This is a story about two American kids who grew up in the heartland. They came to Berkeley 28 years ago. They have raised/are raising three daughters. They had a dream of starting their own store, making and selling beautiful, sustainable lighting, handcrafted in California. They started small, working up to what Metro Lighting on San Pablo is now – a beacon of creativity and sustainability and design.
Lawrence Grown grew up in Cleveland.
Christa Rybczynski grew up in Toledo.
Here is what happens when you have a pulsing creative streak and you are a kid in Cleveland, coming of age in the 1980s.
You are all-Ohio. And then you go to college and go to Greece:
In college you meet someone.
Rybczynski grew up in Toledo, in this house.
She was the second of five children – on the far right in this photo. Her dad was a bricklayer, her mom did office work and embroidery. Neither of her parents went to college.
Her high school prom picture – she’s on the far right. The look!
Rybczynski and her high school best friend talked of moving away from Toldeo, of maybe ending up in New York. Girl dreams!
She got out of Toledo – 200 miles away to Cincinnati. In college, she had evolved from prom to this. Escape!!!
Grown and Rybczynski met in the first week of school at the architecture program at the School of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (DAAP), University of Cincinnati. They were part of a group of friends for three years.
Halfway through the six-year program they started dating. Sigma Alpha describes its mission as being “to foster the development of collegiate men and our alumni by instilling strong fraternal values, offering social and service opportunities, encouraging academic excellence and teaching leadership skills. We will continue to attract members of all beliefs who appreciate our great heritage as a fraternity of Jewish men.”
Grown cites several architectural influences.
Mike Reynolds graduated from the University of Cincinnati architecture program in 1969. He builds houses from recycled materials, everyday trash like aluminum cans, plastic bottles and used tires – hence the beer can house shown above. He believes in passive solar houses, calling the discipline earthship biotecture. Grown’s senior thesis was a sustainable hillside town/co-housing development in Taos, New Mexico,utilizing earthship building techniques.
Reynolds runs the Earthship Academy in Taos. He got sideways with licensing authorities for almost 20 years, but has re-emerged as an exalted prophet of green. He is green to da max, plus has a whimsical sense of design. Nothing boring in form or substance. Grown and Rybczynski heard him lecture at the University of Cincinnati and immediately got interested.
Second influence – Antoni Gaudí, a Spanish architect who is the best known practitioner of of Catalan Modernism and a big influence on international Art Nouveau art and architecture. What Grown likes about Gaudi’s work is “that it feels like it is alive, that it might have grown from the earth itself, or been formed by natural forces.”
Up-looking selfie inside the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona.
Third influence – the early Modernist architect Hector Guimard. He was a pioneer of industrial standardization, by which he could promulgate his art on a large scale. His greatest success were his entrances to the Paris Métro, based on the ornamented structures of Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, a 19th century French architect who restored many prominent medieval landmarks in France, including those damaged or abandoned during the French Revolution. Grown took Metropolitan/Metro for the name of their store, a nod to Giumard.
Rybczynski cites her influences. She was good at math and art in high school. She favored renderings and illustrations – this was pre-CAD, so it was all freehand.
Her first influence was visual, the Austrian Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser (1928-2000). Hundertwasser was many things, including an architect who lived outside and a fair distance away from the box. His architecture is sui generis. And very far out. He opposed regimentation in everything, including his paintings and architecture.
These are photos of some of his architectural designs, most of which are gathered at a glorious website, Strange, Weird, Wonderful and Cool Buildings. Toledo is getting smaller and smaller in the rear view mirror, no?
Second influence – Bradford Grant, a professor at Cincinnati whose specializations included Social and Cultural Factors in Design and Community Design. He preached social responsibility in architecture. He preached participatory and democratic design. He was a tremendous influence on Rybczynski. She did her senior thesis on participatory design process as played out in designing a Montessori school. She read and devoured the disciples of participatory design – Cal’s Sim Van Der Rim and Christopher Alexander.
She read Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durret’s seminal work on cohousing -all because of Grant. She spent hours and hours talking with him in his office. He got his masters at Cal, and told Grown and Rybczynski- “You guys would like it out there. You should move.”
