There is a Light that Never Goes Out: Thomas Melssen hunts down the parts that illuminate
The former electrician turned lamp designer sparks his imagination with a tour of his adopted city, Cologne
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Interviews > There is a Light that Never Goes Out: Thomas…

Thomas Melssen has tried a lot of different things throughout his life. The 43-year-old has worked as an electrician and tattoo artist and traveled the world for years.

Nowadays, he’s the creative mind and guiding hand behind the lamp manufacturer Funzel baut Licht. He takes us on a journey through his adopted hometown of Cologne to show us his favorite places—places that inspire him and where he can find some peace. The journey begins at a flea market in Cologne, where Thomas can often be found, always on the lookout for materials he can use to build his lamps.

“Normally, I get here at six o’clock because the best things usually get snapped up quickly. That just makes my heart ache,” says Thomas, as he eyes the stands on both sides of the aisle. Mothers with strollers, teenagers and retirees with tote bags peruse the stacked wares of worn shoes, old stuffed animals and images of belling stags. The dealers chat and strategize—who’s just looking and who’s ready to buy? And above all: How much are these potential customers willing to pay?

In search of light: a tour around Cologne

For Thomas Melssen, the flea market at the drive-in acts as both inspiration and a warehouse. Metal, in all of its forms, often lays the foundation for his designs. Today he’s running late but he’s also in luck. After a few minutes, he discovers an antique hand drill at one of the first stands he comes across. “How much do you want for that?” he asks dealer. “Ten euros,” he replies. Thomas shakes his head: “Five euros.” He quietly adds: “You always offer half of the price first. That way you’ve got some room to meet in the middle.” At the end, Thomas pays him eight euros. The dealer may have won out but Thomas is still pleased. His mood continues to improve as he discovers a laundry hamper full of old shoemaker tools. A real treasure trove! Thomas is not entirely sure what he’ll do with it “but it’s more about having the material. The creative sparks tend to fly later on.”

Thomas' Apartment in Deutz

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It’s more about having the material. The creative sparks tend to fly later on.

It’s not really in Thomas’ nature to jump the gun. He approaches things slowly, takes his time and isn’t afraid to reposition himself and start new projects. He’s done things that way throughout his entire life. Later, back in the car on the way to the next location, he tells of how he traveled the world for eight years after finishing his training as an electrician and a few years’ of employment—through Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, France and Spain. A few weeks of the year and always in summer, he would return to Germany to earn some money while living in his VW bus. These travels have left their mark on him and nature continues to be an important part of his life to this day—a place where he can find himself. That’s why our next stop is a special one.

There’s a large abandoned military base just a few kilometers away from the Porzer flea market. Soldiers used to live there and performed their maneuvers on the extensive site. The houses have long been torn down and the people moved away—nature has staked its claim again. As Thomas gets out of the car, there’s total silence. A burnt-out moped and an old sofa are the only vestiges of human activity. Thomas can’t even remember the first time he came to this place. But he’s returned again and again: “There’s a real calm here and you’d never know you’re right in middle of town.”

Suddenly, Thomas looks at his watch. It’s time to have a look at his life’s centerpiece. We get on the highway and head back to the west side of Cologne. Thomas wants to show us his workshop, which is also his store. Every Saturday, he opens his shrine for his customers to visit. Even more often upon request.

Scoping out the Fleamarket at the drive-in cinema in Porz

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I find old things fascinating. They’re covered in patina, they’ve had their own lives, they have history, they have souls

Building lamps was actually just a way to pass the time, a kind of hobby. “I always found objects and materials and thought to myself, I could make something with that. I find old things fascinating. They’re covered in patina, they’ve had their own lives, they have history, they have souls.” Eventually, it turned into a business. “I developed a feel for what people might like—and a knack for knowing it before those things landed in other stores.”

