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Red Lights: Two Vintage Fans Bring Soviet-Era Light Fixtures to the US

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It's not everyday two small business owners decide to start a company deliberately planning on going out of business. But that was the plan when 35-year-old Nate Jackson and 26-year-old Taylor Kaszynski started Fine-Ass Furnishings in Minneapolis in 2014. The business partners and vintage fans decided they wanted to take an epic salvage trip, so they weren't planning for their temporary company to fail, but rather wanted it to serve as a fundraising tool for a bigger adventure: traveling across Russia to find industrial, Soviet-era light fixtures, with the intention of bringing them home and selling them in the United States with their new company, FIXT Electric Co..

"Taylor and I noticed that when it came to industrial light fixtures, we saw a lot of the same things," says Jackson. "We thought, 'what other country may have a similar amount of old factories and vintage lighting?' Russia."

Many fans of authentic, industrial-era decor are willing to drive a few extra miles, or sort through dusty warehouses, to find just the right piece of vintage lighting. But how many are willing to pack up their lives, move to Russia, and begin negotiating with Siberian gypsies?

Jackson and Kaszynski has been involved in the vintage and industrial world for a long time, and during their month-long trip to Russia in September, they utilized the same tactics they did at home to find inventory: look for factories going out of business, search through scrap yards, and research old businesses or stores. It's about asking a lot of questions and getting your hands dirty. This time, they just added a translator, and had the added pressure of needing to locate enough fixtures to justify the expensive of their Soviet salvage trip.

At the end of their trip, mostly around Moscow, the duo had found more than 3,000 fixtures they could bring home, representing more than 50 models. The pieces varied wildly, both in provenance (they have pieces from East Germany, Poland, Ukraine as well as Russia) and style (some resembled Bauhaus designs, some looked industrial, and the explosion-proof munition pendants contained half-inch thick pieces of glass). Most of the fixtures, made of cast aluminum, are solid as a rock. Jackson discovered that instead of brands, the fixtures were designated by factories, and in many cases, the same factories used the same methods and materials for decades.

"You can see how a parallel economic system formed out here," says Jackson. "Russia is an untapped resource for interior design. While we're in awe of American vintage items, there's a whole world out there in Russia, completely separate from US engineers and architects. A good comparison would be the rise of the Asian culinary techniques and skills versus French techniques and skills."

A shipping container filled with Soviet light fixtures.

The tricky part was getting everything home. In addition to renting a warehouse to store their finds, they needed to remove all the light bulbs (vintage bulbs may contain toxic materials such as mercury), work with customs officials in both countries, and make sure you're not violating antiquities laws.

"Everything tells a history, and people want to preserve their history," says Jackson. "It's not like you can pull out a barcode and a label and say, 'I'm bringing in 10,000 coffee brewers.' You're bringing in something unique."

All the pieces, packed in a shipping container, traveled by boat then rail to Minneapolis, where FIXT Lighting is now selling the vintage Russian fixtures (which are cleaned and rewired, and start at roughly $200 for a small sconce) to interested buyers. Right now, FIXT is focused on growing the business, and has found buyers from restaurants as far away as Los Angeles. Jackson believes the variety of fixtures, and their uniqueness, should attract plenty of customers. The pair is already planning their trip back to Russia, and wants to expand into seating and bring back chairs. When you already have the right contacts, a salvaging trip to Siberia seems like the next logical step.

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