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Creating their market by hand

Times Staff Writer

Cesar Villarreal puts a thin disc of copper in his lathe and gets it spinning, then uses a pair of steel rods to coax the metal over a mold.

In unskilled hands, there’s a risk the spinning copper will get too hot, making it brittle and prone to break. But with an experienced craftsman such as Villarreal, 55, there’s no chance of that happening.

A few minutes later, the flat disc looks more like a bell. It will become part of a $700 table lamp, one with solid brass chain pulls and sockets, and topped with an amber-colored shade crafted of mica, the translucent mineral that gives an almost mystical glow to the light that radiates through it.

Don’t look for computerized robots in this Glendale factory; the techniques used to build these lamps are straight out of the early 20th century. But such old-school ways are what’s called for if you’re up against the manufacturing behemoth of China, which dominates the light-fixture industry these days.

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“In a word, you cannot compete with China,” says Ralph Ribicic, 57, president of Mica Lamp Co. “You’ve got to offer something that’s not coming out of China. For us, that’s quality, high-style designs and customer service.”

Later, he’ll add old-world craftsmanship to that list as he walks through the company’s workshop in Glendale’s industrial district near San Fernando Road.

Here, a dozen employees are working on lamps of various shapes and sizes. Mario Lemus is applying an acid solution to copper parts to give them a patina, while others are shaping the mica into shades and fitting the electric wires into the housings.

“It’s like stepping back into the 1930s,” Ribicic says.

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Their handiwork is arrayed around the small shop. Large mica chandeliers custom-ordered by restaurants and casinos hang from the ceiling. Table lamps with milk-can-shaped copper bases, perhaps destined for Craftsman-style homes in Pasadena, are stacked on worktables in various stages of assembly.

The business has its origins across the street, at Hermann’s Metal Spinning, where Villarreal and others shape the metal used to form the lamp bases. Hermann’s is owned by Hannes Schachtner, a German immigrant who learned the trade by apprenticing in a Munich metal shop at age 14.

Schachtner specializes in small runs of custom-made items, including high-tolerance parts used by the aerospace industry. His credits include the relay torches used in the 1984 Olympics and parts of the Lunar Excursion Module that landed on the moon in 1969.

In the late 1980s, Schachtner got the idea to re-create the copper-bodied, mica-shaded lamps of the American Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century, inspired by the designs of Dirk Van Erp and others. Their timing couldn’t have been better. The company was founded in 1991, coinciding with a major revival of interest in the genre.

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“We rode the Arts and Crafts wave,” Ribicic said.

Although mica lamps are expensive -- retailing for about $400 and up -- they are a bargain compared with originals from that era, which can cost $10,000 or more.

Retailer Lita Murray, who owns Pasadena Lighting with her husband, Dennis, said mica lamps appealed to people because they were handcrafted and built of natural materials.

“People want American-made,” she said, “and they still want quality. Most of the people who come into our store are not price-conscious. They want to have something that not everyone else has.”

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Schachtner, 74, says the feel of the lamps is an important selling point, “where every piece is made by hand and massaged by hand.”

But times change, and so do interior fashions. Arts and Crafts isn’t quite as popular these days, and Mica Lamp’s annual sales are about $3 million, down from about $4 million a few years ago.

To keep the business thriving, Ribicic is pushing to open new markets -- especially sales to architects and builders for commercial ventures. Granite City Food & Brewery, a Minnesota-based restaurant chain, recently ordered a dozen table lamps and about two dozen large chandeliers that wholesale in the $3,000 to $4,000 range.

Ribicic is also expanding beyond Arts and Crafts pieces. He’s especially proud of the company’s new Storybook Lighting line, which features medieval-looking sconces and lanterns formed of black, hand-forged iron. The style fits in with the current interest in all things fantasy (consider the popularity of the “Harry Potter” books and films), and it’s easy to imagine these pieces lighting the paths to mansions in Los Feliz and the Hollywood Hills.

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Customer service is another calling card. Mica Lamp will build to order, and if a stock item has been discontinued, the company is happy to quote a price on making a custom run.

Tom O’Malia, director of the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at USC’s Marshall School of Business, said focusing on the customer’s needs was probably the most important thing that small U.S. manufacturers could do to compete against overseas rivals.

“They have to talk to their customers,” O’Malia said. “The customer will save you. The customer will tell you what they’ll spend money on. If you talk to your customer every day, you’ll know the changes they are going to make.”

Ribicic agrees with that but says hard work is just as important. At Mica Lamp, the title of president doesn’t mean someone who sits behind a desk and barks orders. Ribicic scours museums and art books to find authentic designs to replicate. He also helps build the prototypes and markets his product at trade shows.

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When the shop closes at night, he sets up his camera to shoot the finished products for sales catalogs.

“To be a successful manufacturer in the U.S., we have to work two, three, 10 times harder,” he says.

And smarter. Across the street, John Schachtner, 48, notes that one of the things that keeps Hermann’s Metal Spinning in business is the company’s willingness to take on tricky jobs that big overseas factories won’t touch.

In many cases, that involves making prototypes, says John, who is Hannes’ son and also a partner at Mica Lamp.

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Once his shop figures out how to make the pieces efficiently, over increasingly bigger production runs, the client will often say thanks -- and then take the work to a cheaper manufacturer overseas.

“When I lose it, it’s almost expected,” the younger Schachtner says, adding that he’s not bitter when that happens.

“I see it like it is,” he says. “We can’t compete on quantity. We have to compete on Yankee ingenuity.”

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john.corrigan@latimes.com


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