In this age of mass manufacturing overseas and the recent building collapses in Bangladesh, killing thousands of workers who slave away for Gap and Walmart, it’s thoroughly refreshing to hear about an American based company who takes care of their employees. Based in Charleston, South Carolina, Urban Electric is celebrating their 10th anniversary this year. Their bench-made lighting fixtures hang around the world in historic homes, high end hotels and hot to trot restaurants and they have been covered by everyone from Elle Decor to World of Interiors. Yet, the company remains humble and humming with happy workers.
Much of the positive vibe is thanks to the down to Earth and energetic founder, Dave Dawson. We had a long and thorough chat with him about how the company came to be, what’s hot in the lighting world and why LED is the way of the future.
What inspired you to start Urban Electric?
I got into manufacturing through the normal route- I went to law school. (laughs). I went to William and Mary, practiced law for a while, Environmental Litigation in Charlotte. I really enjoyed it but it was not a driving passion for me. My family had a high tech company in the late 90s in San Francisco and I worked for them, then sold that. My main purpose while I was out there was meeting my wife. We wanted to leave San Francisco and Charleston just popped up. I had never been there and when I visited I fell in love. It is a great place to raise kids and have them grow up. We bought an 1860s Charleston Single and when we started renovating we found the lighting options around here very limited. We opened a retail store and pretty quickly learned that was not what our passion was. We wanted to create something niche and special and the industry seemed very dumbed down. On the retail side we were beholden to everyone else’s designs and production. So we decided to start designing our own pieces.
What was the next step?
I hooked up with Michael Amato who is our Creative Director. He went to Parsons for fashion and has done interior design and turns out to be an incredible product designer and branding creative. My wife, Michael and I began the process of finding someone to make all of these things for us and it was really difficult. It’s hard to imagine now but back in the early 2000s it was very hard to find Made in America. But we were determined to keep it in the US. That took us to the next step, creating it ourselves.
We didn’t think it would be that hard but it ended up being incredibly difficult! At the same time we met a local guy who was making lanterns. He was ready to retire and we bought his business that included a tiny workshop and several craftsmen. We went from there and one of those craftsmen is still with us!
We added on, moved several times and finally landed in the Navy Yard in North Charleston where we now have 65,000 square feet, a long way from the 1,500 we started with. The building is amazing. It was built around 1908 and has incredible light and space.
Tell us about some of your business practices that make Urban Electric unique.
We really put an emphasis on personal improvement. UECo U is what we call our company wide education program. We even take field trips to places like an old fashion letter press or have speakers come in and talk to the company. We want people to inspire their horizons and think about their work in a broader context. We also encourage people to come up with things they want to do. We will pay for a pottery class if that is something they want to do and then they will report back what they learned. Some of our guys are going to England to learn spinning and lathe work from an old world company. Our internal motto is -Always Proud, Never Satisfied.
We have a very, very high touch relationship with our clients. We really appreciate them and respect what they do. We are direct to interior designers and architects. That allows us to really have the ‘shoulder rub’ as I like to call it -an uncompromising level of service.
One of the things I am most proud of is that we have a group of people who really are into what they do. They are passionate, engaged and proud of the type of work they do. And on the diversity side, it is a great strength of ours – we have young, old, gay, straight, black and white but that is not part of some program, we just welcome good people! Good people find good people.
How has the custom lighting world changed over the past ten years?
There are more offerings out there. More people are wanting custom work done. They are increasingly ambitious and want individuality. We offer more and more capabilities and create more eccentric requests. You can get your coffee in 3000 different ways today, so why not your light fixtures? That ability to offer personalization is a key differentiator. A real trend we are seeing is people wanting bigger fixtures. People are also really emphasizing quality over quantity. They want something that is sustainably made, that has real value. We have a lifetime warranty on all of our products and people really value that.
What is one of the most amusing/interesting projects you have worked on?
We are working on something right now that is going on in Dubai. It is one of the biggest projects at the moment. It comes to us from a designer in London, where we are doing a lot of work these days too. We did a project for the Queen of Jordan in the royal palace. We do a lot for the Four Seasons Hotels as well.
You can personalize our standard collection or you can create bespoke pieces. An architect will sketch out an idea and our product development team and engineers will work to make it happen. The one in Dubai is all custom, not like anything we have done in the past. With standard we have over thirty different finishes, thousands of colors, dozens of glass, so even in standard there are loads of options.
Tell us something about lights that we don’t know.
I’m going to bust the common myth that incandescent light bulbs are outlawed. They are not. Everyone thinks that a law was passed that made them illegal replacing them with fluorescent. What Congress did was very technology neutral – bulbs have to meet certain efficiency standards. So the incandescent changed and there has been an explosion of innovation. LED are making a huge surge too. So a lot of people perceived this as the end of warm lighting but it is not true!
How do you give back?
We work with a bunch of people such as Low Country Food Bank and Backpack Buddies. A lot of kids get their primary source of food through public schools. So Low Country Food Bank will pack a backpack full of food to give to them over the weekend.
Up in North Charleston there is what they call a food desert; there are no grocery stores and people get their food at the local convenience stores or McDonalds.
Another is Disabilities Board. We helped them put together a video on what they do. One program is working with disabled adults. In the old days they just put people in homes and let them vegetate. But this organization provides job training, lines up transportation, placement, job coaching – getting them back out in the community. We have three guys working for us from that program. Donni is one of the favorite people in our company!
We also have paid time off for people to work in the community. If one of our employees has a charity that they care about, we will match their time with a contribution.
What are ya’ll doing for the 10 year anniversary?
We began as lanterns only so we went around to all of the designers that we have done collections with and asked them all to design their own lantern. They all had their own take and it was a lot of fun. We are still pretty young but it is something to brag about!
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