Copper in the Arts

February 2011

The Mica Lamp Company: Beautiful Lighting Inspired by Turn-of-the-Century Craftsmanship

By Nancy Ballou

Installing a Mica Lamp. Installing a Mica Lamp.

Photograph courtesy of Ralph Ribicic

When Hannes Schachtner apprenticed at a metal shop in a Munich, Germany, at the age of 14 for no pay, he never could have imagined where it would take him. After coming to the United States in 1953, he got a job spinning metal at Hermann's Metal Spinning, and eventually bought this company in 1967. He continued to evolve his metal work, and went on to create high profile custom items, including the rims of the Lunar Excursion Module vehicle that landed on the moon in 1969 and the relay torches used in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Schachtner became aware of a growing interest in all things Craftsman/Mission in the late 1980s. "I attended a 'Made in California' exhibit in Pasadena where I noticed the Van Erp turn-of-the-century copper lamps. I thought to myself, I can do that." Van Erp had been a coppersmith/metalsmith best known for his lamps made of copper with mica shades. He was prominent in the Arts & Crafts Movement and active in Oakland and San Francisco circa 1910. Schachtner studied and researched the materials, technical design and construction in order to produce the high-end period authentic lamps and lighting fixtures.

The Mica Lamp Company was founded in 1991 when Schachtner added a partner to increase lamp and lighting production using the original old-world methods of forming copper, forging/casting iron and hammer-driven riveting. The two companies are connected by shared ownership and location. Schachtner is semi-retired but still involved with Hermann's Metal Spinning. "I am mostly a figurehead at this time," says Schachter. "My son, John, is learning all about metal spinning and has become quite knowledgeable. Our professional craftsmen have been in this business for years and have trained themselves. So the art of metal spinning goes on as my son follows in my footsteps."

Co-owner Ralph Ribicic is president of the Mica Lamp Company located right across the street from Hermann's. They create styles that include American Arts & Crafts, Vintage Iron (1920s-1930s) and, most recently, Mid-Century Modern (1940s). The lamps and lighting are all heirloom quality, built in the USA and handcrafted following the original Craftsman formula.

The technique of metal spinning begins at Hermann's.

A custom, life sized Mica lamp. A custom, life sized Mica lamp.

Photograph courtesy of Ralph Ribicic

"We buy 36 x 96 sheets of copper at least 2,000 pounds at a time," Schachtner explains. "First it gets cut into squares, then cut into discs. Copper used to be uneven and often had to be annealed but today's copper is perfect and easier to work with. Of course, it has doubled in price recently."

Next, this thin, round, flat disc of copper is placed next to a shaped steel form of the desired shape and is inserted into a lathe. One of the experienced craftsmen starts turning it at a very fast rate while a pair of steel rods stretches the copper material over the form. This process is performed cautiously so the spinning does not make the copper become too hot. Within minutes, that flat disc begins to look more like a bell. The metal is then shaped to form a copper lamp base. Many of the table lamps have copper bases that look like milk cans. Occasionally teachers and other professionals make arrangements for students to observe the metal spinning process at Hermann's.

Ribicic explains further, "Copper is a soft malleable metal that requires a skilled craftsman to shape it without overworking it into a brittle, imploding material. It is pleasing to Craftsman-era artisans due to its plastic qualities and earthy salmon-copper colors that are enhanced through oxidation. All copper parts are made from custom tools at Hermann's and then transferred, assembled with hand-driven copper rivets, patina finished with hand-applied traditional oxidizing solution and made into lamps and fixtures at Mica Lamp Company."

Flecks of mica, a mineral which has added color and texture to prehistoric paintings found on cave walls, have been excellent at reflecting and refracting light over the ages. The Arts & Crafts Movement of the late 19th Century made mica's rough, natural texture a perfect fit within their celebration of rustic handmade production.

Mica Lamp owners Ralph Ribicic and Hannes Schachtner. Mica Lamp owners Ralph Ribicic and Hannes Schachtner.

Photograph courtesy of Ralph Ribicic
"Our mica is a domestically made product," reports Ribicic. "Mica mineral is found on all continents and once was mined in the Appalachian Mountains but most of the United States' mica mines were shut down in the 1930s due to the rough working conditions. We follow the original formula by processing the mica mineral flakes (splittings/shavings), cleaning and layering them, then pressing them with organic shellac. They are then milled to the required thickness, the lens shape is cut and each shade panel is heat softened before being pressed into a mold."

After they are trimmed, molded and shaped into shades, the electric wires are fit into the housings. Solid brass chain pulls and sockets are added. Each lamp boasts a unique arrangement of variegated mineral deposits and color tones. The natural, random, uneven patterns have the aesthetic Craftsman-era style.

"It's like stepping back into the 1930s," Ribicic says.

The old-world copper lamps are practical as well as beautiful. They are lighter than glass, shatterproof and heat resistant. The newer, modern designs of Mid-Century lighting utilize the same techniques for items like Mondrian chandeliers. These feature a square pattern of heavy steel mesh layered over mica mineral lens. Lens colors vary from orange to almond.

Putting the finishing touches on a large Mica chandelier. Putting the finishing touches on a large Mica chandelier.

Photograph courtesy of Ralph Ribicic

According to Ribicic, "All color appearances that occur in fabricated mica sheet come from the laminating material that holds the mica splittings together, traditionally shellac resin. Natural organic shellac is almond in color. Dark orange to light amber color tones are achieved by adding or limiting coats of shellac. We offer the option of fitting lens frames with mica mineral or art glass panels."

From lamp shade panels to cylinders to domes, the Mica Lamp Company has made forming the authentic mica their specialty. Their large dome chandelier is a single molded unit of mica mineral that emits a natural warm amber glow without the weight or fragile nature of glass or alabaster stone. Their tendril vine lamps maintain the American Arts & Crafts style of all copper, rivet construction and authentic mica mineral shades with copper filigree overlay.

Love of the turn-of-the-century era is now reflected in Mica Lamp's collection of state-of-the-art ceiling fans and designer lighting fixtures with copper rivet construction, traditional mica mineral shade and dark copper patina. Today's line of lighting can be seen in casinos, restaurants and homes. Ideas can be engineered to any design, including all-weather finishes for outdoor lighting. The firm has carried Arts & Crafts values into the 21st Century without sacrificing Craftsman-styling materials or principles.

The Mica Lamp Company maintains a permanent display at the Dallas World Trade Center and the Denver Merchandise Mart. Lamps are sold exclusively at independent retail showrooms throughout the U.S. They also produce custom and commercial models.

Resources:

Mica Lamp Company, 517 State St., Glendale, CA, (818) 241-7227

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