannequin bodies.
“I’ve been looking for somebody likes the idea, wants to help me out with it,” Lange said. “Like ‘Shark Tank,’ guys invest some money in it, get percentage of the company, 2%, 5%, I get somebody to do it for me. Put in newspaper, shop it around.”
Done. I suggested Lange sign his lamps and sell them as folk art. No dice.
Being a full-service columnist, I consulted with Brian Coleman, a partner specializing in intellectual property litigation at DrinkerBiddle.
“If it’s just a face on a globe, I don’t know what you would trademark,” he said. “There are three buckets: trademark, copyright and patent; all interrelated, each different type of protection.”
We spoke at length about the complexities, including a relevant 2000 Supreme Court case, Wal-Mart Stores v. Samara Bros., where the court ruled product design, like color, cannot be inherently distinctive.
“Consumers are aware of the reality that, almost invariably, even the most unusual of product designs — such as a cocktail shaker shaped like a penguin — is intended not to identify the source, but to render the product itself more useful or more appealing,” wrote Justice Antonin Scalia.
Then Coleman offered something I did not expect: a ray of hope.
“It’s not completely outside the range of plausibility there could be sufficient creativity reflected in lamp design, perhaps it could be entitled to some measure of copyright protection,” he said. “I’ve seen stranger stuff get a design patent. If over time consumers see this lamp to such an extent it so penetrates the market, they come to associate that type of facial design all coming from a single source...”
In other words, if people buy enough Lange lamps, he could, conceivably, prevent others from ripping off his design. But how to sell them? Do lamp companies buy designs over the transom?
“Once in a blue moon,” said Greg Law, national sales manager at Stiffel Lamps, of Linden, New Jersey. “Right now in our line, we have one design that came from a designer. We paid her for her design.”
“Everybody is always looking for the next design,” said Dan Saporito, general manager of Stiffel.
He did not want to see Lange’s lamps, but he left the door open.
“I will say this: if he wanted us to manufacture the lamp for him, if he brought us a quantity of 24, 36, we would manufacture it,” Saporito said.
I believe my work here is done. If someone wants to make Lange’s lamps, or pay Stiffel to do so, well, the ball is in your court. We all have our dreams, and dreams must be respected. They light our worlds, sometimes literally.