Dave Dawson was renovating an 1860s single house on Legare Street, a project that required high-quality lanterns to complement its exterior.
While a lantern for Charleston's quintessential housing style sounds like something that should be easy to get, Dawson did not find ones that suited him.
So he decided to make them.
With that decision in 2003, Urban Electric Co., a small workshop making custom lanterns, was born. It's grown from a handful of people to about 90 in 10 years and makes a much wider range of lighting fixtures.
“We were in 1,000 square feet and now 65,000 square feet,” says Dawson, who moved the shop from Belgrade Avenue in West Ashley to the former Charleston Naval Base.
“We still see ourselves as small and entrepreneurial,” he says. “ 'Always proud and never satisfied' is our internal motto.
“We try to keep things very classically inspired, but we try to make that fresh for today's environment. We are not trying to replicate old fixtures.”
Jamee Haley, executive director of Lowcountry Local First, an organization that supports independent local businesses, says she hopes other businesses will adopt a business model like that of Urban Electric.
“The Urban Electric model is so very interesting,” she says. “So much of our manufacturing has gone overseas. Not only do they manufacture here, but the engineering and designing is done right here in Charleston.”
Dawson says that keeping the work local is the reason for the company's continuing success.
“If we designed (the fixtures) and sent them to China to be made, we would lose out. It's hard to do custom stuff if you're not right there.”
Designers need to have access to the manufacturer to ensure they understand and execute their visions according to plan.
“We use American craftsmen who are innovative, highly skilled and motivated. We don't have an assembly line. The craftsmen are pretty much making the product at their bench.”
While creative director Michael Amato does most of the designs, three collections were conceived by local designers.
Amelia Handegan, interior designer; Mark Maresca, architect; and the team of Philip Dufford and John Young, architects, also have designed collections. Like those designed by Amato and others, the fixtures are intended for new construction or high-budget renovations.
The bulk of the prices for fixtures tends to fall into the $1,000 to $2,000 range. They are not sold only to the trade, but as a practical matter, 95 percent to 98 percent are sold through designers.
“When we first started the business, only people in Charleston knew about us. Now, our largest markets are New York and New Jersey, and California is the next largest. We are now doing a lot of work in London, Australia and the Middle East also. Charleston had a worldwide reputation. We have been fortunate to continue to get exposure.”
When master craftsman Tony Prete studied sculpture at the College of Charleston, he was not sure where his studies would lead.
For a couple of years after graduating, he made mirrors for Charleston Architectural Glass and worked on some of its collaborations with Urban Electric. Then he moved on to the lighting fixture company.
That was seven years ago. After a variety of jobs with the company, he's in charge of quality control for the finishing department and develops new finishes.
“You know, I guess when I was in school, I dreamed of being a more successful sculpture artist than anyone ever actually becomes.
“Honestly, the thing that gives me the greatest degree of satisfaction today is when one of these guys presents a product that is flawless. When I look at it and say I could not do it better.”
Haley of Lowcountry Local first says small independent businesses like Urban Electric make the Lowcountry a more exciting place to live.
Breweries producing craft beers, clothing designers looking to do more manufacturing locally and established businesses such as the Charleston Mattress Co., which once served only businesses but now makes a residential product, all are part of the mix, she says.
“Part of the trend has to do with the cost of importing,” Haley says. “It also has to do with that fact that businesses are dealing with a more conscious consumer. They (consumers) are hearing of factory workers dying in accidents and not getting fair wages and are thinking twice about where they want to spend their money.”
Here is more about the three local designers who have contributed to Urban Electric's collections:
Amelia Handegan first worked with Urban Electric to design a light fixture for a restaurant. She later designed clubhouse sconces called Belle Meade that are part the company's collection.
While made in America is great, from a designer's perspective, made in Charleston is even better, she says. It provides opportunities to speak with the craftsmen at Urban Electric who bring the design to life and to see the product as it develops.
“They are very service-oriented toward designers,” says Handegan, who is pleased with the lantern she designed for the company's 10th anniversary collection: Ya-ta' hey. It's an example of a lighting fixture with traditional roots that fits into a contemporary setting.
Urban Electric approached local architect Mark Maresca to design a collection when they saw a piece he designed for his own home featured in Southern Accents Magazine, which no longer is in print, he says. The design, called Melissa, now is available from Urban Electric as wall sconces or lamps.
Designing, Maresca says, is “an opportunity to add something special to a project.”
“My earlier lights were inspired by projects. The South Battery was inspired by the roof that was on our 1790s house. A lot of the exterior lighting is very reminiscent of structure and architecture. It's very well-suited for Charleston and has been very well-received nationally.”
“We always had issues with finding the right light fixtures, particularly exterior lighting fixtures for our buildings,” says John Young, who designs with Philip Dufford. “The most prevalent issue was the scale thing, finding the right fixtures that are the right size. So many of them have limited dimensions, or the materials or the finish are not quite right. With Urban Electric, we can alter the scale, adjust the sizes, or choose the custom color or metal finish. We can control the glass, the detailing of a chain on a hanging fixture or the finial material.”
The Willow, the 10th anniversary lighting fixture Dufford and Young designed for Urban Electric, was conceived to address Charleston's connection to Chinoiserie, Asian-inspired pieces introduced here from Europe in the 18th century, and “to have fun with the material,” Young said.
Online: www.urban electricco.com
Reach Wevonneda Minis at 937-5705.