In the early days of Coca-Cola, when the beverage's popularity began to boom, the company needed to fend off an army of copycats shamelessly nicking the brand's name, logo and overall aesthetic. In 1915, The Root Glass Company in Indiana responded to Coke's challenge by designing a contour glass bottle with a shape so distinctive it could be recognized in the dark.

Now, 100 years later, one Seattle artist has learned to manipulate that singular design into handcrafted fixtures that bring light into the lives of his clients.

Coca-Cola bottle chandelier
Wiring the chandelier frames is relatively simple due to the curve of the Coca-Cola contour bottle.

Russ Morgan makes upcycled chandeliers using tumbled glass, bottles and punch cups. He particularly loves working with the contoured Coca-Cola bottles, which he fashions into nostalgic light fixtures he calls “Pop Art.”

Morgan, 56, is a trained potter who first dabbled with upcycled art when he began building odd instruments with the detritus he found on the beach below his home.

“I was making these little tribal rattles, where I'd find a driftwood stick and tie a bunch of glass to the top, and pieces of pottery and rusty nails and things,” he says. “I was kind of doing it in secret because they were kind of weird.”

But his friend Erma, who had a significant collection of contemporary Northwest art, took interest in the odd implements of sound.

“We hung them up in her place and they looked great with her modern art,” he says. “And that's when I thought there may be something to this.”

Laying the Foundation

At the time, Morgan painted houses for a living. Now, his upcycled art pays the bills. But it wasn't until he was poking around in the muck at a neighbor's house that he really saw the light.

The home, jacked up in preparation for a new foundation, revealed the bones of an art deco-era chandelier. Morgan, the consummate scavenger, knew opportunity when he saw it. “I thought, why can't I tie beach glass to this?” he says.

He did, though the slippery sea glass took two months to wire to the frame. That trash became treasure; his chandeliers now fetch big bucks.

His Coke bottle chandeliers sell for up to $1,200, and they're infinitely easier to make than the sea glass pieces. The Coke bottle's curves make the vessels relatively simple to wire to a chandelier frame. “Most other soda bottles slip out," Morgan adds.

Morgan isn't the only artist making Coke-bottle chandeliers. In the U.K., Sarah Turner fashions whimsical lights and other sculptures out of plastic bottles. Turner has created a number of commissioned pieces for Coca-Cola, including a sculptured light fixture for the company's Hospitality Centre at the London 2012 Olympic Park.

Charleston, S.C.-based design company Ro Sham Beaux makes whimsical beaded lamps out of recycled Coke bottle glass beads.

Coca-Cola bottle chandelier
Morgan believes the nostalgic nature of the 8-ounce Coke bottles is what makes his chandeliers so desirable. 

But Morgan is the only artist to have designed a multi-colored chandelier for Yes drummer Alan White, which he made from glass he tumbled himself. “I used all of my best glass,” Morgan said. “It just looks like jewels. I kind of feel like a jeweler when I'm working — glass just feels so precious.”

Those precious jewel tones are next to impossible to find on the beach, where sea glass most often turns up in bottle tones: brown, white and green.

Morgan curates a prismatic palette by sifting through the thrift store, where he can find outdated dishes, punch cups and vases which boast hard-to-find colors such as amber and cobalt.

He encourages checkout clerks to be careless with the glass. Once home, it's tossed unceremoniously in a industrial-sized cement mixture, filled with sand and water, and tumbled until polished.

The mixers are much more effective than a child's rock tumbler, which Morgan said took 24 hours to turn out scant handfuls of glass.

Unfortunately, the mixers do make a terrible racket, he says. “It's a metal drum and 20 pounds of shattered glass, sand and water tumbling.”

One Man's Trash

Coke bottles require no raucous tumbling, though the fire-damaged limited-edition Grand Canyon Railway Coke bottles did need some scrubbing.

“But the two chandeliers I made out of those sold right away,” he said.

Morgan thinks the nostalgic nature of those special 8-oz. Coke bottles is what made the chandeliers so desirable. “It brings back memories,” he said.

Russ Morgan
Russ Morgan

The pieces also have plenty of upcycled appeal. The exploding popularity of all things green has made upcycling artists somewhat unlikely darlings of the art world. "There's a lot of people who really want to buy things made with recycled material, from the very rich to the very poor," Morgan says.

The timing of the demand for green has been particularly kind to Morgan, who said the economy has killed business for some of his compatriots in the otherwise-prolific Seattle art world.

But Morgan says his affinity for recycled materials has nothing to do with being a bleeding-heart environmentalist. It's instead a likely medium for a starving artist with no budget for materials and a proclivity for scavenging.

Still, Morgan's art in 2011 anchored The Kimpton Hotel chain's Earth Day display. The hotel paid Morgan and two other Seattle artists to sort through their storage rooms and basements to find material suitable for art that would hang in the Hotel Monaco, Alexis Hotel and Hotel Vintage Park.

With the right eye, even a junk heap can yield a treasure trove of jewel-like art.

“There is so much material everywhere that is not being exploited,” Morgan says.