Moving her lighting & shade factory across Brooklyn during Superstorm Sandy was just another day for plucky Rachel Simon of Lights Up, who operates one of the few woman-owned manufacturing businesses in lighting.
No stranger to uphill battles, lighting veteran Rachel Simon has piloted her lamp and shade business from the economic tumult of the 1980s, through at least two Recessions and, more recently, into the current renaissance of her favorite New York City borough: Brooklyn.
Situated in the midst of the Industry City revitalization of the former Bush Terminal in Sunset Park, Simon has met each challenge with a firm vision of style, fashion, and sensitivity toward the environment and fairness.
“When I started my business in 1987, there were few women entrepreneurs. All the correspondence I received was addressed to Mr. Simon,” she recounts. “Of course, this was before email; we were just learning how to fax then,” Simon laughs. “It took years of dogged persistence to convince vendors that I had a legitimate, woman-owned business that was as reliable and worthy of payment terms as any other.”
Today, Simon commands a 10,000-sq.-ft. factory that makes all of its own frames and maintains a library of 1,000+ shade patterns plus fabrics ranging from classic images and silks to contemporary motifs printed on PET from recycled plastic bottles and sourced in the United States.
While Simon sees a much wider acceptance of women- and minority-owned businesses today, she believes today’s definition of what constitutes a “small business” should be refined.
“In general, ‘small business’ in the U.S. often refers to companies of $5 million annual gross. This is a misnomer and harmful for the many legitimate small businesses that are currently supporting our workers and our economy,” Simon explains. “For me, a small business should refer to any enterprise with gross earnings of between $50,000 and $3 million. It is important to me that my employees have the means to be independent members of society.”
For Lights Up that means paying 75 percent of workers’ health insurance and offering free MetroCards to save the $112 monthly fee for New York City’sever-increasing public transportation.
There Goes the Neighborhood
Simon first set up shop in the scruffy downtown Brooklyn neighborhood affectionately dubbed DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) by locals in the late 1980s. “Besides the fact that it was home base for me, many of my suppliers were Brooklyn-based. That changed dramatically over the ensuing seven years and I found myself being forced to outsource overseas,” she recalls.
As the area became gentrified and rents rose accordingly, Simon shifted operations to another Brooklyn community – East New York – in an attempt to continue sourcing as much as she could domestically.
Times changed again, however, and the neighborhood surrounding the Lights Up factory has become a hot Brooklyn development area referred to as “the SoHo of Sunset Park.” It is attracting artist/makers, small businesses, and even the New York Nets basketball team, which has contracted a penthouse for its practice and training center.
“As the wheel turns, the recent design renaissance in Brooklyn has brought many new suppliers and small factories back to our borough,” she notes. “We are once again working with many local businesses and they are younger, have new ideas, and new technologies.”
One Lights Up neighbor is MakerBot Industries, a 3D printer maker and programmer. A few blocks away is the Remains Lighting factory, a LEED Gold-certified building dedicated to custom and reproduction lighting fixtures. Other lighting manufacturers – such as LED Waves and Roll & Hill, which produces custom fixtures for independent designers such as Rich Brilliant Willing, Jason Miller, Bec Brittain, and Lindsay Adelman – are not far.
In the Beginning…
Simon began her career designing and merchandising handbags. Wanting to branch out on her own, she searched for a category that was under-designed yet answered her philosophy that fashion should also be functional.
“For me, both handbags and lamps may be designed for function and beauty. I am most captivated by designing objects that provide a service to the end user, whether it is a well-designed personal organizer for your arm or a portable light that helps you enjoy reading,” she comments. “I knew that I wanted to design products rather than make one-of-a-kind pieces and my focus settled on shades.” As Simon grew her business, she expanded into lamps with unique bases.
“My background in handbags led me astray a few times,” she quips. “Although handbags may be functional, the market is fashion-driven. People buy handbags seasonally and frequently to update their personal style. Lamps are a more sedentary product. Once in the home, they may stay put for many years. New design aesthetics move slower in the furniture market.”
The Lights Up style is simple and straightforward, but Simon’s design influences are broad. “Art Nouveau and Art Deco first inspired me,” she explains. “The wonderful sets in Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger movies made me want to live and dance in their Hollywood dream. I could see the sultry fabrics, the shine and sparkle of elegance; I could almost smell it from our small black and white TV,” she recalls. “Travelling with my family around Europe in the ’50s and ’60s, I saw the Metro stations in Paris, the Gaudi apartments and Park Güell in Barcelona, a lot of old churches, but also the launch of European modernist design in furniture and décor.”
