Local architect transforms railroad and light pole relics into functional pieces of art
In 1969, when Tim Leefeldt was just a boy, he took a train ride from Oakland to Promonotory Point, Utah, to witness a re-enactment of the “Driving of the Golden Spike,” an event honoring the centennial of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. It was a trip he remembers fondly as having honored his late great-grandfather, who had been a railroad executive in the 19th century. Fast-forward to present day, and Leefeldt’s nostalgia for the industrial age continues to inspire his work as a craftsman and architect.
Originally from the Bay Area, Leefeldt earned his degree in architecture from the University of Oregon in 1983. He spent the succeeding years designing prototypes for retail shops and major chains, as well as working on residential architecture projects. For over a decade, he explored the niche market of large-scale special events (for which he attended 12 NFL Super Bowls as part of the set decoration team), before moving his family to Chico.
Leefeldt eventually set up shop in Butte Valley, and for roughly the last 10 years, he’s focused his efforts on repurposing old pieces of glass and steel found along historic train tracks and telephone lines, the places he remembers from his childhood. Giving new life to these industrial artifacts, he turns them into decorative pieces and light fixtures, and sells them through his business, Railroadware Designs.
It’s a “creative use of tools” that drives much of Leefeldt’s work. The self-proclaimed “serial designer” is always on the lookout for ways to bring art, history and functionality together. And during a visit to an antique shop in Oroville over a decade ago, he found inspiration in the form of a glass insulator. Once used on above-ground telephone poles as a safe anchor for holding electrical wires, glass insulators have become antiques, replaced most often with metal covers. “With the popularity of cellphones, power lines just aren’t as common anymore,” Leefeldt explained. “Glass insulators have become a popular collector’s item.”
While experimenting with ways to repurpose these objects, Leefeldt began creating light fixtures from the glass insulators. After a thorough cleaning process to remove any oil and dirt, Leefeldt drills the glass and fits it with a 6-watt LED light bulb, creating a pendant light decoration. His work gained notice after being featured in a couple of style catalogs, which gave him enough brand identity and exposure to continue experimenting with his designs. Aside from insulator light fixtures, Leefeldt began repurposing railroad spikes and anchors into door handles, utensil racks and toilet-paper dispensers, among other functional and decorative items.
Leefeldt collects most of these old pieces from bottle shows and steel wrecking yards, but as his work has gained a following, he buys from personal collections, too. “Many people inherited these products from family members, many of whom used to work for PG&E. They’ll come to me and say they have a bunch of these things and they don’t know what to do with them.”
As a designer who’s been involved in many solar installation projects, and who now repurposes artifacts into new pieces, Leefeldt says that sustainable practices are an important part of his business M.O. More than just being environmentally friendly, he notes that recycling and reusing waste-stream materials is better for business, too.
“It’s much more affordable for me to reuse these goods than manufacture new objects. And these old artifacts aren’t being thrown into a landfill; they’re being turned into something else.”
As his brand has grown in popularity over the last few years, Leefeldt looks to online housing catalogs like Wayfair and Houzz to sell his products, and keeps his own website, Railroadware.com, operating as well. Some of his products are sold in local shops like Made in Chico, Zucchini & Vine, and The Rusty Wagon in Orland. He also works on commission, out of his shop, and while he occasionally hires part-time employees to help with the manufacturing process, he does the majority of work on his own. “This now takes up about 90 percent of my time,” he said during a recent interview. That other 10 percent goes to local architectural projects, like working on the annex behind Tres Hombres.
Leefeldt may keep himself busy these days, but he said it’s a good feeling, being able to tie his various interests and talents together through Railroadware.
“These [products] have a soul,” he said. “They have a history and a purpose, and they did time, on the pole or on the rail, and I think people enjoy them because they have a romantic connection with this bygone era.”