Industry: Built Environment
Products: Lighting fixtures
Husband-and-wife co-founders Lawrence Grown and Christa Rybczynski are fusing a craft aesthetic and sustainable practices in their eye-catching lighting.
Grown and Rybczynski graduated from architecture school in Cincinnati in the early '90s as a recession was beginning to hit. Drawn by the jobs, progressive politics, and Craftsman and Victorian architecture in the San Francisco Bay Area, they moved west, where Christa found work as an architectural intern and Lawrence landed at an architectural salvage company. "I learned about hardware, plumbing, doors, windows, and lighting," says Grown. "I rebuilt dozens of lighting fixtures and kind of fell in love with that."
Designing lighting fixtures as a hobby quickly turned into a side business before it became a full-time venture. "Looking back, it was really a leap of faith," says Rybczynski. "We started with a studio behind the garage of the apartment we were living in, then progressively moved into larger and larger commercial spaces."
Their first studio was a storefront off a main thoroughfare which came with opportunities for exposure. "There was a convenience store down the street, and people would park in front of our storefront and grow curious about our lighting fixtures, so it kind of took off organically," she adds.
Grown believes manufacturing products that are sustainable and architectural have always been the driving forces behind Metro Lighting, both from a design and business perspective. "I have a passion for organic architecture and Art Nouveau -- the idea of using nature as the basis for design," says Grown. "Business practices have fallen in line. We always felt it was important to do the right things, and for a long time, very few people cared. But as the culture has shifted towards a sustainable mentality, more people are shopping with their values, and we're right there."
Becoming a certified green business, one that is 100 percent solar-powered, is what Grown suggests has provided both value opportunities and savings. "We're well known in local sustainable design circles such as the West Berkeley Design Loop, which I helped found. One of our biggest savings has been installing a 120-panel solar array on the roof. We're about finished with our payback period for that. So from here on out, all of our electric power will be free."
Metro Lighting also has a strong commitment to supporting local manufacturing, he adds. "We make our fixtures in our studio, which is on-site behind the lighting showroom. There, we do sheet metal work, assembly, finishing, wiring, and testing. Aside from the basic lighting parts that we buy from a wholesaler in Los Angeles, we have custom components made for us in L.A. and in Berkeley. Our glass is all crafted locally as well, throughout California but as close to the Bay Area as possible."
As manufacturing has increasingly shifted overseas, Metro Lighting has maintained its local ties by continuing to source out local suppliers. "We could move production overseas and make things inexpensively, and therefore be more profitable," says Grown. "But that's just not who we are, and that's not the business we want to grow. It's extremely important to us to support local artisans and keep traditional handcraft in California."
Some of the company's first projects were for Noah's Bagels, making custom lighting for more than 40 locations, as well as designing period lighting for residential renovations in Oakland. "We do custom work as well as design our own lines of lighting," says Grown. "The custom work represents about 20 percent of our sales with large projects such as full houses, restaurants, hospitality. Around 50 percent of our sales are from our standard product lines, and the remaining 20 to 30 percent are customized to the customer's preference."
The business has grown mostly through word of mouth, which he attributes to its unique design aesthetic. "We know from Google that people are mostly finding us by searching specifically for Metro Lighting. We've got a particular style that some people would call a fresh take on timeless designs," says Grown. "I think that the thing that really sets us apart, other than the fact that we design and build almost everything we sell, is that we're selling directly to the public. We can invest more in the product with higher quality materials and craftsmanship than what can be found in the mass market."
Challenges: Marketing. "We feel like we have an amazing product line and wonderful people, but we have had trouble getting the word out and creating distribution across the country," says Rybczynski. "We've got excess capacity and we have room for growth, so we'd like to get more products to the public, and support more local skilled artisans."
Adds Grown: "We've got a great story but we're just not great at telling it."
Opportunities: "I see a lot of growth potential," says Grown. "This involves getting the word out locally for our in-showroom sales, getting to know more local architects and designers, and the possibility of distribution through wholesale once we finalize that line."
Needs: "At some point, we'll be hiring someone to help us with our marketing and sales, and volunteer marketers," says Grown. "Along with growth, we'll need to do some work on our infrastructure -- software, customer management, production management -- but right now we're in pretty good shape."