Laguna Beach isn’t the most obvious place to find a trio of minimalist designers looking to redefine the way people view modern lighting. Yet the laid-back southern California surfing town is where Cerno founders Nick Sheridan, Bret Englander, and Dan Wacholder met as children and grew their common love of modern design into a business. In 2009 they founded Cerno, a company dedicated to creating energy-efficient lighting solutions that verge on art.
Englander heads up sales and marketing, Sheridan and his background in architecture informs the designs, and Wacholder oversees engineering and operations. Working almost exclusively in LED, Cerno marries form and function through a bond that’s so intuitive that it conveys a sense of confidence and comfort in their process. “Daniel and Nick have been building and creating things together for more than 20 years, and often they appear to be communicating via telepathy,” says Englander. “It’s a beautiful thing to watch.”
That same year Cerno was founded, things were changing at YLighting as well. In 2009, Sean Callahan took the reigns as CEO and his first order of business was to find compelling new brands to help grow the company’s offerings. It couldn’t have been better timing. Both sides found commonalities in their company cultures (both Californian), design ethos, and forward-thinking mindsets and they struck up a relationship that has lasted 10 years strong—and counting. To mark this decennial celebration, we caught up with Sean and the guys at Cerno to talk about that moment of kismet 10 years ago and why this partnership has been so special to both companies.
Sean, take us back to 10 years ago, where this story begins.
SE: Cerno was founded shortly after I started with YLighting, now YDesign Group. And we are both California based companies. So in many ways we grew up together in lighting. From a cultural standpoint they were good, authentic people that had a passion for what they were doing. That remains true today and is very much consistent with the YDG culture. Any company that can work as hard as they do AND make time for surfing are my kind of people!
Laguna Beach is beautiful. Did the natural environment of the community have any impact on the ideals of the company?
BE: Many creatives and entrepreneurs call Laguna Beach home, and growing up it was a huge inspiration to see people starting companies and finding success. At the core of Cerno is a love for design and making things, and also the decades-old friendship that me, Daniel and Nick share. As the company has grown, we try to share why we started Cerno with our team and communicate a sense of pride for being part of making quality products in a quality environment in the United States.
Do you continue to draw inspiration from the surroundings of the natural environment of Laguna Beach?
BE: When you spend the amount of time that we did on, or in the ocean, it becomes part of your DNA. The sea is both an anchor and a compass; it grounds you and gives you a sense of direction. We feel very fortunate to call Laguna Beach home, and the people and place continue to influence and inspire us today. Our new linear pendant the Lenis was directly inspired by our love for boats and the ocean. This fixture also brought up a lot of memories because the first project we built together 25 years ago was a sailboat.
Sean, what drew you to Cerno so many years ago?
SC: David Feldman—who was a co-founder of YLighting and has a discerning eye for good design—and I both saw the promise when we first saw their designs back in 2009. From a design perspective, they had a point of view—and still do—that you can see in their designs from then to this day. I would describe it as the use of natural wood and metal materials in clean, elegant forms. And they were ‘LED native’ designers as they committed to it from the start and did not have a legacy design mindset that needed to account for incandescent technology considerations. Their designs have always reflected the possibilities created by LED technology. This seems obvious now, but they were well ahead of that trend. Their design ethos is very aligned with the YLighting brand.
Since the beginning, wood has been the main material in the majority of Cerno’s fixtures. How and why was this decided?
BE: The natural beauty of a material that grows in nature is something man cannot replicate. We love the variations in each piece. And although it’s a laborious material to finish, it’s also a forgiving material. Our team does a fantastic job of understanding how to use each material. We use wood when it best suits the product we are designing.
SC: The Silva Table Lamp is one that they gave us a very early version of back when it was introduced. It captures some of what I love about Cerno – use of wood and metal in a clean, elegant form. And was LED before that was close to the norm. It still feels very current today.
Tell us about the different wood types you use.
BE: We primarily use American black walnut. However, we also work with maple and oak quite a bit. There is no oak in the standard line, but a lot of our custom projects use it.
As Sean mentioned earlier, Cerno started using LEDs before most of the industry. How has LED technology changed over the years, and how does it affect the design process?
BE: LEDs continue to improve, which is exciting. We always try to source color temperatures that suit the anticipated application best, which in our case is usually 2700K. But we are now offering a lot of the product in 3500K as well. We also only use LEDs with a high CRI. At Cerno, our goal is to be continually innovating and improving. So, we are always exploring new methods and technologies.
From inception to creation, every fixture is made in your factory in Irvine. Can you tell us about this process?
BE: A cohesive design process allows for our designer’s (Nick Sheridan) original intent to be respected and preserved through the entire process. Having a vertically integrated process means nothing gets lost in translation. As Cerno products evolve from the design and proof of concept stage through engineering and onto production, the entire team is communicating and works together to make sure the product is resolved. Which is where the name Cerno came from; it means ‘to resolve’ in Latin.
SE: YDG has always been keen to support USA based designers—so it is great to see them hold that distinctive design approach and authenticity while they have grown so much commercially. I feel fortunate to have been able to grow the partnership between the companies over the past 10 years.
How do you make your factory and production process more sustainable/environmentally friendly?
BE: The most environmentally responsible thing a manufacturer can do is make high quality products that are built to last, so they do not end up in a landfill. We also always strive to get the highest yields possible out of our raw materials. We recycle the majority of our scrap metal, and we donate a lot of our extra wood to local craftspeople. Making everything at one location is also inherently better for the environment because it reduces the number of trips that the materials/products take from the raw material stage to finished product and then onto the customer.
So what’s new for year number 10? And what are your thoughts on the next 10 years?
BE: The Penna collection is a celebration and reflection of our first 10 years, with a pendant (shown above) and sconce launching this year. Many of the hard taught lessons we learned are embodied in the Penna family. We are also launching our first outdoor products this summer, which is exciting for the team. Our goal is to continue innovating and building a company where people want to work. Looking forward, we want to continue producing products that are known for their design and craftsmanship.
I need to extend a special thank you to Sean and the team at YDG. They took a chance on us when we were just getting started. Sean answered my cold-call, which meant a lot then and is an accurate reflection of Y’s appetite to innovate and take chances on something new and unproven.
SE: Both companies have grown a lot in the past 10 years. And that requires evolving how you work in many ways. It is tough to mature the way you need to be a successful scale business, while still keeping that core authenticity that makes you unique and keeps you energized. I think Cerno has managed this balance better then most. From my perspective we have simply matured how we work to best support a larger, more complex partnership. They are a trusted partner that we invest in because we believe in their designs and have confidence they care as much about getting it right for the customer as we do. I have a lot of respect for how they have built and continue to build Cerno.
The most exciting part is that we are still in the early stages of the potential for the partnership. Looking forward to the next 10 years as the partnership has so much more room to grow.
Team Y is a dedicated group of design devotees. We love everything that has to do with modern design, from products like lighting, furniture and decor all the way to interior design, architecture and city planning. What inspired the design? How does it work? What does it mean? We want to know. And once we know, we are constantly inspired to share what we've discovered with others who love design as well. That's Y.