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"They were so closely related – dental prosthetics and jewelry," Tom commented. "I used the same technique to construct crowns and bridges as I did for high-end gold cast jewelry."
The blossoming jewelry maker first would sketch out a design. Then, he patiently would transform his sketch into a beautiful, detailed rendering in carving wax – similar to clay. He placed is wax rendering into the center of a special soft material called an "investment". Sealing the investment, with the wax mold inside, he would bake it in a special high heat oven. It was similar to a kiln and could bake the investment, with the mold inside, at 1200 degrees. This "lost wax" technique left the evaporated carving wax's detailed impressions on the interior of the investment.
When Tom carefully opened the investment, he could see his exact design on the interior walls of the hardened material. Carefully removing any wax remnants, Tom would pour molten gold into the interior of the investment. The gold would reach every corner and crevice of the imprint left in the investment material and slowly harden. Opening the outer investment material completely, Tom's gold cast jewelry design would be revealed.
Tom found so much satisfaction in creating these initial small gold jewelry pieces, he raised the bar higher.
"I found myself moving toward larger sculptured pieces made with bronze or brass, in the late 1950s," he explained. " A good deal of each design went into sketching out a unique design with pen and paper."
He still was just in his twenties. A combination of jazz, Nina Simone, Smokey Robinson, and the Temptations kept him company on the radio during his long evening garage workshop sessions.
"I loved taking a raw piece of copper or bronze, bending and hammering it into a shape and molding it with an oxyacetylene torch and other tools. I slowly was moving toward sculpture," Tom said.
His experienced hands manipulated the 6000 degrees torch as an artist's tool.
"I would use the oxyacetylene torch to cut free-form shapes for my initial designs, from flower petals and leaves to figures. I could control the intense heat from the flame to create different color variations on parts of the copper and bronze surfaces," Tom explained.
The noise, smoke, blinding light, and the unmistakable smell from the high heat of a 6000 degree flame blazing through copper and bronze alternated with the banging of a hammer on metal. The whole garage scene left a distinct impression on visitors. Passers-by saw a garage glowing in the night with the sputtering sounds of assorted pops, hisses and crackles. Tom's busy oxyacetylene torch cast an unworldly brightness, as dancing shadows leaped against the windows.
"I was spending more and more time in that garage. Friends and relatives didn't think my tinkering was going to work, but I did it anyway," Tom said. "I started making pendant lighting fixtures that would hang from the ceiling as well as 12 to 15 inch long illuminated wall sconces."
"I decided to show a sample to a well known Los Angeles desk and lighting retailer, Monteverde Young. I had used the oxyacetylene torch to melt and shape a bronze lighting piece. I put in a light fixture and diffused it. I didn't know where the market was, so I wanted an expert's opinion."
"Mr. Monteverde, a leading retailer of original, custom lighting pieces, met with me and took a long, close look. He sat back and said, 'I'll buy everything you make.' I almost didn't know what to say, my heart was beating so fast."
Tom started making original lighting fixtures at night for Monteverde Young in his garage. This included chandeliers that were 24 to 48 inches wide. It took Tom 4 to 8 hours to make one piece.
"I didn't know it at the time, but the style of free form lighting fixtures I was creating were in vogue. Architects were promoting the 'Brutalist' style lighting designs and decorations for their own buildings," Tom commented.
JUGGLING TWO CAREERS
"I was still working long days in my dental prosthetic laboratory," Tom recalled. "Mr. Monteverde would be calling me at my dental lab to place new orders. I also started getting calls at work from Paul Ferrante Lighting Fixtures, another high-end retailer. They both had private clients who had a taste for custom designed lighting fixtures. I also was fulfilling orders for hand-crafted brass and bronze furniture embellishments."
Monteverde mentioned to Tom that he was godfather to Frank Sinatra's daughter. The furniture maker loved to throw parties at his elegant home that was also a showcase for his favorite designers' creations.
"Mr. Monteverde was an amazing person who went from Salinas lettuce farmer to furniture designer," Tom recalled. "He threw fabulous parties at his house and seemed to know everyone in town, including Frank Sinatra, Vic Damone, Stanley Kramer, Charlton Heston, and Peter Fonda. They all started requesting custom pieces from me."
