Greenlighting design


0613 Tactics 01Eleek co-owner Sattie Clark builds a family-owned business around sustainable lighting.

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BY SUSAN G. HAUSER

0613 Tactics 01
// Photo by Leah Nash

These days Sattie Clark, once the darling of the ’80s and ’90s Portland folk-rock scene, sings only to her 8-year-old son, August. But it was on a fateful day at Berbati’s Pan when she looked into the eyes of Eric Kaster, the drummer for the next band to take the stage, that Clark unwittingly took a giant leap toward Portland’s future as a center for green business.

A lot happened in between: His band broke up, her band hired him, they fell in love and, in 2002, got married. But what is most important in terms of the local sustainability movement is that two years before tying the knot, they started a company together. That business, Eleek (a combination of Eric’s first and last initials and his middle name, Lee), is now more than 12 years old and is considered a pioneer in the design and manufacture of energy-efficient lighting.

Eleek, with 12 employees and occupying an 8,000-square-foot warehouse near Legacy Emanuel Medical Center, has won multiple design awards and gained national recognition for both design and environmental practices. And partly to share all she learned at Eleek as co-owner and director of marketing, Clark in 2009 founded Voice for Oregon Innovation & Sustainability (VOIS) to promote and support responsible business practices.

“Sustainability became that thing that really grabbed me,” says Clark, 48, who admits that in the company’s early days, when she and her husband were mostly making aluminum logos for trade-show displays, she couldn’t imagine devoting more than a year to the company’s marketing efforts. But Kaster’s work as an industrial pattern maker, combined with his penchant for design and his practice of using recycled materials, took Eleek in an exciting new direction. By then Clark was in it for the long haul. Working with 100% recycled cast aluminum was the first step in Clark’s green journey. Next Eleek turned to the Natural Step Network USA, a Portland-based nonprofit that provides businesses with a framework for achieving sustainability.

Eleek
Co-owner: Sattie Clark
Employees: 12
Headquarters: Portland
Factoid: Catalog features over 70 types of lighting, including sconce, vanity, pendants and chandeliers

The process gave Clark “aha” moments regarding Eleek’s environmental impact, as well as its opportunities to practice “social sustainability,” improving relationships with employees, colleagues, vendors and neighbors. “I think it was one of the first times I’d ever encountered that concept, and it was very inspiring.” Her Natural Step education also inspired a new direction for Eleek marketing efforts, to capitalize on the company’s unique direction in lighting.

Gunnar Langhus of Ankrom Moisan Architects, who began working on projects with Kaster and Clark about 10 years ago, says Eleek’s lighting designs were standouts from the beginning, mostly because of their exclusive use of energy-efficient LEDs, while other lighting manufacturers favored cheaper, less efficient and less sustainable options. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, there’s only one business here that’s done this. They seem to be out in front a bit.’”

Langhus first commissioned Eleek to create custom lighting and ornamental features, including door handles and hardware, for the Elizabeth Lofts in the Pearl District. “It’s cool design with an artistic side to it, and so straightforward, honest and well-built,” he says.


0613 Tactics 02
// Photo by Leah Nash

A more recent Eleek project was to re-create lighting fixtures for Seattle’s 1906 King Street train station, based solely on historic photos. The monumental fixtures differ from the originals only in their durability and in LED replacing gaslight.

A walk through Eleek’s two-story warehouse shows off the Eleek way of doing business. Numerous specific recycling bins are in easy reach of employees, hand towels hang in the break room with no paper towels in sight, and a compost tub awaits the neighbors’ gardens. Less obvious are the facts that no toxic substances are used in manufacturing, and local scrap metal and other recycled materials are first choices, as well as products that come from sustainable businesses and from within a 50-mile radius, in order to help reduce their carbon footprint.

On the social-sustainability side, Eleek hires from the neighborhood, pays full benefits, offers flexible scheduling and pays bonuses to employees who walk, bike or bus to work. And even during trying economic times, they have never laid off an employee, cut benefits or failed to pay a bill.

“It’s about honesty, integrity and doing the right thing,” says Clark. “If you’re not operating from the highest place, then you’re not really being sustainable.” Clark declined to share revenues, but named 2008 as the company’s most successful year yet. A large lighting commission for a shopping mall in Missouri doubled Eleek’s revenue. Numerous awards and national recognition, such as being named one of the 25 most promising social entrepreneurs by Bloomberg Businessweek in 2010, have resulted in commissions across the country.

Meanwhile, VOIS, which bills itself as the “Chamber of Change,” continues to enlarge its network of sustainable businesses — although Clark has encountered a few obstacles. After a controversial board shake-up last fall, she has accepted a less active role as a member of the advisory council. Clark has her hands full with Eleek’s new projects, including another train station restoration, this time lighting fixtures for the 1926 Sacramento (Calif.) Station. There are also the occasional tours to lead, mostly for designers and architects. “What we do in-house is pretty amazing,” says Clark. “People love seeing how things are made.”