For a guy who spends all year thinking about Halloween, Will Niskanen could hardly be described as scary. Slight and soft-spoken, dressed in khakis and brown loafers, and exhibiting the good manners of a Boy Scout, Niskanen greets me at one of his favorite haunts, Mill City Cafe, pulling out a chair and offering to order a beverage. His studio is just upstairs, so the café is a great place to take a break from sketching skulls and spiders and tombstones.
Like several of his neighbors in the California Building, Niskanen is a graduate of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. What’s rare is the fact that, at age forty-two, after years of “farting around,” he’s gotten to that enviable place of doing exactly what he wants to do. He’s not selling artwork in galleries, however; instead, his creations have names like the Flickering Flame Genie Lamp, the Skull Wall Candle Sconce, and the Flaming Skull Sconce—the last, a popular seller at Spencer Gifts.
So how did a nice Finnish boy, raised on a Carver County farm, wind up inventing glow-in-the-dark geegaws, light-up novelties, and flaming decorations? Or maybe the better question is, why?
Part of the answer can be traced back to that rural childhood. Niskanen’s dad, who was a forester with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, bought a run-down dairy farm in 1964, when Niskanen was a one-year-old. “He was really into preservation,” Niskanen said. “I think he bought this farm to try out a bunch of his ideas. My parents went to work picking up all the trash and renovating the barn. We had a horse, we had tractors, eighty acres of corn and soybeans. We always bailed hay. You always have to do that in the middle of a hot, hot day.” The elder Niskanen was also “a real disciplinarian,” his son said. “When we were kids, we all had crew cuts. My dad had a very firm idea of right and wrong.” And on a nice day, said Niskanen, if the kids were inside watching television, “he’d come in and pull the plug and wrap it around the TV.”
That’s how young Will came to spend a lot of his time tinkering in the barn, using the shop equipment and hand tools to build everything from birdhouses to an elaborate train set, which he assembled in the barn’s loft. Tucked away in the country and on a limited budget, Niskanen had to create all the model-train accessories other kids might buy at a craft store. “I wanted so bad to go into town for more track,” he laughed, “but I couldn’t, so I thought, well maybe I can make it myself. I got a book to learn how other people made their mountains, and I made the mountains out of plaster. Because I lacked a lot of the cool mechanical devices you could buy, it ended up being a lot more scenery. Lots of tunnels and trees made out of weeds,” he said. “I learned how to solder, cut wood, do some carpentry, paint a background.” All of this fostered in him “a sort of self-reliance,” said Niskanen. “My first response when my car breaks down is probably to fix it myself. Most things in my life are like that.”
Which brings us back to the present, in Niskanen’s modest and currently cluttered studio, where self-reliance has inspired an entire series of odd, glowing contraptions. A purple tube that vaguely resembles a lava lamp is throwing light against a black backdrop. Next to it is a gray light that looks as if smoke is wafting through it. A smaller orange light nearby is meant to sit inside a pumpkin. These are all products born of Niskanen’s pride and joy: U.S. Utility Patent 6,955,440: Decorative Light-Diffusing Novelty Lamp and the mechanical process it employs. For someone accustomed to tinkering and inventing and dealing with a constant flow of new ideas, the patent-application process was a sort of Zen teacher, a lesson in patience and detachment.
Showing off his official U.S. patent certificate, Niskanen clucks over it like a new parent whose offspring arrived after a difficult delivery. “The whole patent process is this back-and-forth thing of denial and rejection,” he said. Despite all of the labor involved, he said he hopes to have “six or eight of these things someday.” Sitting down at his desk, he read choice passages from the patent, which he finds amusing for their colorful, sometimes titillating language; the wording must be absolutely precise while also addressing the object’s unique contribution to the world of gadgetry.
“‘Novelty lamps have been used for years to provide entertainment and relaxation to persons throughout the world,’” he read, nodding. “‘For example, many persons are familiar with lava lamps, which by heating blobs of material, induce the material to change buoyancy and thus float and sink within a liquid bath. Sometimes, the blobs are colored.’ Don’t you love it?” he pauses, looking up. “Blobs!” He continues reading.
“‘Sometimes the blobs may have different colors. The appearance of the floating and sinking globs’—Ha! Now it’s globs!—‘may be further enhanced by the casting of light upon the blobs. In any event, novelty lamps such as lava lamps often induce dangers to the environment.’”