Good choices for influence and inspiration!
Rybczynski and Grown married in the fall of 1990 and the next month moved to Berkeley. Good move! Good moves! Our gain!
Rybczynski worked for Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durret on co-housing She worked on projects on Doyle Street in Emeryville and in Benicia. After two years she went to work for an architectural firm that was heavily involved in rebuilding in the Oakland hills after the 1991 fire. There was a lot of lighting to be designed for the rebuilt houses, which led the firm to Grown. Let’s catch up with him.
Upon arrival in Berkeley, Grown worked for Ohmega Slavage when it was owned by Steve Drobinsky. Grown also worked at Omega Too, where Jana Olson was working. Grown got good at and fascinated by lighting – the design, the function, the wiring – the whole deal.
While at Ohmega, a paid position came up working with Eugene Tsui (now spelled Tssui) in Emeryville, who I have written about here and here. Tssui is as far out as far out gets, and another great influence. Grown designed the sail-fin entrance and details around the interior spiral ramp for the fish house.
In these early years in Berkeley, Grown and Rybczynski aspired to be architects, but their side interest in lighting grew rapidly into a business with the work for the Oakland fire rebuild. They saw lighting as giving the “near-instant gratification of designing something in the morning and hanging it up as a product in the afternoon.” When it came to lighting, their aspiration was their own custom lighting business.
Which they started in 1993 (the year the first of their three daughters was born) first in their basement/garag eat 2655 Virginia and then in a small space with a green awning at 1106 Delaware at San Pablo. The business was named “Organically Grown Design Works.” Kudos to the Grown pun, but the name was a tad clunky, no?
The founding in 1993 means that Metro is celebrating its 25th anniversary in business this year. That’s no small accomplishment.
In 1995 they moved the showroom to 2216 San Pablo, and then in 1999 consolidated showroom and workshop at 2121 San Pablo. Next hey kept the showroom on Delaware they moved the workshop to 1336 Channing Way, the future home of Nick Bertoni’s Tinkers Workshop
In 1999 they consolidated at 2121 San Pablo. That site is now the Gaumenkitzel restaurant. The solar array Grown and Rybczynski had installed now powers the restaurant.
In 2009 they took over this diamond in the rough at 2240 San Pablo, near the intersection with Bancroft.
Grown describes it as having been a a busted up, neglected, “long low cave.” They worked with Jon Mora from JBM Construction and Charles Kahn from Kahn Design Associates (since merged with Abueg Morris Architects to become Studio KDA). They dug the truss structure of the roof and designed around it. They went as green as green can be, salvaging demolition lumber and waste, reusing furnishings from their store at 2121, installing a 21 kilowatt photovoltaic solar energy array along with water and energy saving systems, low-VOC paints, and wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council as coming from responsibly managed forests. They were ready to move in by January 2010, only six months after taking it over.
It cleaned up pretty good, didn’t it? Their efforts also won an the Acterra Award for Sustainable Built Environment, a Cool California Climate Leader Award, and a Residential Lighting Showroom of the Year Award
Let’s look at the lights.
These bottles become lights. They are collected locally, and cut and polished locally.
The ring fixture from which the bottle lamps are suspended are bicycle wheel rims. The fixtures are made here at Metro. We’ll see the back room later.
Before leaving bottles, check out these Coke bottle glasses. Yes, a stunt, but a cool stunt.
The light bulbs on the bottles above and these globes are vintage Edison filament bulbs. Many similar light bulbs at Metro are new technology LED filament bulbs, meant to look like the vintage bulbs, but ten times more efficient.
The same process is used to make these recycled glass plates, tumblers, and glasses.
These two lights are based on Buckminster Fuller’s work with tensegrity – a stable, three-dimensional structure where members under compression seem to float between cables under tension.
These two photos show light fixtures designed with an eye to mobiles created by Alexander Calder. There are two-tier and three-tier models.
Now some without explanations – just beauty.
Metro builds almost all the fixtures on site, collaborating with about eight different small glass artisans,
Here’s the shop, where the magic happens.
