lighting and electrical

Let There Be Mica

Arts & Crafts-style lighting brings warmth to a large hotel and casino in Lake Charles, LA.

Click here for a listing of suppliers of traditional lighting fixtures

These large square chandeliers, measuring 9x9 ft., bring a Craftsman-era feel to a hallway in L’Auberge du Lac. Although built of iron and steel, the lighting has a weathered-copper finish that further associates the chandeliers with the traditional Arts & Crafts look. All photographs: courtesy of the Mica Lamp Company

By Nicole V. Gagné

The word “mica” is believed by many scholars to be a derivation of the Latin word “micare,” “to shine,” but well before the Latin language evolved, mica was prized. The earliest known illumination provided by this silicate mineral was figurative: flecks of mica adding color and texture to the prehistoric paintings that illuminated the walls of caves. But its use grew along with the growth of humanity, and mica could be found reflecting and refracting light for the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese and Aztecs.

Mica’s resistance to heat also made it an ideal substitute for glass in the windows of stoves, ovens and kerosene heaters. The Arts & Crafts movement of the late 19th century took a special shine to mica, as its rough natural texture made a perfect fit within the Craftsman aesthetic’s celebration of rustic unfinished surfaces and handmade production. Mica lampshades were highly valued by Arts & Crafts designers, and as with other methodologies of the Craftsman era, that tradition continues to thrive today. One celebrated exponent is the Mica Lamp Company of Glendale, CA, which has been producing mica lampshades since 1991.

The clean vertical lines of the wall sconces at L’Auberge du Lac Hotel and Casino in Lake Charles, LA, have an impressive pedigree: Their style is an adaptation by the Mica Lamp Company of lighting that Frank Lloyd Wright designed in 1911 for a residence in Illinois. This sconce is 40 ins. tall and has a 15-in. extension.

Following the formulas of turn-of-the-century American lighting designers and craftspeople, the firm’s workshop offers solid-copper lamps, which are assembled with hand-driven copper rivets. Although American Arts & Crafts styling predominates, Mica Lamp also produces lighting in the European Arts & Crafts, or Mackintosh, style; the French Gallé style (featuring etched-glass cameos) and even 1920s forged black iron in Gothic, Tudor and Spanish styles. Whatever the design of the lamp, its shade panels are made from mineral mica flakes combined with organic shellac; as a result, each mica lampshade boasts a unique arrangement of variegated mineral-deposit patterns and color tones.

“Our mica is a domestically made product,” explains Ralph Ribicic, president of the Mica Lamp Company. “Only the raw materials of mica mineral and organic shellac are imported. Mica is readily available in the United States, but it’s a very labor-intensive mining process, a ‘dirty mining’ process. In the 1930s, most of the mica mines here were shut down, so manufacturers went to offshore sources. Our primary source is India – but that’s just the raw sacks of what they call the mica splittings, or shavings. They’re brought in and the cleaning and laying out and pressing into sheets are all done here. Then the mica sheets are laid up here to our specifications, and the final trimming and molding are done in our shop in California.”

Ribicic attributes the popularity of his mica-shade lighting to a combination of practicality and aesthetics. “On a practical basis, mica is lighter than glass, and it’s shatterproof,” he says. “It’s also heat resistant. On the aesthetic side, the mica mineral lens is a natural material with random, uneven patterns, which is what the Craftsman-era style is, in essence, all about. It offers a warm, home-like environment that takes away from the cold austerity of public spaces.”

The design of L’Auberge du Lac was inspired by the architecture of the Texas Hill country. The style emphasizes the natural colors of woodwork and stonework and has its ideal complement in the warm, rustic colors and textures of the Mica Lamp Company’s authentic mica shade panels. Case in point: This lovely circular chandelier, measuring 5 ft. in diameter, effectively sets off the entire space.

That transformative effect on commercial spaces was a key factor in the placement of the Mica Lamp Company’s lighting in the spectacular L’Auberge du Lac Hotel and Casino on Contraband Bayou in Lake Charles, LA, which opened in May 2005. Standing 26 stories tall with more than 700 guest rooms and suites, the 770,000-sq.-ft. L’Auberge du Lac (French for "The Inn on the Lake") also features six restaurants and a huge single-deck riverboat casino with a 30,000-sq.-ft. gaming area. The architect was Joel Bergman of Bergman, Walls and Associates, Ltd., of Las Vegas, NV, a specialist in casino architecture; the interior was designed by Todd-Avery Lenahan of Avery Brooks & Associates, another Las Vegas-based firm.

More than 60 percent of Louisiana’s casino customers come from Texas, which doesn’t have casino gambling. To attract more of this essential market, Bergman and Lenahan patterned L’Auberge du Lac after the architecture of the Texas Hill country. That approach, according to Ribicic, emphasizes “natural materials – mineral and stone look.” Thus the Craftsman-era designs of the Mica Lamp Company provided a perfect complement. “Part of the Craftsman aesthetic is natural materials,” adds Ribicic, “and the people running the hotel’s overall daily operation told me that they’re very pleased with how the lighting brings forth the Craftsman feeling of natural materials, which they were after. It coordinated with the natural colors, the natural woodwork, and especially with the stonework – the mica mineral was a good tie-in to the stonework.”

Commercial lighting doesn’t have to be cold and impersonal: Ten Arts & Crafts-style chandeliers, 6 ft. x 6 ft. in size, bring warmth and personality to this vast hotel banquet room. The charming tint of the mica shade panels presents no obstacle to illumination, according to Ralph Ribicic, president of the Mica Lamp Company. The chandeliers all employ “standard illumination devices, be they fluorescent or incandescent – the same as throughout the lighting industry.”

All of the decorative lighting produced by the Mica Lamp Company was designed by Ribicic in collaboration with Avery Brooks & Associates. “The people at L’Auberge du Lac were intent on keeping the integrity of the Craftsman-era look,” says Ribicic. “Particularly on the wall sconces: Their design is directly in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright, although modified just enough. It’s a style that he used in 1911 for a private residence in Illinois. We built 15 to 20 of the wall sconces – I don’t recall the exact quantity – and about 60 large chandelier units. Because they wanted the authenticity of that Craftsman-era style, we used iron and steel with a weathered-copper finish for all the lighting.”

This massive undertaking consumed the firm’s workshop for more than four months; then Ribicic traveled to Lake Charles to oversee the installation of the lighting. “I went out personally with a helper to assist with installation management and direction and did some final adjustments to the installation in January 2006,” he says. “The lighting was for the public areas only. They are in the lobby of the hotel and the casino entrance, in the shopping arcade, or mall, and in the convention-center hallways and banquet rooms.” For an enormous hotel and casino to embody all the excitement and diversions of Las Vegas while maintaining an atmosphere of warmth and naturalness sounds like an impossible challenge. L’Auberge du Lac, however, has proven that the two need not be incompatible at all – thanks to having made the proper design decisions on the microcosmic level. The participation of the Mica Lamp Company was crucial in instilling a human feel to this epic resort. The firm’s lighting carries Arts & Crafts values into the 21st century without sacrificing Craftsman styling, materials or principles. L’Auberge du Lac is truly illuminated by its choice of sconces and chandeliers.

Click here for a listing of suppliers of traditional lighting fixtures