The various hazards produced by hot and blobby lava lamps were key to Niskanen’s invention, which is seen as a safe alternative for dorm room and bedroom decor. The Decorative Light-Diffusing Novelty Lamp, stripped to its essential bits, consists of a stand, a lightweight fan, a plastic tube, and a piece of silk that Niskanen mentions is officially referred to in the patent language as the “flexible member,” one of those terms that cause him to chortle. It is scheduled for mass production and distribution in 2007, and Niskanen is already building out variations, such as the smaller lamp for jack o’ lanterns, a light-sword toy, and a “wave panel lamp junior” for nightstands. He also envisions a much larger version of the lamp, one that would wave light six or eight feet high and create a cool atmosphere at proms and nightclubs. And there are all sorts of other things in the works. Niskanen is developing “yard luminaries”—those sandwich-board-style decorations with a design cut into the panels, which are lit from within—for all seasons and occasions, including, of course, Halloween. Those versions have waving green, orange, and red lights behind cutouts of a spider’s web, or a witch, or a pumpkin. “For some reason right now, I’m into things that light up,” he said. “And things for parties.”
Musing over how he came to be an inventor of Halloween novelties, Niskanen noted it’s not necessarily something that he always wanted to do. “It just happens to fit,” he said. “All of the things I’ve done have sort of led me to this place. I’m a late bloomer, I guess.” He received no encouragement from his high school art teacher, whom Niskanen describes as “a load, a real turd.” Luckily, the faculty at MCAD recognized his talent, and he received a first-year scholarship to attend. He particularly admires one teacher who, in Niskanen’s early years at the college, stressed craftsmanship. “He would say, ‘If you’re going to weld on that chair, you better make that weld nice. If you’re going to paint that chair, you better paint it right. If you’re going to do it, do it well.’ Old-fashioned stuff. Do it well; distinguish yourself.”
That approach was a good fit for the self-reliant Niskanen, who was interested in art’s practical applications. “Even when I was going through MCAD, I knew I had this interest in industrial design, and I had kindergarten knowledge of mechanics, but I didn’t know how to join the two in the real world. I had a good basic drawing skill, but I didn’t know how to apply it.”
After graduation, he worked for a time designing props for Minneapolis’ Minnefex studio. He lived in Des Moines and worked as an illustrator for a woodworking magazine. After a few years, he found himself in Litchfield, sketching cabs for a construction-equipment company. Then he joined Paper Magic Group, a company that specializes in seasonal decorations and set Niskanen to the task of sketching new Halloween products. “I became a pollinating honeybee for ideas, so to speak,” he says. Soon he began to deal more directly with the buyers, and after a time he noticed he was selling himself short. “They’ve done very well with a number of the things that I designed,” Niskanen said. “I was offering all of this energy and creativity to the company.” And that’s when he decided to pursue his own patents and license his own products.
These days, Niskanen’s creative process usually begins with sketches for a product. Then he’ll go through a period where he roots around at garage sales and Salvation Army and Goodwill stores. He might browse craigslist for a while, looking for electronics (especially old hi-fi gear) and items under the garage-sale or “free stuff” categories that sound intriguing. Then he’ll go get a coffee or wander the seasonal-product aisles at Target. His studio is littered with spray-paint cans and boxes upon boxes of detritus from his foraging trips: plastic parts from computers, hair dryers, and abandoned kitchen gadgets. He uses all of these in building three-dimensional models of his ideas so that potential buyers and Steven Thrasher, his patent attorney, can better envision the finished product.
“Will has this unique combination,” said Thrasher, “of combining engineering competence with artistic creativity. But the most interesting part of Will’s story, I think, is his persistence. My granddad once said he spent ten years becoming an overnight success, and Will’s like that—he’s an inspiration to people who are just beginning to follow their passion. And he’s an easy guy to root for.”
In a sea of Spider-Man costumes, Styrofoam gravestones, and fake Dracula teeth—Halloween is second only to Christmas in terms of consumer purchases, generating several billion in sales each year—Niskanen has managed to carve out his own niche. Last spring, at Transworld’s 22nd International Halloween Costume & Party Show in Chicago, he was gratified by the excitement his pieces generated. “Each time I do a show, I walk around and there are few new ideas. I see a product sometimes and think, Well, that’s great, but they missed the cool thing, the cool thing they could have done with it. “I don’t look at Halloween the way a normal person does,”
Niskanen said. “When Halloween actually comes, I don’t really participate.” Instead, you can probably find him browsing store displays, trying to figure out the next cool thing to do.