How a Few Lighting Companies Stay All-American
 

Anomalies in today's import-heavy lighting industry, an assortment of spirited companies stay true to their artisanal roots, eschewing outsourcing in favor of hands-on involvement in the manufacturing process. Here, a handful of designers reveal their studios' unique perspective on illumination and the reasoning behind their decision to stay stateside.


Company: A-19
Location: Ontario, CA
Est.: 1995

Fueled by inspiration, a passion for detail and the satisfaction of creating singular works of illuminated art, Cinnamon Alvarez and her nine-person team of artisans lovingly create handcrafted ceramic pendants and wall sconces from their home away from home, the A-19 studio in Ontario, CA.

"All of our pieces are built to order," says Alvarez, studio designer and founder. "It makes the process fun; we're not just stamping out parts. Each piece is different, a work of art."

Each A-19 design begins as a sculpture, usually made of plaster, from which a series of molds is made. Artisans pour liquid clay into the form, and once the edges reach the desired thickness, they drain the remaining liquid from the center.

"That's where the real labor starts," Alvarez explains. Artisans put each given piece through a number of paces: It is hand-cut, sanded, cleaned, washed and then fired in a kiln for eight hours.

The kiln cools overnight, completing the bisque firing process, and the piece then undergoes additional sanding and quality inspection. From there, a faux finish or color glaze — each requiring an additional firing — is hand-applied before the light fixture can be assembled and wired. For small, "onesie or twosie" orders, the entire procedure takes less than two weeks from start to ship.

"That's something the larger importers can't do," Alvarez says. "We can't handle larger volumes, and we can't compete on price, but we differentiate ourselves [by] focusing on our unique, high-quality products and our commitment to our customers, and we definitely take pride in that."


Company: Birch & Willow
Location: Boston
Est.: 1997

Katherine Ahern, founder of Birch & Willow, stumbled upon her career as a lighting artist only after a making her way down several other professional paths.

"I just wanted something different," Ahern says. "I had worked for years as a film animator, and a career counselor insisted that I give art another try."

Thankfully, she did, and Birch & Willow was born. Intrigued by light and shadow, Ahern and her small, part-time team of local artists (all have other artsy gigs) scour wooded areas for local plants — bittersweet, wisteria and grape-vines — and saplings, which they ultimately weave into one-of-a-kind light fixtures.

"These plants are incredibly destructive," Ahern says. "They wrap themselves around trees, and the tree doesn't have a chance. They're beautiful (bittersweet grows all over Massachusetts and has these wonderful fall berries), but people are anxious to get rid of the stuff."

Once gathered and brought back to the studio, the branches and vines must soak — some for several days depending on their thickness. Birch & Willow artists then weave the now-pliant materials into one of five different styles, paying as much attention to the intricate shadow it will throw when illuminated as to the look of the finished piece. The designs are treated with an industrial flame retardant, wired and sent out to the client. Everything in Ahern's shop is made to order.

"The way I have designed my business suits my personality," Ahern says. "People have approached me, telling me they can help me get parts from China, but the conversation didn't go any further because that's not appealing to me. I like being a cottage industry. I like being part of the process. I like interacting with my customers."


Company: Stonegate Designs
Location: St. Joseph, MO
Est.: 1998

Known for its unique, high-quality lighting created by a cache of celebrated design houses like Fusion Z and Zia-Priven, Stonegate Designs has strategically positioned itself at the cusp of the custom craze.

"U.S. manufacturers [who don't outsource] don't compete on price; they can't," Stonegate's Bill Carle Jr. says. "Flexibility is our advantage. All of our products are made right here, and we can change a product from our line to meet our client's preferences. And home fashion is all about personal preferences."

From the initial concept to the finished design, Stonegate's manufacturing processes are performed in-house. The lighting is not created completely by hand, however.

"We want to stay away from calling our products 'handcrafted,'" Carle says. "We use machines; we have to in order to stay viable. But we are proud that all our products are designed and manufactured in the U.S."

Stonegate uses automated processes when possible, as long as they don't detract from the quality of the finished piece. According to Carle, a few processes must be done by hand, such as hand-finished wood or metalwork and anything else that requires a human touch to give it personality.


Company: Derek Marshall Lighting
Location: Sandwich, NH
Est.: 1971

After falling in love with Japanese art and culture while stationed on the island nation with the military, Derek Marshall returned to Japan years later to study at the City University of Fine Art in Kyoto. Now the owner of his own lighting company, Marshall draws on what he refers to as "the incredible Japanese sensibility" to create unique glass pendants and sconces right here at home.

"I don't make Japanese designs," Marshall says. “But I am inspired by Japanese culture and try to use the same consideration for what's visually stunning — symmetry and form — and what’s appropriate. I try to live my life in that way, too.”

Surrounded by open land among the foothills of New Hampshire's White Mountains, Marshall's studio sits right next to his home. It's a limited production facility: He designs the glass — beginning with ceramic forms, making molds and then shaping and firing the material in the kiln — and he enlists the help of a friend, a blacksmith, to do all the ironwork.

"My sense of design arises from my surroundings," Marshall says. "I get up, go to my studio, and I can't imagine letting someone else do my work for me. Nothing leaves without my fingerprints all over it."


Company: Chandi
Location: Los Angeles
Est.: 1997

With visions of flea market finds and vintage crystal dancing in her head, designer Meredith Clark set out to handcraft dazzling light fixtures awash in crystal beading, metal jewelry chains and natural stones. Through her company, Chandi, Clark employs a team of three other artisans who operate out of a small studio in Los Angeles.

"The designs start out as inspiration, or quite often now, it's working with what a specific client wants," Clark says. "It's a rough idea or shape, and it starts out as a sketch."