Success came to Thomas as a surprise and was also very much a learning process. “At first, I received customers in my workshop wearing an old African flight suit from the ’80s. It was authentic and it was the craftsman in me shining through. But I realized that it was too much for people.” Today he does his selling in a blazer, “and strangely enough, people tend to believe that I know a thing or two about my profession this way,” says Thomas, as he sits in the sun drinking a cola just in front of the hall.

After eight years of nomadism, one day he returned to Germany to stay—with an idea for his own business safely packed in his luggage. He sold his beloved Mercedes and rented a workshop in Cologne’s centrally located Agnesviertel. The change to the space at the edge of the city in Cologne Junkersdorf—with a dog kennel and a carpenter as neighbors—was a gut decision that left Thomas feeling somewhat unsure. What could attract customers to this rather remote area? But the move turned out to be the right choice. Next to his store, there’s a furniture dealer called Geliebte Möbel that’s popular throughout the city and whose clientele often stops by Thomas’ place as well—a stroke of luck for the native of Düren, a small town located just outside of Cologne.

The abandoned military base in Porz

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Thomas' workshop and lighting store

I don’t see myself as an artist. I see myself as a craftsman with a feel for beautiful things and for what people might like.

Time for a lunch break. Thomas decides to head to the Belgian Quarter in Cologne, which is famous for its cozy cafés, beautiful shops and interesting people. Thomas regularly goes to Woyton, a café decorated in the industrial style that’s become so popular, both to drink coffee and to work. “I made and hung all of the lamps in here.” Thomas orders an espresso and tells of his past vacation to Denmark where he found inspiration for future designs. “There’s so much going on right now. Designs that have done well for years are giving way. The trend is moving to small, minimalist lamps.”

Back in the MINI, we cross a bridge over the Rhine from Nippes to Mülheim. The daytime traffic is heavy and Thomas is moving at a walking pace. A little later, he parks the car near an old abandoned factory site. The partially ruined building is slated for use in the future and commercial and residential units are in planning. That means that Thomas’ visits to the site are numbered. And that makes it even more important to share the place that he would—at least in part—prefer to take home with him. Huge industrial lamps hang under the glass ceilings of the halls. “The things you could build with all of that…”, Thomas says and begins to swoon. But that dream will never come true. “As soon as you get started somewhere, the whole building would probably come down.”

Thomas' Lamp Design

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There’s a real calm here and you’d never know you’re right in middle of town.

At the end of a long day, Thomas is exhausted. But he’s still willing to take us for a short trip to the Rhine—an essential part of any Cologne tour. Thomas decides to take us to the promenade of his home neighborhood of Deutz. From there, you can get a wonderful view of the Cologne Cathedral. Thomas’ home is also just a few meters from the the Rhine’s edge. As soon as he opens the front door, you can tell immediately that two creative souls live here—Thomas’ wife Mirjam teaches German and art. Inspiration can be found here in every corner: Lamps on the tables, large-scale images on the walls, carefully arranged still lifes on the 1950s sideboards. Then the sound of cheerful babbling as Thomas’ two year-old daughter Mathilde comes in from the garden. Two days a week, Thomas isn’t a lamp designer but a full-time dad. And those days, he’s home alone with “Mathildchen”, as he likes to call his little girl. Thomas used to take her to the store with him when she was a baby. Nowadays, she’s interested in one thing more than anything else: Playing with her daddy. The evening ends with a delicious barbecue—seated at one of the wooden tables that Thomas built himself and illuminated, of course, by one of his own lamps.

Cafe Woyton in the Belgian Quarter

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Abandoned Industrial Area in Mülheim

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Many thanks to Thomas Melssen for the exciting insights into his work and to his family for their hospitality. See some of his designs on 21 Gramm and check out more work on  Thomas’ Website.

This portrait is part of our Guided and Curated series produced in collaboration with MINI Germany. Selected individuals give us insight into their cities through guides tailored to their area of expertise. Get to know the new MINI Cooper S 5-Door Hatch that Thomas drove around Cologne.

Text: Marie-Charlotte Maas
Photography: Natalie Bothur