Most of the objects on Tetra come from trained industrial designers — emerging or established names who graduated from design or art school, set up proper studios, and sell to stores or commercial clients. But every once in a while, we come across someone whose backstory deviates from the norm, and in the case of our new machined lighter covers in solid brass and sterling silver ($35 and $70 in our shop), that story could make for a rather interesting book.
When Don Madden isn't tinkering with his hand-built solar house — constructed mostly from tires — in Christmas Valley, Oregon, he's driving around the country in an old yellow van, crafting lighter cases one by one in his mobile metalworking studio. He's been a dairy farmer, a professional photographer, a self-taught architect and builder, and a jewelry maker, among other things, and though he's retired, he shows no signs of slowing down. Here, we catch up with Madden to find out about his process and projects.
How did you fall into designing metal objects?
I’ve always made art. And once I retired from dairy farming, I was able to focus full-time on my art. Mostly it was photography at first. Back in the early 2000s, all the galleries I had my photography in, it was getting to be slim pickings. And I noticed jewelry was selling all the time, so I said, 'well, shoot, I used to be able to weld.'
How I started with the lighter cases was, back in 2004, I was standing behind a good friend who is like a brother to me, a Native American in New Mexico, and I was watching him make lighter cases and it just intrigued me how they did it by hand. I started making them a little different than they did, and it just took off. I start with a flat piece of metal and shape it to fit the case, and then I solder it at the seam. I sell them all over the world. I love making them.
What's your corner of Oregon like?
I'm out in the high desert, about 4,500 feet. It’s all sagebrush and sand around me. My home is kind of unique — it’s built from tires and recycled materials. It’s totally solar-operated and wind-generated. I built it myself. And I built houses the last 28 years for other people.
How did you manage to do that while being a dairy farmer?
It sounds silly to say, but I had a dream. In 1989 I had a dream of building this house out of tires. I got up and spent three days writing it down on a piece of paper. And that was wintertime — come summertime, I started building this house that I dreamt of.
The reason for this dream is because there was a big tire fire one year just a few miles from my farm. The tire started burning for, like, a year. And I thought, you know, 'what can you do to reuse those tires?' And I started experimenting on the farm doing some building, doing some barns and retaining walls, and I said, 'I could make a house out of this.' The tires are what absorbs the heat because the whole south face is glass.
All of a sudden people started coming from all over to look at my house, and I started building them for other people. It's solar heated. It gets to be 20 or 30 below here in the wintertime and I have no other heater. There’s a planter that grows year-round. I get tomatoes year-round indoors. I've got celery, carrots, lots of herbs... I’ve always been really good at artwork, and the house to me is a piece of art.
Wait, you grow tomatoes year-round indoors?
They're 10 feet tall.
And your metal studio is in your van?
My workshop has been my van forever. I drive around, drive to California or New York, spend a little time, work out of my van. I use maybe a dozen tools to make those lighter cases. My thing is, I’m a minimalist. I try to do with whatever I have available and make something beautiful.
What's your process like?
It's like a meditation because I actually listen to my music — I’m an old rock guy, so I listen to my music and I kind of count the songs. It usually takes four songs before each case is finished.
What do you listen to?
Oh, my favorites are Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath, but I like things like the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, George Thorogood. I like them all.
Do you smoke before you work?
You know, I have never in my life. I have nothing against it; I have a lot of friends that smoke.
So why lighter cases, then?
In general, people need something a little classier than what they’re using. I had friends who had plastic covers and wooden ones and they’d break or bend. I said, 'Man, if you’re going to have a lighter, you should have something classy.' A lot of times I’d give my cases away because I’d see people pull a lighter out. It adds a little more class.
It certainly does. We're happy to bring them to a new audience.
If your customers are ever coming through Christmas Valley, Oregon, come here, stop by!