With an idea on paper, Clark works with a local welder to create a metal frame, which inevitably is not quite right, “so we have to go back and modify,” she says. Once the frame meets Clark’s exacting standards, Chandi's artisans apply a finish and then play around with beading and other materials to give the piece its signature sparkle. All the wiring is also done in the Chandi studio.

"For me it's always been about the hand-crafted [element]," Clark says. “There's a visceral difference between these pieces and something that’s been mass-produced. It's the work that goes in and the detail in each piece. [Making pieces ourselves] also allows us to work one-on-one with our clients, and I love that. Everything we do is customized, and no two pieces are exactly the same."


Company: Fourteenth Colony Lighting
Location: Memphis, TN
Est.: 1982

One of the last remaining large-scale manufacturers to employ traditional metalworking techniques, Fourteenth Colony Lighting (founded by Jimmie Graham) is proud that each and every component of its chandeliers and lanterns has been made — from start to finish — in-house by one of its 14 tinsmiths or four blacksmiths.

"Everything is done in the shop [a 32,000-square-foot facility]," Manager Matthew White says. "And all the raw materials are local, except when a client asks for something specific, like glass from Italy."

Fourteenth Colony designs take form in one of two ways: Either company managers and a group of retailers get together over a few beers to come up with new concepts, or the company decides to continue producing a successful custom design. Craftsmen, some apprenticed through a special company program, then work the raw steel, copper and brass using solder irons, coal forging and roofing-grade gauges (no rivets are used on any of the pieces).

"We've learned what craftsmen mastered 100 years ago," White says. "This kind of metalwork can only be done by hand."

 
 


Company: Mica Lamp Co.
Location: Glendale, CA
Est.: 1991

Business partners Ralph Ribicic and Hannes Schachtner started Mica Lamp Co. in response to a growing public interest in reviving the Arts & Crafts style. Schachtner was confident he could make the best copper parts if Ribicic could give him a lamp company.

Decades later, Mica Lamp Co. is as synonymous with hand-crafted Arts & Crafts lighting as it is with high quality and spot-on attention to detail.

"Everything Mica Lamp does has a connection to the past when it comes to design," says Ribicic, President of Mica Lamp. "Every design starts out as a prototype [handmade by Schachtner and Ribicic in their studio], which is based on an antique design we've seen on exhibit in a museum or at an auction or that we've found while scouring various photos and documents of historical interiors."

A dozen or so artisans take over from there, stretching copper for the company's revival designs, hammering and forging iron for traditional 1930s iron reproductions and shellacking the signature mica mineral lenses that are used in all of Mica's designs.

"As more of the world produces its decorative arts with a mass-produced process, the evidence of the human touch and hand in the product disappears," Ribicic says. "Not only are the styles we make based on 100-year-old models, so are the details that can only be produced by hand-making."

Ribicic explains that what further separates Mica from the fray is that like other small studios, the company has the ability to control and maintain design integrity: "It's by giving personal attention to the execution of details that we're able to maintain that historical accuracy."
 

Company: Ultralights
Location: Tuscon, AZ
Est.: 1988

Founded by Jim Restin, Ultralights made it its mission early on to create quality, handcrafted, time-tested products. That meant making them close to home in a Tucson, AZ, studio.

"Our process really lends itself to a unique product," says Chris Bedwell, Director of Business Development. "It allows us to come out with a consistent base product that we can modify at any time. But our choice to manufacture our product here in the U.S. also is an ethical decision. We want to support the local community by using local materials and giving local people jobs."

During the manufacturing process, a team of 25 to 30 artisans rolls, breaks, sands and grinds glass, acrylic and metals by hand before they apply the company's signature patinas or powdercoating and hand-assemble the final pieces.

For the folks at Ultralights, this intimate working atmosphere also breeds a sense of camaraderie.

"We're a cool, quirky company," Bedwell says. "Our owners really care about us, and we love them for it." Even Ultralights' tag line — "Lighting with the human element" — reflects pride in both the quality of its products and the way they're made.
 

Company: Fire Farm Inc.
Location: Elkader, IA
Est.: 1991

While Americans were still reeling from the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and doing business in China was becoming more attractive than ever, Fire Farm President Adam Pollack decided to pick up and move his small and struggling lighting company from Oakland, CA, to rural Elkader, IA. Thanks to an improved quality of life for Pollack and his family and the eager and skilled workforce available to him in Elkader, the risky business decision proved to be a turning point for the company.

"Our people have carried us more than anything," Pollack says. "A long time ago, I made the decision to make my lighting in the U.S. — to be close to the materials and the process — and [when we moved the business to Iowa], I was really impressed by the quality of workers and felt an obligation that if I could create jobs, I should. So, we dove back in and after a few rough years of figuring things out, we found a way that we could make things work."

Focusing on its virtually endless custom capabilities, Fire Farm approaches lighting as sculpture instead of interior design. "We engage the material — hold it up to the light, bend it, torch it, put it in the oven — just to see what it wants to do or what it didn't know it wanted to do," Pollack says.

The company's signature metallic mesh, for example, begins as rolls of copper, brass or bronze thread. Artisans then weave the material, hand-hem the edges and crumple or fold it to create the volume of the form.

"Amazingly, it holds its [shape], and after all the years of working with this material, it still draws me in," Pollack says. "It's just so very beautiful the way it diffuses the light and breaks it up like candlelight."

Pollack and his team often start out with a sketch or idea, but because the materials are so largely unpredictable in their performance, Fire Farm artisans have to come up with modifications and creative solutions on the fly. After all, that's what keeps things interesting.

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