Mid-century modern is closer to Simon’s real-life scale. “The roots of mid-century style is in the Bauhaus, in useful and beautiful furniture that – and this is the key – can be economically mass-produced. Its origins are democratic and utopian, which some of the higher-end furniture companies seem to forget,” Simon states.
“The early ’80s saw the birth of high-tech design. Marrying the functionality of high tech with a modernist aesthetic, I developed my own style that I sometimes I refer to as ‘Fem Tech.’ It’s both industrial and feminine, with what (I hope) are the best parts of both!”
In the end, simple is hard to do, Simon explains. “You can’t hide anything. Flourishes can cover many defects. I prefer to love the imperfection and play with it. There is a lot of minimalism in my design; uncovering the bare unadorned industrial parts for their essential beauty, mixing raw materials for color and texture, highlighting a seam so it becomes the decoration. Modern Lighting for Easy Living is Lights Up’s motto, as we focus on practicality, beauty, and function.”
On the Factory Floor
Lights Up has acquired machinery from other factories that have since moved or closed in Brooklyn. “We are very proud that we can make all our frames,” Simon notes.
Tom Simon, Rachel’s nephew and vice president, is excited to show off some of the older equipment in the frame department. “They are actually stronger, never seem to break down, and have more capabilities than more modern equipment,” he says. “We’ve been able to increase the wire gauges we work with — including flat and round wire. And we can produce a variety of custom spiders and uno fitters.” That versatility has become significant both for developing Lights Up’s own products as well as the custom hospitality work the factory does for clients.
“We now have more control over quality and can produce more complicated shades,” she adds.
While domestic sourcing has always taken priority, some aspects have to be imported. “It’s a fact of life,” she sighs. While Lights Up is importing glass lamp bases, its ceramic bases are sourced in Illinois. “It takes the same amount of time to receive the glass bases as it does the ceramic ones! It’s just the nature of business today,” she says. The company is inventorying LED bulbs for its portables for the time being, but its ADA-compliant sconces and flush-mounts have already gone LED. Thanks to its metal working capabilities, Lights Up will debut a new line of Brooklyn-made stainless outdoor lighting during the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) in New York City next month.
Inspiration Is Everywhere
Simon’s design inspiration is all around, even at the factory where she keeps a metal shelf containing past projects, whimsical objects and components that have caught her eye, and antique bric-a-brac hinting at past elegance. Her desk is a stage for small sculptures that stir her creative vision. Everyone in the factory is encouraged to try new things. A Make Your Own Lamp Day unleashes innovation and invention. And even customers bring inspiration.
“We have had a couple of custom hospitality projects that wowed us as well as our customers,” Simon admits. One included a 48-inch tiered Art Deco shade in linen and silk. Another was a group of gold-lined rectangular fixtures destined for a California winery.
Simon is also inspired by Lights Up consumers, whom she finds are generally playful, adventuresome, and eco-concious. “There are so many ways to find new trends that are exciting and affordable. When we talk to consumers on the phone, they are definitely not timid about design,” she notes.
What keeps Simon on her toes, however, is today’s instant commerce. For consumers, being able to get something now is a big trend, and they can find plenty of choices and make price comparisons instantly on the Internet.
“It is important for every designer and manufacturer to respond to all of the advantages of e-commerce shopping,” she notes, adding, “We serve that market/customer by offering a variety of fixtures with made-to-order shape options and five-day lead times.” Simon also sees consumers looking for more than instant gratification based on an image they view on a small screen such as a smartphone or tablet. “As a friend of mine recently said, ‘Efficiency is not the only value,’” Simon recounts. “I think we are going to see a turn back toward [selecting] things based on how they look in the room, rather than on a screen. Fortunately that’s where our attention has always been.”
Get More Design in Brooklyn
Brooklyn’s renaissance and reputation as an incubator for artists, craftsmen, and small manufacturers can yield many new resources for retailers seeking unique looks and talent to feature in their stores. One of the more organized events to optimize the local and hip talent is NYCxDESIGN, May 8-19. The extravaganza encompasses several design events including ICFF (May 16-19 at the Javits Center in Manhattan) which will feature several Brooklyn –based exhibitors including Lights Up; BklynDesigns (May 8-10 at the Brooklyn Expo Center in Greenpoint); and Wanted Design Brooklyn (May 9-19 at Industry City, Sunset Park).