It’s true what they say: sometimes, if you want something done right, you just have to do it yourself.
Dave and Jennifer Dawson wanted custom, quality lighting when they were renovating their downtown Charleston home 10 years ago.”In looking at most conventional lighting options, things kind of felt the same everywhere we looked,” Dave explains. “No one was creating handcrafted, custom lighting for architects and designers.” And so the Urban Electric Company was born. The Dawsons opened up their design studio on Upper King Street in 2003.
At the outset, Dave thought that the business would focus solely on design, but when manufacturers balked at his request to produce the lighting fixtures that he wanted, the enterprising craftsmen-in-chief realized that the company had to do more. “American craftsmen are better skilled, more innovative, and more engaged,” Dave explains. “We wouldn’t get the design quality we get from our products without them.”
They realized that they’d have to incorporate production into their business as well. So in 2004 the Dawsons purchased John Gantt Lanterns, which was about the size of one of Urban Electric’s conference rooms now. “John, a renowned coppersmith, was about 80 years old, and at that point, he was ready to retire,” Dave says. “Our purchase guaranteed the continuation of John’s craftsmanship and was a great start for us.”
But keeping production stateside was risky. “We opened our doors when most U.S. manufacturing couldn’t move overseas fast enough,” he says. “We got a lot of weird looks, raised eyebrows, and a lot of ‘good lucks.'”
In many ways, Dave’s peers were right. It’s been a challenge for the unconventional company to keep everything made in the US of A, but in-house design, engineering, and craftsmanship have proven to be a sustainable business model. Urban Electric’s devotion to high quality, custom, American-made fixtures has remained a mainstay, even through its move from Gantt’s shop to its current home, a 65,000-square foot refurbished warehouse on the former Navy Base in North Charleston.
With more than 100 employees, Urban Electric provides a communal workspace for a dynamic group of craftsmen, engineers, designers, and users all under the same roof. “We’re never satisfied,” Dave says, explaining the company’s water cooler culture of innovation. “Advancements happen quickly and naturally in our shop. With everyone in the same place, there’s incremental improvement daily.”
Now, U.S. manufacturing and product design seem to be following Urban Electric’s lead, with many large companies including General Electric, Caterpillar, and Ford coming back to the states. “American companies are seeing what they lose when they’re not integrated,” Dave explains. This integration has taken Urban Electric from its initial focus on a small number of exterior lanterns to offering almost 300 fixtures in its standard collection, with commissions from the Queen of Jordan and the White House, among others.
While Urban Electric’s creative and vibrant company culture is certainly a draw for Urban Electric’s growing band of craftspeople, the city of Charleston has been an important recruitment ally as well. “Charleston is a beautiful city with soul, grit, and amazing architecture and design,” Dave says. “It’s a place where creative people want to be.”
In addition to involvement with Lowcountry Food Bank, Pet Helpers, and the Charleston County Disabilities Board, Dave also encourages employees to participate in all types of local arts and crafts, from letterpress lessons to sculpture and home tours. “We’re continually trying to inspire and broaden our horizons,” he says. “This town is full of cool people doing cool things.”
Locals craving a posh, celebratory piece of Urban Electric’s 10-year anniversary can purchase from its custom collection of ten signature lanterns designed by each of the company’s outside collaborators.”Ten years of growth and success is pretty satisfying, but I don’t feel like we’ve made it,” Dave says. “We’re doing what we’ve always wanted to do, but there continues to be lots of opportunity.”
See the collection online at urbanelectricco.com.