The TV show Portlandia highlights quirkiness among the Oregon city’s residents. What better place to create lighting products “forest-made in a design studio surrounded by tall cedar trees?”
When Michelle Steinback’s odyssey to find appropriate lighting for her Eichler-style home in Portland, Ore. came to a dead end, she designed her own. Now she has started manufacturing them for others under her own studio Cedar & Moss, with the tagline “forest-made in our design studio surrounded by tall cedar trees.”
Steinback is well-suited to the task, having devoted one decade to nurturing Schoolhouse Electric & Supply, founded by Brian Faherty in 2002. While her former design work focused on reproducing period lighting from original restored molds and then growing the company into a lifestyle resource that has expanded to offer furniture, bedding, and accessories, she is currently focused on Mid-Century Modern design.
The Portland native is a nature lover – as evidenced by her company name – and enjoys a relaxed, yet attentive, style. Steinback draws upon her previous dedication to sourcing and manufacturing locally for her new line. Cedar & Moss (www.cedarandmoss.com) began its first shipments in November 2013, and orders have been steadily filing in across the country from consumers as well as architects and interior designers. Her latest shipments have arrived at the SoHo makeup bar and studio Pucker. This wife, mother, designer, and manufacturer has specific views on today’s lighting direction and shared her opinions with enLIGHTenment magazine.
EnLIGHTenment Magazine: Design blog Remodelista has characterized your work as “fresh yet familiar.” How has your lighting been influenced by Mid-century design?
Michelle Steinback: For me, American Mid-Century design is a postwar, West Coast expression of European Modernism. Early Modernism, born of the Bauhaus school of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, has always resonated with me. At its core was an interest in bringing together art, architecture, craft, and technology by integrating applied and fine arts with the idea that there should be no distinction between form and function. Radically simplified forms started to emerge along with a commitment to mass producing fine design to make it available to the masses.
As a former Art History student, I find these design movements extremely influential in how I think about and approach design. I don’t want to simply recreate designs from the past; I want to constantly disassemble and reassemble, to push the design conversation forward in new and relevant ways.
EM: Why do you think Mid-Century has such a strong influence right now?
MS: Our relationship with the past influences our preferences more than we fully realize. I believe when a design has something familiar to it, we relate on a personal level whether we realize it or not. That familiarity can be in the material, finish, design, or maybe even something less tangible. Mid-Century design has that familiarity people are drawn to, yet the lines are cleaner and simpler than other historical periods so it marries well with our digital age. Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak both grew up in Eichler-style homes. Jobs has said that growing up in that architecture instilled in him a passion for making nicely designed products. As we sit with our sleek Apple phones and computers, the design influence comes full circle. Our digital culture has cultivated an appreciation for clean, functional, beautiful design. Now many of us want to live in Eichler homes, too.
EM: Your company is based in Oregon. Is there a new Northwest look in home furnishings emerging?
A. It seems to me the predominant Northwest style is a blend of the Ace Hotel (www. acehotel. com) group’s warmer industrial vibe and Kinfolk magazine’s simple, woodsy style. I think it’s fair to say that a Pendleton wool blanket is the calling card for the Northwest style no matter how you define it — preferably in neutral tones with a tribal motif and thrifted so it’s vintage. Full disclosure: I’m guilty of owning a vintage wool camp blanket.
The hipster style seems ubiquitous in Brooklyn and Portland alike, along with wearing a beard and lumberjack work boots.
EM: You opened your own company after a frustrating search for the right kind of lighting. What is the marketplace lacking?
MS: There are a myriad of beautiful lighting options in the marketplace today, but I found it difficult to find well-designed, well-made, affordable modern lighting that would feel at home and appropriate for my vintage Mid-Century ranch. My customers keep echoing the same sentiment. Most of the beautiful modern lighting on the market today is just so expensive and the lead times are too long.
EM: How do you feel about the technological advancements in lighting?
MS: I cannot wait to start introducing LED technology into my line. There are so many possibilities and people are making amazing energy-efficient lights with this constantly improving technology. I’m inspired by the advancements.
EM: What has surprised you about the response to Cedar & Moss?
MS: Honestly, I am in shock. As soon as I launched the company in November, we were flooded with orders. I quickly had to scale inventory levels and production capacity. I didn’t expect the company to take off so quickly and it’s forcing me in a very unexpected but remarkable way to think hard about what kind of company I want to grow in terms of a design point of view, product offerings, and most importantly, company ethos and work environment.
It’s wonderful to be in this position and to be having these conversations with our growing team. I see this as an opportunity to do something radical. Profits don’t light my fire as much as accomplishing something more important with this company. I’m still working out the vision, but know that fine design and empowering the people I work with will be at the heart of everything I do.
EM: How did your tenure at Schoolhouse Electric prepare you for your new venture?
MS: I was one of the original employees when they opened and enjoyed guiding the company’s growth as its general manager and later vp/marketing & design director. Working there was a valuable experience where I learned about lighting manufacturing. Now it’s thrilling to be out on my own where my vision is unfiltered and I can explore my own aesthetic.
EM: You make it a point to source domestically. Why?
MS: Working with U.S. vendors yields fantastic quality in small runs and using American-made brass. It’s nice knowing that we are keeping the money in our economy. Everyone wins! Working with [domestic] vendors is deeply satisfying and can be cost-effective for a small business. I can develop parts quickly and take them to market in a matter of months. Development off-shore takes six months to one year at best and the quality issues can be challenging. I’m not opposed to sourcing parts offshore if we cannot find manufacturers here, but let’s start here whenever we can.
EM: What is on the design horizon for you?
MS: In addition to developing a number of new designs, I am setting up a 400-sq.-ft. design lab next to my lighting studio that will be filled with wood and metalworking machinery and tools, a ceramic pottery wheel and kiln, and other tooling to explore new materials and designs with my staff and other like-minded designers and artists. I am likening it to a feminine, modern, micro-Bauhaus school of design. How Portlandia is that?
I want to empower and incubate other designers, including the Cedar & Moss staff, to develop new product lines and help them take those designs to market. Expect to see a sister company ‒ a design collective ‒ emerge in the coming years that will bring fresh energy and material inspirations to Cedar & Moss.
We may also explore more digital and technical materials; the possibilities are endless.