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Schoolhouse Electric and Supply Co. grows a lifestyle brand

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Articles - September 2013
Monday, August 19, 2013
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Schoolhouse Electric and Supply Co. grows a lifestyle brand
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0913 TheMaker 05
"When it comes to furniture, I'm more into hard stuff than soft," Faherty says. "I'm really into clocks right now."
// Photos by Eric Näslund

Inside the Northwest Portland store (a second showroom is in New York), domestic utility is on full display: baskets, rugs, toothbrush holders, beds, couches, all featuring a clean, spare aesthetic with a hint of nostalgia. Behind the scenes — on the second floor, to be precise — another kind of utilitarian philosophy is at work. But first, a disclaimer: Schoolhouse Electric is less a manufacturer than an assembler. Most of the retailer’s metal light fixtures, for example, are made by several factories in Los Angeles and then sent to Portland, where Schoolhouse employees paint, finish and assemble the final product.

The company purchases other products crafted by vendors, then adds value; Faherty might take a stool and paint it in Schoolhouse colors or remake the standard IBM clock with the word “Schoolhouse” in the design.

“We’re really into micro-manufacturing: Who are those small makers of things that can have a voice even if it’s through us?” Faherty says, adding that even if many Schoolhouse component parts aren’t made in-house, neither are they “off the shelf” parts made in China. In Portland, Schoolhouse works with about 50 local vendors, such as Mudshark Studios, which crafts most of Schoolhouse Electric’s ceramic shades, including the Alabax pendant and Ion lamp. “What’s important is that our vendors are our partners,” says Faherty, “and that we can see their shop and how they treat their workers.”

He recounts a story of a light fixture he saw at Urban Outfitters that cost $20. “Working backward, they’re not making it; they’re buying it from somebody for $10 who probably bought it for $5. How do you do that? It’s junk and probably made under conditions that aren’t really esteemable.”

A Schoolhouse fixture might cost more — $189 for the Alabax — but that’s because the labor is more expensive, says Faherty. He pays Schoolhouse Electric’s 35 assembly workers, many of whom are referred by IRCO — the Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization — about $9-$20 per hour with benefits and health insurance. Schoolhouse Electric employs a lot of families, Faherty adds: a few brothers and sisters and one family with three generations. “These are good jobs,” he emphasizes. “They are nothing to be ashamed of.”

Mudshark boosted employment from 8 to 27 workers last year, in part because of business generated by Schoolhouse Electric, says co-owner Brett Binford. “Brian’s one of about 10 steady producers who provide stable employment,” he says. “He holds American-made in high principle.”

Faherty’s tenant-screening philosophy revolves around a similar maker sensibility. So far he has leased space to Ristretto Roasters, Anna Mara Floral Design, Egg Press, (a letterpress studio), and Ben Waechter, a local architect who two years ago designed the Scandinavian farmhouse-style Dunthorpe house that Faherty lives in with his wife, Jill, who works in product development at Schoolhouse, and their three children.

“Setting up a studio in this building appealed to me because it’s a factory filled with people making things,” Waechter says. Faherty, he adds, was very active in the home-design process, with a clear idea of the character, atmosphere and material palette he wanted to achieve.

“I collaborate with people,” says Faherty, describing his approach to projects, personal and professional. “I have to work like that. I have to be involved.”



 

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