Working quietly in a section of a converted warehouse on the edge of downtown, Brian Schmitt makes mobiles, light fixtures and clocks.
His emphasis is on modern design, sustainable materials, local collaboration and, when it all comes together just right, timeless style. The pieces he builds, especially the mobiles, have two distinct markets: The smaller mobiles are mostly for residential use, while the large, one-of-a-kind commissions hang in public buildings, sell for thousands of dollars and often include airfare for Schmitt to meticulously install the work.
Large or small, the pieces also tell a story about Schmitt, his outlook on the world and his way of doing business, which has nothing to do with large-scale manufacturing, overseas outsourcing or extra-large profits.
"I'm trying to find the balance with something that's unique and beautiful, and something that's reasonably priced and made locally," Schmitt said during a recent visit to his studio, a 1,000-square-foot space within a large, rustic building he shares with other artisan designers and manufacturers.
"It's not easy, but I'm getting there."
Thanks to online retailing and plenty of word of mouth via design blogs, Schmitt's reputation continues to grow nationally, even if he has few customers in Sacramento. Those who find his products tend to be niche consumers folks seeking something smart, meaningful, responsibly made and different.
People are willing to pay for those kinds of attributes. His bamboo pendant lamps sell for $250 to $318, depending on the size and type of grain. He has several styles of mobiles, ranging in price from $89 to $248. The "Bloom" wall clock made of bamboo is $268.
Compared with modern home furnishings at mass retailers like CB2 or West Elm, Schmitt Design's products are not cheap. But Schmitt isn't willing to water down his ideals simply to compete.
While he makes most of his products by hand in his studio, he is looking more and more to build relationships through local (or nearly local) outsourcing for work such as laser cutting, water jet cutting, welding, powder-coating, screen-printing and porcelain slip-casting. His aim is to outsource within 150 miles of Sacramento.
One of his latest mobile designs, for instance, is made of lightweight steel in four "undulating, curvilinear" shapes Schmitt has laser cut at a shop in West Sacramento. Then he sends the pieces to Oroville to be powder-coated. An award-winning pendant lamp he is gearing up to bring to market is actually slip-cast at a small Oakland ceramics shop owned by a young husband-wife team that is able to make only seven lamps per week.
These kinds of relationships cost more, but they also mean more to Schmitt, and to those who buy from him.
"I'm catering to a market of consumers who want to know the story of the product. There's a value in that," Schmitt said. "More and more people are asking about the story, and more and more people are sharing the story."
Those consumers tend to shop at places like Propeller (www.propellermodern.com), the 10-year-old San Francisco retailer that helped launch Schmitt's work to a broader audience.
"We started working with Brian when he was doing a series of mobiles. Propeller is predicated upon smaller, young, independent, emerging designers, and he fit that bill," said Lorn Dittfield, Propeller's owner. "The work was very interesting to me very simple and beautiful, working with natural materials."
The Sacramento-area connections are beginning to pay off with new business for Schmitt. Interior designer Curtis Popp, who is working on the new Grebitus & Sons Jewelers opening in November at the Palladio in Folsom and shares Schmitt's local outsourcing ethos, commissioned him to create a large mobile for the foyer of the new store.
Schmitt said folks looking to add new design elements to their homes can start small and focus on work that has substance.
"It's easy to have so much clutter in your life and nothing has any meaning," he said. "When you strip it down to the things that have meaning, you can feel that."
Most days, Schmitt rides his bike to his studio from the east Sacramento home he shares with his wife, Anne, a vegetation ecologist with the California Department of Fish and Game. The couple moved to Sacramento from the Bay Area in 2009 and have an 18-month-old son.
Schmitt's work took a major turn in recent weeks when one of his translucent porcelain pendant lamps won the award for best lighting at Dwell on Design a major coup in design circles. Held in Los Angeles in June, it is known as the premier design event on the West Coast.
"I was honored and humbled and surprised," Schmitt said. "I felt validation for all the work that went into it. I've been trying to get into Dwell Magazine for years."
Schmitt's new lamp is in the October issue.
He has already won the respect of those who appreciate the precision, balance and aesthetic beauty of his mobiles. He installed a new custom-designed mobile at State University of New York, Delhi, at a cost of $18,000. In 2010, he did a piece for SUNY Empire State College for $7,000. And he just competed for and won a commission to install a group of three sculptural light fixtures at Foothill College in Los Altos.
"It's a big responsibility, but it's exciting that I could have something that's so high-profile," he said of the large commissioned pieces.
In recent months, a Seattle homeowner spotted his work online and asked Schmitt to design a special mobile for her high-ceiling loft home. Schmitt jumped at the challenge and came up with a striking mobile that includes lighting, a first for him.
"I have very specific tastes and I didn't see anything that caught my eye until I saw Brian's mobiles on the Internet. Like most homeowners, there is a desire to furnish the home to your tastes. I think Brian and I have similar taste," said Amy Kim, a Seattle lawyer whose concrete-and-steel loft is her first home.
After he built the mobile, Schmitt packed it in a container that resembled a coffin, complete with four pages of instructions for how to assemble and install it in the home.
"I like it a lot. It's gentle and very calming," Kim said of the mobile. "You stare at it and it's almost hypnotic."
There is likely a story or two there, as well.