Steve Handelman started his first business with $60.
He used a paycheck he received from the Army to make handmade leather goods in the late 1960s in St. Louis.
“All you had to do was buy some hand tools, the leather and dye and start working,” Handelman said. “I worked in my parent’s house and set up a shop in their basement.”
The University of Missouri business graduate continued his self-taught artistic pursuits through a “resurgence in crafts” spurred by the hippie culture, he said. Now, Handelman’s work can be seen at the revamped Granada Theatre in Santa Barbara or at Disneyland.
Steven Handelman Studios, 716 N. Milpas St., which at its height had 106 employees, designed and manufactured each of the 250 handmade traditional lighting fixtures at The Granada, including chandeliers, wall sconces and pendants. Many of the outdoor lanterns that adorn the worldwide Disney theme parks are also Handelman’s products.
“I picked this business I’m currently doing because it had the components that could grow, and you could scale it and export it,” he said. “... There was an enormous vacuum in the lighting business; there was a real niche waiting.”
It started with junior high shop class. Handelman described it as his favorite place because he had a natural affinity for making things.
When Handelman arrived in Santa Barbara in 1972, he sold individual pieces of architectural products like stained glass and custom doors that he made out of his home. When he decided to break into the lighting business, he created a catalog that he printed at Kinko’s and sold ads in design magazines that put him in a national spotlight.
“We do stuff that’s not immediately available, that’s really high quality, more traditional and sort of a whimsical fantasy quality to it,” Handelman explained.
The Granada remodel, which was completed in 2008, features a 1920s Spanish colonial revival style that accentuates handcrafted details and patterns, he said.
“How often does a designer get to participate in the restoration of a grand, Gilded Age entertainment and motion picture palace when it’s being transformed into a state-of-the-art, regional performing arts center?” asked Handelman, adding that all of those who on the project were locals.
After working on hundreds of projects like The Granada, Handelman has ditched the printed catalog and recently revamped his online showroom to better display his products.
Ironically, Handelman said he originally made a living in the field of design because people were reacting to technology and living minimally.
“Coincidentally at the end of the ‘60s, included in this counter-culture revolution, people were embracing arts and crafts again,” he said. “I saw it as sort of a reaction to technology, and I still see it as a reaction to technology.”