Also in the back are a couple thousand bottles, waited to be recycled/reused. They come from bars and restaurants and the West Berkeley recycling center. They go a hundred at a time to an Oakland glass shop for cutting and polishing.
Rybczynski still finds satisfaction and meaning in participatory design and collaboration. She feels that way about their staff and their clients – working together is the best.
Their major work for Walden was the Upper Group Play, an annual show put on by the 4th-6th graders, written and directed by Walden’s teacher of drama and movement Russell Wright. Rybczynski drew on her experience working in a sign shop in Toledo to make signs and stage sets. Grown made props.
Here are two examples of the stage sets:
Rybczynski was the art director and led the painting effort. The bright graffiti neighborhood mural was for “Oliver’s Urban Twist”, an original story by Russell Wright. His plays are always musicals which combine hip hop and other dance styles, singing show tunes and contemporary songs, and witty dialogue with progressive themes. The dark alley mural was for “Cats.”
She has her eye on the south-facing wall of Metro for a mural.
While on the creative front, this is a Little Free Pantry that they made and installed in front of their house. It was popular and well-used. And then one night it was stolen. Lock, stock, and barrel.
They are a driving force behind the West Berkeley Design Loop – Grown is the Executive Director. It is an alliance of West Berkeley’s independent design and building professionals and home improvement merchants. It’s not a business improvement district – no mandatory participation, just voluntary participation.
Grown’s other strong interest is Burning Man. He heard about the art at Burning Man and went to see. It had a profound influence. He has gone twice. Rybczynski admires the art but hasn’t gone. She is happy to avoid the heat and dust and to enjoy the photographs of Burning Man art in a coffee table book.
He has aligned with the Aqua Zone Camp through the neighbor of friends. The Aqua Zone is all about – water. The bar is all about – water, water from all over the world. Water to drink, water misted. A most precious commodity on the Playa. But mostly water of intention. Might you sometimes hope for a cocktail of hope and courage? Or peace and forgiveness? AquaZone provides.
Grown has made friends with other Burning Man artists.
This is Jon Sarriugarte working on the Snail Car. He is a blacksmith who designs and makes iron furniture, lighting, and accessories.
Justin Katz is an Associate Event Planner for Burning Man, part of the year-round staff. He coordinated the How Berkeley Can You Be parade for three years.
The Sonic Runway is a light-art installation that converts audio signals into a pattern of lights that shoot down a corridor of arches at the speed of sound.
That is one Very creative bunch of friends, no?
Which brings us right up to – but not into – a presentation about Grown’s Chilopod Project for Burning Man 2018.
Here is what stays with me about Grown and Rybczynski.
I love the image of Rybczynski talking with her professor Brad Grant for hours and hours, the image of his inspiration, and the image of Rybczynski devouring books on participatory design and choosing. I love the image of Grown seizing on Mike Reynolds and Gaudi and Hector Guimard – and these two young people from Ohio coming home to Berkeley, coming home to a place they’d never been before, to the place where they were meant to be, where Brad Grant knew that they should be. Berkeley is that way, whispering to us, “Here am I, your special city, come to me, come to me.” John Denver sang that “Saturday night in Toledo, Ohio, is like being nowhere at all.” Ohio was a place to leave, certainly, but still and more – Berkeley was the place to come, to be who they were meant to be. Long may it be so.
I showed the draft post to my friend.
First – one-upmanship.
“If you thought that you could slip in an allusion unnoticed to South Pacific with ‘special city’ you were wrong.
“My family went to see it at the Michigan Theater on Saginaw right when it came out in ’58. My parents didn’t indulge in much culture but Broadway musicals were a staple.”
Then to the subject matter at hand. “You nailed it boss. Berkeley drew people who wanted to create and design and build. These days it’s just a place to sleep when you commute to your tech job. They get excited about a micro-unit on Harold Way a block from BART and escape from Berkeley, not the chance to make something or be part of Berkeley. This is not a change for the better, is it?”
I agreed – it isn’t. What about the post about two American kids who grew up in the heartland?
I thought that for once he might change his words, may pay homage to his beloved Bill King. Nope. He stayed on script.