Mention Charleston to a design-minded professional and words like traditional, colonial, porticos, Rainbow Row, shutters will probably come to mind. The city known for its charm and classical architecture is making sure its interest in craftsmanship and aesthetics isn’t relegated to the past. The city, recently voted the "Top City in the World" in Conde Nast Traveler's Readers Choice Awards, is known for its intense culinary scene but design permeates the culture there.
One of the companies at the forefront of this next-wave of Charleston's design scene is The Urban Electric Co., which will celebrate its tenth anniversary next year. Founder Dave Dawson, a Yankee by birth, purchased a small lantern-making business and in 2003 started UECo., a company that manufactures quality lighting in the US. While UECo. excels at matching historic fixtures, it has made a name for itself with new designs that are made with the integrity of their predecessors.
It’s become so successful—now with designer collections from Amanda Nisbet, Darryl Carter, Steven Gambrel, to name a few—that five years ago, Urban Electric relocated from the heart of the city on King Street, to a 65,000-square-foot warehouse in North Charleston, close to the airport, that now employs over 80 employees.
A view of the factory
With rigorous apprenticeship and craftsmen programs that teach metalworking skills like welding and cutting, the business is preserving and invigorating American handmade work for a new generation (both the craftsmen and consumers), disproving that “they don’t make things like they used to” mantra.
In a wonderful old factory, complete with 100-year-old floors, craftsmen design, cut, build, paint and finish steel, copper and brass lighting from scratch, under one roof. The glass arrives from either Germany or Brooklyn, and everything is made on-site, from the cuts, to the painting or finishing, to the assembly and shipping.
The Shaw pendant in zinc, and a pair of Vic sconces in bronze, both available for Quick Ship
Designs run the gamut from replicas of traditional, historical lighting to new designs and a lot of custom work, even if just variations on the size or scale. The recently launched Quick Ship program offers over 40 top-selling designs ready to ship in as little as a week.
One of the 18 homes already built at Mixson
The North Charleston area, which has boomed in the past couple of years with the arrival of the new Boeing plant nearby, is home to Mixson, a community that intends to transform the previously not-so-desirable residential area into an urban-style community. In fact, it is just one of three new energy efficient residential developments in the historic Park Circle neighborhood, a testament to the growing popularity of the area—and expansion of Charleston itself. Private equity firm Jamestown, the backers of Chelsea Market and One Times Square in New York City, which had been initial investors since 2006, are so confident in the vision of Mixson that they assumed complete ownership in April 2010.
The sustainable development, set on 44 acres, includes 18 already completed LEED Gold residences defined by their “responsible” sizes, their within-walking distance both to adjacent homes, which fosters the neighborhood feeling, and the just-opened Mixson Market, pictured below.
The market is the first of its kind in the area, offering not just coffee and prepared foods, a craft beer and wine bar, but a curated selection of housewares and gifts, many locally sourced. It’s just across the Mixson Bath and Racquet Club, which has just broken ground, designed by Lake Flato and decorated by Dominick Coyne, will include a full-service restaurant, in addition to its wellness center, bocce courts and swim facilities, with memberships available for non-residents, too.
A rendering of the Bath and Racquet Club, above left, with the orange door to the Market at right.
The largest next step will be the Flats at Mixson, with 270 multi-family units set around a central courtyard, to be decorated by Charleston-based Cortney Bishop.
Bishop says of the project, “I am proud to be working on a project like Mixson with a company like Jamestown, which is really striving to create a unique living experience. Mixson is a progressive concept for Charleston, but I feel the community is really ready for it. Together, we are mixing modern design concepts with strong southern influences. Expect to see classic Charleston lanterns painted in youthful, bright colors and warm wide-plank floors juxtaposed with modern, clean white kitchens. So much thought and creativity is being poured into this project, I can't wait for the public to experience it.”
Bishop's involvement in the design community runs deep. She is an active board member of the American College of the Building Arts (ACBA) in downtown Charleston, on the site of what was the Old City Jail.
The facade of the Old City Jail, home to the ACBA
What started with a $2.75 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor became a licensed institution in 2004. Its four-year liberal arts degrees are awarded in six building arts: architectural stone, carpentry, forged ironwork, plaster working, preservation masonry and timber framing. It remains the only college of its kind in the US to bestow both Associate and Bachelor degrees in Applied Science in Building Arts. Graduates can be found at Versailles and Colonial Williamsburg. It has become an adored institution in the community, with a much-anticipated annual fall fundraiser, the Red Party, which seemingly brings out the whole city.
This year’s event, conceived by Bishop and her design firm, had a Wizard of Oz theme, and the attendance and costumes were a reminder that Southerners do still love to “dress to the nines.”
Written by Zoe Settle