Alight With Passion
On North Flint Avenue, nearly as many bikers as cars cruise by the open garage door at Eleek, where artisans and welders, thinkers and tinkerers create lighting and sinks, countertops and drawer pulls, switch plates and more.
Although these items may seem ordinary, the products produced by Eric Kaster and his 13-person crew are far from it. Eric and his wife and business partner, Sattie Clark, would have it no other way.
But I’m getting ahead of the story.
Dial back to 1939.
As the drumbeat of World War II reverberated around the world, Eric’s grandfather, Willie Kaster, began his lifelong career as a patternmaker with Willamette Pattern Works. Patternmaking – creating wood positives from which molds for metal castings are made – was crucial to the war effort. So crucial, patternmakers were immune from the draft but worked six days a week, 12 hours a day, Eric says.
Willie stuck it out, and about 30 years later he bought Willamette Pattern Works. He trained son Ken, and later grandson Eric in the same business.
Fast-forward to 2000, when Eric and Sattie combined their skills and pennies and opened their own shop, Eleek, in Southeast Portland. For two years, Eric continued working full time at Willamette Pattern Works, giving attention to Eleek as he could. He finally gathered the chutzpah to tell his father that he needed to make a clean break. His dream of merging his patternmaking skills with his art required his unfettered attention.
Willamette Pattern Works would have to survive without a third generation Kaster.
Standing in the conference room at Eleek, looking at the pattern for the door handles he designed for the Burlington Station condo project in the Pearl District, Eric smiles and says there are no hard feelings between father and son. In fact, his father helped them renovate their current building.
It was a massive undertaking to get the 5,000-square-foot space operational with showroom, office and mostly workshop.
The business is run on Eric and Sattie’s values of ecological and social responsibility. They purchased wind power to run the shop and offices, and they use recycled materials, such as aluminum and bronze, and local resources. They also are proud of the wages they pay and the health benefits provided to their employees.
“We planned our business around sustainability from the beginning because it was part of our lifestyle,” Sattie says.
Their latest push is toward low-energy lighting – make that beautiful low-energy lighting.
“Lighting tends to be about 25% of the energy budget of a home,” Sattie says, so reducing the energy consumed for lighting is a huge step toward conservation.
And it would appear that their energy-efficient lighting is in the right place at the right time.
In 2005, nearby California toughened lighting requirements for both residential and nonresidential construction. New construction and some renovation projects must have high-efficacy lighting, such as four-pin compact fluorescent fixtures that cannot accept energy-burning incandescent bulbs.
The requirement is feeding demand for Eleek fixtures.
Oregonians are embracing their work as well, and Sattie expects other states to follow.
Eric’s designs can be seen all around Portland. The Burlington Station, The Elizabeth Lofts and the Eliot Tower condos all sport Eleek products, as does the Rose Garden, where Eleek was commisioned to create the giant “Calliope” chandelier in the arena’s entrance.
And there’s more to come.
Their ongoing relationship with the developers of Riverscape along the Willamette River has provided constant work – creating fluorescent lighting for the piers and walkways – and revenue.
Although the bulk of Eleek’s work is commercial, the firm does plenty of smaller residential jobs, usually being referred by architects and designers.
Right now, lighting is 95% of Eleek’s business. Eric and Sattie love all of their products, but the endless design possibilities in lighting fill Eric’s mind “24/7,” he says.
They recently were recognized in all four categories of the Architect’s Choice for Excellence awards from Architectural Lighting Magazine. Eleek was voted among the “Most Innovative,” “Most Respected,” “Most Freqently Specified,” and “Top 30 Manufacturers.”
“We’re really passionate about what we do,” Sattie says, adding, “There’s such a true value in craftsmanship and fine materials.”