Light the Way

Combining antique fixtures with original design, a lighting company blazes a trail.

Overhead rail lines shadow wide avenues of bargain shops and fast-food restaurants, and vast housing projects give way to streets of 19th-century row houses, churches, and defunct brick breweries. One of these large Bushwick, Brooklyn, edifices, just across from a row of pastel stucco houses, is the new home to Remains Lighting, a business run by husband-and-wife team Alexandra (Alix) MacGowan Calligeros ’90 and David Calligeros. While the streets are clogged with buses and taxis, the four-story space that houses Remains is open, spacious, and flooded with natural light.

Remains Lighting has showrooms in London, Chicago, Manhattan, Greenwich, and Los Angeles, and its antiques and original designs appear regularly in glossy spreads in Elle Decor, House Beautiful, and Architectural Digest. But as Alix says, “It’s not just the beauty of the design that matters to us, but the structural integrity of the pieces and the processes by which they’re made—the effort to manufacture locally and sustainably.”

In January, Remains, which began its life in 1996 in a Chelsea loft, consolidated its production, design, and manufacturing operations to this 25,000-square-foot factory. The new space gives the company room to begin manufacturing more of the specialized parts for its own designs, and it also allows Alix and David to realize their personal ambition–to do their work in a more environmentally conscious way.
The Brooklyn factory is now in the process of getting LEED certified. While LEED (Leader in Energy and Environmental Design) may not yet be a household term, it’s a shortcut to saying that the building has undergone a stringent process monitored by the U.S. Green Building Council and that it meets certain standards in efficiency and pollution control. “Most of what the LEED process requires,” Alix says, “are things we wanted to do anyway—the solar, the green roof, the water-efficiency control.”

It’s immediately apparent that this is a different kind of factory. In the areas where the building is not lit from tall windows, lights are mounted on sensors that detect both the need for light and the presence of activity, and all water sources are operated by foot pedal. They’ve insulated the roof and plan to install retractable awnings for further heat and light control. Remains gets all of its power from renewable sources, and, just this May, installed its own solar panels on the roof. “We expect the meters to be spinning backwards on weekends,” Alix says.

While they use scrap metals and recycled materials whenever possible, a business that works with chemical finishes has a particular challenge when it comes to water. So Remains invested in state-of-the-art filtration for rinse waters and developed a “closed-loop” system for all of its plating. This way, none of the chemicals used in meticulous finishing processes find their way back into the municipal water.

“Having the plant in a high-density neighborhood like this, a place where people actually live and work, is important to us,” Alix says. The happy consequence is that of the 40 employees who work in the Brooklyn factory, seven cycle to work year-round, and most others are close enough to either walk or take the subway.

Alix and David had been planning this expansion for about a year before they moved. The timing wasn’t great, Alix admits, referring to the collapse in the economy. It may slow down their ability to hire—they have about 25 manufacturing jobs now, but they’d like to increase that over the next few years. “Of course everything depends on the sales.” Right now things are holding steady, and they’re excited about a couple of new high-tech machines on the main floor. This is where rods, or strips of brass or nickel, are shaped into minutely detailed finials, frame lengths, and other components.

“A lot of lighting is made in China and India,” Alix says, “but we acquire most of the parts we don’t make from the East Coast, and the rest from domestic sources whenever we can.” To make a high-quality piece from metals and glass requires a lot of skill, skills that are disappearing in the U.S. and that Alix and David hope to help keep alive. A list of some of the artisanal and industrial services they require includes glassbenders, metal spinners, brazers, glass blowers, shade-makers, wire-formers, and chain-makers—not your standard curriculum at tech schools these days.

Motivated by his respect for the craft and informed by years of work in antique restoration, David starting designing original pieces for Remains in 1998. His “permanent collection” now consists of hundreds of different wall lights, pendants, sconces, and lanterns. The company also does custom work anchored in David’s knowledge of antiques and on adaptations of the company’s own designs. Most of the pieces are characterized by simple elegance, but there are also some flamboyant show stoppers—such as the gilded chandelier hanging in the 59th Street showroom, four feet tall and decorated with caryatids and hermai.

Los Angeles designer Madeline Stuart says, “I can’t think of another company anywhere in the country that offers so many unique and beautiful fixtures. They’re absolutely exquisite.”

David, who founded the company and is in charge of acquisitions and design, has a deep knowledge of all things lighting. Of Alix, he says, “She has turned our business from a one-man antique shop into a thoroughly organized international organization. She’s able to see patterns in seeming chaos, to then create systems of management and communicate her distilled, organized vision to our staff.”

A history major with a concentration in studio art, Alix learned early on how to make complex connections and handle a lot of data while developing an appreciation for tactile beauty. At Middlebury, her senior thesis focused on civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, and she had a memorable summer job working on a vegetable farm in Starksboro. But it is printmaking teacher David Bumbeck who continues to inspire her. “He was an expert in all techniques,” she says. “He didn’t adhere to a rigid style or method or philosophy in his teaching. He adapted to his students, was very generous in that way.”

The influence of this teaching style can be seen now in the way Alix works with employees. “We really value people’s different contributions to the business, and we want their input. And while the business grows, people’s jobs evolve to better suit their talents. There’s a lot of room for collaboration.”

It’s sometimes hard to hear on the factory floor, but the atmosphere is cordial and focused. There are designers, mainly mechanical engineers working on computers, and finishers concentrating on the polishing wheels and chemical rinses. The shipping department—one man at a desk—is right near the front door, where a massive, gleaming, 18-arm chandelier, “a custom piece,” Alix notes, awaits a photo shoot before being shipped to its final destination.

The price tag for these items? Yes, it’s pretty steep. As Madeline Stuart says, “The quality of the fabrication makes them almost like pieces of jewelry.” But what makes them valuable is something added to their decorative flair, it’s the values embodied in their production.

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