In 1994, Robert Long was in his early 20s and selling commercial business insurance in Charleston, South Carolina, when a cousin sent him a box of memorabilia. “I was sorting through it and I saw my father’s [lighting] catalogues from the early ’60s. The very first one looked like a high school report, with Polaroid pictures and type on the front page,” Long says.
Long had always been aware that his father, the elder Robert Long, had designed and made lighting fixtures at his Bay Area studio. “Everyone had a piece here and there. I had a desk lamp of his, and his sconces were on the outside of the house. Friends of my parents would have a fixture or two as well,” he said. “I kind of learned to recognize them, but I didn’t know too much about it.”
But seeing the entire body of his father’s midcentury-modern designs struck a chord; Long was especially taken with his father’s marriage of traditional and contemporary aesthetics. “ ‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘this would be really interesting to reproduce.’ I had the sense that I’d do it on a lark someday, if I made a lot of money doing something else.” Then he put the notion aside for more than a decade.
Long didn’t grow up with his father. On a family outing in 1967, his parents, maternal grandmother, and younger brother died in a car accident. Only Long, then 2, and his 5-year-old brother survived. They moved from California to live with family in Pennsylvania, and after a few years, they ended up with their mother’s sister in Savannah, Georgia. (Long moved to Charleston in 1990.)
In 2005, Long returned to the Bay Area for a graduate degree in counseling psychology. He felt pulled toward his past and visited where his parents had lived, worshipped, and worked, and met people who had known them. He was even given a Robert Long Lighting chandelier made after his father died.
Long also returned to his dormant idea of reviving the business, discussing the particulars with an uncle. “He wrote a list of what we’d talked about and said, ‘Here, I started it. You finish it,’ ” recalls Long, who decided to revive Robert Long Lighting – neither on a lark nor with a fortune.
Although he had no background in lighting, Long had an artistic eye and knew his way around tools. “I spent a lot of my youth with my aunt, who had a penchant for English furniture and decorating,” he says. “I was her muscle. I’d stay up late moving furniture around. That helped hone my eye for design.” From his grandfather, who had a woodshop, Long learned to make and fix things, skills he later used to restore several Georgian houses in Charleston.
He first digitized the catalogues so he could easily show them to interior designers and see whether they thought the work was marketable. They did. A connection with the developer of the Dewberry Charleston hotel resulted in his first request. Admittedly “clueless,” Long quickly connected with one of his father’s former coworkers and eventually several original vendors, many of them run by subsequent generations, such as Davis-Lynch Glass in West Virginia, which blows glass for the fixtures.
Long has stayed true to his father’s handsome designs while adding choices in materials. The Evergreen Sconce, for example, has numerous glass and sleeve options, allowing the customer to tailor the fixture to the environment. “In the ’60s, they didn’t have a ton of diversity. What I have done is infuse a slightly different aesthetic. I’ve added versatility to different fixtures.”
Long says he didn’t inherit all his father’s skills but has found his own way through trial and error, YouTube videos, and “hanging out in my own shop.” During the day, Long attends to sales and marketing; in the evening, after his fabricators have gone home – he likes to hire local craftspeople – he works in the shop for several hours, which is across from his father’s original studio in Sausalito.
Long has given his 26 made-to-order products, once referred to only by numbers, names that reflect his family’s history. His Gordon wall bracket is named for a house his father restored on Gordon Row in Savannah, and the Gibson chandelier honors his great-aunt. “Maybe one day my brother’s children will want to do something with the business as well,” muses Long. “It gives me a lot of joy to think I’m creating a legacy.”