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Big Island business recognized in national contest

Updated: 
September 17, 2015 - 1:30am

Leilehua Yuen started apprenticing with her father by sweeping the shop where he designed and crafted his Malama Torch lights.

“Then you move to drawing the design,” Yuen said in an interview on Wednesday. “Then cleaning the steel.” To many young people, this kind of old-school process can seem boring.

“But you’re layering up,” Yuen continued. If your eye can’t see a speck of steel on the floor of the shop, how will it be able to tell if the intricate design of a handmade light fixture is just right?

Donald Namohala Yuen began creating Malama Torches in 1967. The first set he sold went to the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel (they are still there). There was a lot at stake when Yuen first began burning designs into the steel fixtures.

“I was terrified of the torch when I started,” she said. But her long apprenticeship had paid off.

“I’ve never seen anybody use a torch as a paintbrush,” husband Manu Josiah said. Josiah handles metalwork and parts cutting, and uses his experience in financial management to manage the economic side of the couple’s business.

Donald Namohala Yuen remains involved (“We’re still apprenticing,” Josiah said), and often lends his keen design eye to custom projects. Still, in many ways, the torch has quite literally been passed along.

In 2008, Yuen and Josiah launched LeiManu Designs, where they’ve built upon the Malama Torch legacy with new designs and a new line of electric lighting for indoor and outdoor use.

The business is a foundation that allows them to work in the community, Josiah explained. It’s allowed them to sponsor events like the Hilo Intertribal Powwow and Hilo Lei Day, and to support local scholarships and cultural projects.

On Wednesday, the Big Island couple received a boost of support of their own, when they received $100,000 from Mission Main Street Grants, a program created by Chase three years ago to help small businesses. Later this year, they will travel to California to take part in a small business boot camp put on by LinkedIn, a major sponsor of the grant program.

Yuen and Josiah faced tough competition: More than 30,000 businesses across the country applied for the grant, a record number for the Mission Main Street program. An initial round of public online voting narrowed the field for a group of judges.

And ultimately, just 20 finalists received the grant.

LeiManu Designs is the first Hawaii-based business, and the first Native Hawaiian-owned business, to receive one.

“I think we still acknowledge how important it is for us to be involved in the community as a business and as individuals,” Josiah said.

The electrical components are made in Hawaii as well. LeiManu Designs works with Oahu-based landscape architects Beachside Lighting, which also handles much of the marketing for the torches.

“It sells as fast as we can make it,” Yuen said.

They are currently working on a custom order for Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville restaurant in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Because Beachside Lighting places orders, Yuen and Josiah often don’t see their handiwork in its permanent home. But sometimes they just stumble on it. Once, they were walking around Waikiki and stopped short in front of the Cheesecake Factory, where some familiar-looking torches lit the exterior.

“There they were,” Josiah said.

The designs on the lighting fixtures typically feature native plants and native birds. For some of Josiah’s other creations, like musical instruments, he deliberately turns to invasive species.

Inspired by the massive stand of invasive bamboo in his own yard, Josiah decided to turn a problem into a positive. He brings the flutes he creates to classrooms, along with the unshaped bamboo. It’s a way to talk to kids about invasives while encouraging them to be creative in how these species are managed.

The Mission Main Street grant will be used to incorporate more community and educational outreach into LeiManu Designs. But it also will also be used as an investment in the future. Yuen and Josiah are now finding apprentices of their own, and the grant will allow them to support the newest generation.

“It’s important to find people we can leave a legacy to,” Josiah said.

Email Ivy Ashe at iashe@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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