The concept of transformation matters to Christa Rybczynski and Lawrence Grown, be it something as small as a discarded bottle, or as big as the entire setting in which they live.
“We had a professor who was from here,” said Rybczynski, who met her husband of 29 years and business partner the first day of class at University of Cincinnati, where they both studied architecture. “What we wanted to do, nobody in Cincinnati was doing in 1989.”
What they wanted to do: architectural design with an environmental bent. Rybczynski and her Metro Lighting co-owner Grown stand out as experts at transforming the discarded into functional-yet-artistic ways to light a home.
But surely two driven and responsible young adults scouted the landscape? Coming from the Midwest to Berkeley is seemingly such a big shift, they must’ve prepared themselves.
“We didn’t know anybody here, we’d never been here,” Rybczynski said. “We just packed up the car. We had about $1,000 in our pockets.”
“I had this weird vision that California was going to be some kind of Dr. Seussville,” said Grown, sitting at a table in the back of their shop on San Pablo Avenue, near Allston. “The food here was really amazing. People in Ohio were almost offended we were vegetarians.”
“In Cincinnati, we were radical hippy freaks. Here we’re the mainstream.”
The pair have been in business for themselves since 1993, after doing some architecture and salvage work for a few years. After the Oakland Hills fire in 1991, there was plenty of work going around.
They found themselves focusing on the salvage part of the equation – especially pertaining to transforming things into lights with an artistic bent. They started designing lighting for various residential and commercial projects.
“We did lighting on houses, we did lighting for Noah’s Bagels, we did a few historic lighting jobs after the fire” using photos of antique fixtures to recreate what had been lost, Rybczynski said.
They grew the business in a shop not far from their current location when, in 2009, they purchased the building they are in now. At the same time, their glass supplier in France went out of business and “we had to reinvent ourselves,” Grown said. “So, from that point we became all about Made in California.”
Rybczynski and Grown decided on specific requirements for the products they produce: it must be made locally, be handcrafted and be sustainable (or, at minimum, two out of those three criteria). Metro Lighting’s showroom is completely powered by renewables, thanks to 120 solar panels on the roof. They only use local labor, whenever possible. Their location is part award-winning showroom, part art gallery, part workshop in the back, with specified rooms for specialized industrial tasks (one of their first projects after buying the building was retrofitting it for earthquakes – a big risk with all that glass).
Metro Lighting’s choices about sourcing and electrification are just a few of the many environmentally conscious decisions the business has made as a California Certified Green Business. Leveraging free assistance offered by Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development (OED) and the Alameda County Green Business Program, Metro Lighting has taken many steps to reduce greenhouse emissions, improve energy efficiency, conserve water, and divert solid waste from landfills.
The company’s commitment to sustainability extends beyond the environmental: Grown has also invested in building networks that support the community. With help from OED, Grown launched the West Berkeley Design Loop, whose members represent more than 30 West Berkeley businesses focused on home improvement, design and building businesses. And he is an active member in several West Berkeley commercial district associations, all of which work to enhance the local shopping environment and improve neighborhood conditions.
Metro Lighting works with a number of local designers to conceive its products. But some of the company’s best work comes from Grown’s habit of foraging, mostly from recycling centers and bars and restaurants.
“We collect the bottles,” he said, indicating shelf after shelf of mostly liquor bottles on a BevMo-like scale in their back room. There are other items in the space, including a section of automotive brake rotors that will likely become lamp bases. Nearby are shelves of old bicycle rims, from which lights may soon hang. “Mostly, I collect them, but some people do bring their bottles in,” Grown said. “I do love new product development, designing new fixtures and collaborating with architects.”
Customers can choose everything that goes into what they want, from fixture design to the lightbulb that goes into it. Glass for lamps, fixtures, plates, goblets, and more are locally melted and re-purposed with color and other design facets. Some of the work is done on site. The couple employ about a half dozen people, some of whom have been with the company for more than a decade.
“People come in and say ‘Wait, you made that?” said Rybczynski. “I think that’s why people like it.”
This story was paid for by the City of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development which helps new and established Berkeley businesses build strong connections to the community, navigate local policies, find affordable financing and real estate, and become more sustainable. OED staff help entrepreneurs, artists and community organizations feel welcome in Berkeley.