SOMETHING'S GOT TO GIVE
"I was running out of time at night trying to fill an increasing number of customers' orders," Tom said. "I had taken over three garage spaces to have enough room to work on the larger designs. I took a step back and realized I could make the same or even a better income from my original copper and bronze lighting sculptures as I could from making gold crowns and inlays for dentists all day. I closed my dental laboratory, and became a custom lighting and metal sculpture designer."
"I had just gone full time with my lighting designs when Feldman Lighting and Lightolier contacted me about doing small runs of some of my fixture designs. These were large companies who worked with Walt Disney theme parks and the top Las Vegas hotels. I started getting major assignments."
Tom's overhead was approaching his limit in the 1970s, as he took on more and more large assignments. Joe Feldman, president of Feldman Lighting, was a major client of Tom's. He provided a lot of custom lighting pieces for Beverly Hills clients. Feldman had a big project for Tom, but the lighting designer realized his production costs would be more than he could handle.
Feldman encouraged Tom and took him to one of the largest banks in Los Angeles, so he could get a business loan in order to fund the production costs. Feldman was a major, long time business customer of the institution. But, even with Joe Feldman's support, Tom was turned down.
"Joe couldn't believe it," Tom remembered. "He was so shocked and angry, he closed his account with them. And that was one sizable chunk of business that bank lost. Fortunately, I managed to scuffle through it on my own. Some years later, things had changed for the better. But I found a better way to take on large design assignments, without having to deal with any bank."
He remembered when the Monte Carlo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas invited him down and gave him a tour. The executives would point to almost every area during the walk-through that needed the Tom Greene touch. Tom was scribbling notes as fast as he could. The artist ended up with a huge contract to supply original lighting designs for the whole casino, ballrooms, corridors, restaurants and even a special theater for a magician.
"The Monte Carlo management gave me photos of some place in France and asked if I could do something similar," Tom said. "I made drawings of my concepts from the photos they showed me. They would approve my initial drawings. Then, I'd make shop drawings that complied with the Underwriters Laboratory. Aside from the designs, I had to meet all safety requirements. Some of my fixtures weighed thousands of pounds. So, I was involved in everything from the ceiling on down and structural engineers were involved in everything from the ceiling on up."
Tom had 6 or 7 months to complete the extensive Monte Caro project. He had custom Strauss chandelier crystals made in Switzerland for his designs and cast glass leaves and flowers up to 16 inches made in Milan.
Tom tested every crystal when they arrived from Switzerland. Each crystal had to be the right length and size as ordered. A strand of crystals just 2 to 3 inches off could be a design dilemma and throw off the balance of the chandelier. Since Tom's designs were composed of different elements, from brass to bronze to glass, he always made a mock-up of the whole assembly to test each one.
The designer had to keep a sharp eye on each step of the fabrication and installation of each of his one-of-a-kind pieces. He always was on-site when the hotel had their construction and engineering teams install each large piece in the hotel, to make sure did not they did not take any short cuts. He knew that if he were not on the site when his design was hung and something went wrong, the installers could try to blame him.
Tom's artistic lighting design can be seen locally in the Pacific Theatre's lobby in The Grove shopping mall near Fairfax Avenue. There you will see a huge 8 foot by 14 foot frosted glass lighting fixture, complete with original tinted glass roses and leaves.
Rick Caruso, developer of The Grove and other major Los Angeles properties, commissioned Tom to do custom lighting pieces for his office and wall sconces for his home.
Tom Greene's lighting and metal sculpture designs are found in many countries, as well as in the U.S. Here is just a small cross-section of his clients: Gruen Lighting, MGM Studios, 20th Century Fox Studios, EuroDisneyland-France, Monte Carlo Hotel-Las Vegas, Hyatt Regency, Trump Towers Casino, Luxor Hotel and Casino, Bellagio Hotel, Disney Tokyo, The Grove, Westin Hotel in Maui and in Kauai, Beverly Hills City Hall, Conrad Hilton, and Princess Cruise Ship Lines.