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Jason Aleksa is no stranger to the shop. His grandfather founded a machine shop in the 1960s, which his father then took over until retirement. Growing up, Jason spent a lot of time sweeping the floors and watching his dad pull white-hot pieces of metal out of the furnaces. As he got older, though, he started making things for himself. Fast-forward to today: The 33-year-old now runs a small business in Fairfield, CT, called Stonehill Design, where he crafts unique home goods that boast both history and heart.
How did you get started making these home accents?
I’ve always made things myself. We had a lot of tools—a milling machine, band saw, and drill press—in the shop. Having those tools available just makes it easier. When I was 14, my dad and I bought a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle with the intention of fixing it up and that being my first car…and he’s still working on it!
You can pick up a piece of furniture in a store going $1000, or you could spend a few days, buy some materials, and make something of better quality yourself. That idea was instilled in me at a young age. It’s not always about how expensive things are, or how fancy it is. If you can make it yourself, that’s more important than how much something costs. You know where it came from, you know what went into it and how hard it was to make.
Why do you choose to upcycle old items?
I make original pieces, but the majority of what I do is repurposing. I’ve always had an appreciation for the amount of work that went into making some of these things. Take an old 1920s radio speaker, for example—you just don’t find things like that anymore. I could probably reproduce that somehow and make something that looks like it, but these things are still out there. You can go find them. I think that’s half the fun: poking around in a flea market and finding something that you never would have thought to use.
Where do you find the vintage components you use for your projects?
I have a few different places. There are some antique shops that I frequent, with owners who always know the certain things I’m interested in. But sometimes people will just bring me things. They’ll be cleaning out a garage and they’ll say, “Oh, I found this. Do you want it?” There’s a whole network out there to find what you’re looking for.
Granted, some of the pieces are not very desirable in their current state. They’ve far outlived their purpose. Nobody needs an antenna rotor control anymore, but 50 years ago somebody put a lot of thought into the design of this thing. And then over those 50 years somebody saved it, packed it away in an attic, and kept it in really nice condition. It’s kind of neat to take something like that and make it into a piece that someone else will appreciate for another 50 years.
I’m especially curious about the gumball machine lamp. Tell me a little about that one.
I’ve made a few of those. The original one came from an antique shop out on Cape Code, where my parents have retired. It was in working condition, and I thought that it’d be awesome if I could figure out a way to remake it and have it still operate.
So it’s both a functional light and a functional gumball machine. I created a lens by sandwiching antique marbles in between two panes of plexiglass in the front. Then I put an LED bulb in the back and managed to mount and wire it around all the mechanical workings of the gumball machine so that it could still work.
At the first show that I displayed it, some kids came up to it with nickels. I had forgotten to put anything in there because I didn’t even think someone would want to use it, so I had to disappoint a few children.
Have there been any designs you’ve made that just didn’t work?
I definitely have. Usually when I find myself struggling, I just set it down and work on something else. I’ve bought pieces where I think, ‘Oh, I’ll totally use this.’ Then I get it home and really look at it, and nothing comes to mind. So I set it aside for a while. I’ll continue to subconsciously work on it in my head a little, though, until one day when know exactly what I should do. You can’t just force your way into the design; you have to let it come to you every once in a while.
What’s next for you?
I have a full-time job, so I’m creating on the side. The ultimate goal is for this to become my full-time gig. I do a lot of shows, so I get the opportunity to interact with people and see their reactions to the things I’ve created—that really keeps me wanting to make things.
To learn more about Jason’s work, visit the Stonehill Design website.