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The Guild: Tom Richard at Old California Lantern

by Mary Ellen Polson on November 12, 2013

in The Guild

Many Old California Lantern designs make use of filigree overlays, like the recently released ‘California Oak’ sconce.

Many Old California Lantern designs make use of filigree overlays, like the recently released ‘California Oak’ sconce.

With years of experience in virtually every aspect of the lighting business, Tom Richard followed his passion for Arts & Crafts just as the revitalized movement was peaking in the mid-1990s. Beginning with only 13 fixtures, Old California Lantern Company now offers more that 1,200 products, all of them built to order. “We make high-end, very detailed fixtures on a production basis,” says Richard. “Everything from the loop and the chain down through the mount and fixture is exclusive to us.”

Early on, Richard tried to get his work established in lighting showrooms. Finally the company made the decision to sell its products directly through its website, relying on income from Richard’s custom lighting business, Contract Illumination, to carry the financial load. To his surprise, lighting sales for Old California quickly outstripped those of the more established company. “It was a wonderful time,” says Richard. “Between 2000 and 2007, every year we kept getting bigger.”

Old California Lantern founder Tom Richard with sons Nathan and Craig.

Old California Lantern founder Tom Richard with sons Nathan and Craig.

With the exception of casting and glass blowing, everything is made at the company’s 12,000-square-foot factory in Orange, California. In the past two years, the Richard family (son Craig manages day-to-day business, and son Nathan works part time) completed a major contract for the newly renovated Omni Grove Park Inn, and launched two new brands: America’s Finest Mailbox and Wentworth Avenue.

America’s Finest Mailbox Company came about during the second year of the recession, when the Richard family, looking to diversify, began taking simple mailboxes with Old California finishes to shows. They were a hit. Soon the company introduced more designs, many with art glass. “We realized we could spin them off into a separate company that focused on mailboxes, with original-design artwork.”
Wentworth Avenue is a more deliberate venture. Many of the 35 fixtures in this very high-end line were originally commissions, including replicas of lighting in Craftsman icons like the Gamble House. “Our Wentworth tagline on the website will be ‘Lighting as a fine art.’”

On a grand scale When Old California was asked to create fixtures for the multi-million-dollar renovation of the Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville, the clients had no idea the company was a long-time attendee of the annual Arts & Crafts Conference there. They’d found the company through its work at revival landmarks, such as the Lodge at Torrey Pines and Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel. The Grove Park project “was a huge order,” Richard says, and included 24 large lanterns for the Great Hall, corridor lighting, and table and floor lamps. This time Old California was the fabricator, not the designer. Richard brought in stained-glass artist John Hamm to refine architectural sketches that specified regional imagery like the Smoky Mountains and the dogwood.

 A column-mount lantern based on fixtures at the Gamble House, made for the Lodge at Torrey Pines, will be offered through the Wentworth Avenue brand.

A column-mount lantern based on fixtures at the Gamble House, made for the Lodge at Torrey Pines, will be offered through the Wentworth Avenue brand.

Artisan Patina
Tom Richard’s company is known for finishes with names like Old Penny and Mottled Bronze, all developed in-house and refined so they are consistent from year to year. “What starts it off is me saying, Here’s what I want,” Richard says.

For instance, the New Verde finish—an orangey-copper with light green seams and rivets—came about after old gutter work in his hometown of Newport, Rhode Island, caught his eye: “Everywhere there was a joint, there was greenish patina growing where the moisture collected.” After much experimentation, his talented artisans perfected the finish. Developing a patina “is about 60 percent technical and 40 percent artistic. Patina is affected by humidity, even the time of day.”

When the company developed a series of chandeliers, Richard became so obsessed with the look of 100-year-old brass that he amassed a collection of antique chandeliers. “I gave one to the guys, and that’s where Warm Brass came from. It’s like a 100-year-old version of polished brass that has never been touched.”

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