Many memories get attached to coffee. The drink, some say, is a scientifically proven memory aid. And the cup, well, that’s become a floating signifier for the modern age, one in which to pour your own liquid recollections of life, consistent with the sensory experience of a particular whiff, sip, or stir. But what about the filter? Is there anything to be made of the soggy souvenir from a slow drip?
There is, says Vilma Farrell. Originally from Minas Gerais, Brazil, the ex-journalist-turned-craftswoman lives in the Sunnyside, Queens section of New York City with her husband, two children, and a whole lot of used coffee filters. They form the basis of Farrell’s handmade, custom-order lampshades, available since 2011 under the brand Lampada on Etsy.
I met Farrell at her local Starbucks, which she acknowledges has been the most generous source of the used coffee filters that she fashions into kaleidoscopic drums of illumination for retail spaces and homes across the US.
Where did you get the idea for the lampshades?
I first saw used coffee filters being used by Brazilians to do arts and crafts.
How do you go about sourcing your filters?
In the beginning, it was just from home. I started collecting my used filters after coffee every morning—I have a Mr. Coffee—and started to experiment here and there. I didn’t have a demand, I was just learning. Then I started to sell on Etsy and, because of the demand, needed more coffee filters.
So I’ve now been collecting in the neighborhood, from a few coffee shops but most of the times here at Starbucks. Here the coffee filters are bigger—because it’s more volume, more customers—so industrial-sized. Bigger coffee filters are better because you have more to work with.
What’s a typical exchange like with the baristas?
I like to come in the morning, around 8 o’clock, which is a busy time. I come here with my bucket. I stand over there [Farrell points to a break in the bar, catty-corner to two drip machines on the back counter]. I wait until the baristas are available. Then I just ask if they can drop the used coffee filters into the bucket. And they are very nice. They work so hard, and they do that for me, as a favor. Some know me already. Some are new, they’re like, “What do you want, the grounds?” I say: “The coffee filter with the grounds.”
Why keep the grounds?
I leave them in while the filters are drying depending on what color I [ultimately] want. For just beige, I throw away the grounds right away. I wash the coffee filters, not letting the stain stay, so they come out in a lighter color. But if I want the actual stain of the coffee, I let them dry with the grounds because the more grounds, the darker the color you get when the filters dry.
How many filters are a good score?
If I come every day and they give me five, ah, that’s a good score [laughing]. But it depends on how much I’m selling. I don’t need to come here every day. I collect the amount necessary to make the number of lampshade orders I have. How many filters I need depends on the size of the lampshade. For a 15-inch diameter one, maybe I need six or seven.
How long does it take to make one lampshade?
It’s really time-consuming. You have to come to the coffee shop, grab the coffee filters, take them home, clean them, let them dry, paint them, let them dry again, make the frame for the lampshade, and then weave in the filter strips. All in all, I’d say three days, but for a large lampshade, maybe four days.
How much variation is there?
My lampshades are truly one-of-a-kind, and they are made to order. I hand-process each order depending on how the customer wants it. Each lampshade is unique because the stain of the coffee is [always] different. So the lampshades all have similarities, but each design is different.
Who are your customers?
I make lampshades especially for coffee shops, but also for homes. People like them for their living rooms and kitchens. People also love them if they’re into upcycling, recycling, green living—the lampshades connect with these three big lifestyle themes.
What is your favorite part about your work?
Making lampshades is something that I do with joy. When the lampshade is finished, you hit the light switch and you see amazing light filtered through the shade. I stop and spend a moment enjoying the light coming through.
The connection with the customer is another thing I enjoy. Each lampshade has a story behind it—that interests me because I like to know people, I like to know stories. Maybe it has a connection to once being a journalist. People who order the lampshades have stories, it’s not like buying soap.
For example, I had a customer who ordered a lampshade because her mother was going to bring her boyfriend for the first time to her home. She wanted her home to look very nice to welcome the mom’s boyfriend. I feel honored to make something special for your home or your coffee shop.
Though I mostly do lampshades, another time I designed some wall art. On it, I placed four whole coffee filters together, each connected to the other. A customer ordered it and said: “This is my family: my husband, my two kids, and myself, united.” “Seriously?” I thought. That’s beautiful.
Karina Hof is a Sprudge staff writer based in Amsterdam. Read more Karina Hof on Sprudge.
Photos of lampshades and lampshade-making courtesy of Vilma Farrell.