Stained glass may seem old-fashioned, but modern homebuilders and designers know art glass can bring color to the drabbest areas
If an essential of design is that form follows function, then applying that principle to stained glass presents a dilemma. The primary function of stained glass is to be beautiful, not to do anything.
No one knows for sure the how, who, when or even why stained glass was first invented. What is known is that someone learned that melted silica would turn colors by adding metallic salts and mineral oxides: cobalt turned blue, gold produced red, copper made green and silver yellow.
After thousands of years of popularity, however, stained glass hit a fashion bump in the 20th century. People began to associate it less with cutting edge design and more with their grandmother’s house or Gilded Age mausoleums.
But over the past 30 years, there has been an eye-opening renaissance of interest, especially in new forms of stained glass.
“There has been just a huge resurgence in leaded glass windows,” say Jim Molloy, owner of the Molloy Glass Works in Deep Ellum Dallas’ oldest stained glass manufacturer. “For a long period of time, certainly in the ’60s, leaded glass was pretty dead. In the early ’70s it took off, and it has not really slowed down at all.”
Stained glass usage in modern times has obviously come a long way from its rather murky origins. From cathedral windows to Tiffany lampshades, from sun catchers to ceiling lights, from stemware to Christmas tree ornaments, the myriad forms and colors of stained glass are limited only by imagination. And almost any addition of stained glass can brighten up and individualize any space.
“We even do stemware and crystal with nicks and chips. We have a man who comes in once a week, and that’s his specialty. He does a wonderful job on that,” Molloy says.
New technologies have led to a new golden age of art glass, and nowhere are they more dazzlingly evident than in the housing market. And while stained glass is still useful when restoring older Victorian or Frank Lloyd Wright-style homes, it’s not an old-folks-only design choice. Today’s new homebuilders and homeowners are literally radiant in the latest, everything-old-is-new-again trends of colored glass.
“Seventy to 80 percent of our work is for new homes at this point,” Molloy says. “We do colored glass windows for dining rooms, living rooms and bathrooms.”
Like snowflakes and fingerprints, no two pieces of stained glass are ever created exactly alike. David Kittrell of Kittrell Rifkind Artglass specializes in stained glass windows that can “hang like an autonomous piece of art.”
Kittrell can design custom patterns or closely match pieces from
photographs. Work can usually be completed in three weeks, depending upon its size. Kittrell works with builders as well as homeowners to achieve custom-desired entryways, cabinets, room dividers and utility areas. The latter is especially popular now, he says.
“A lot of people now put stained glass in laundry room windows because it’s a way to brighten up a fairly begrudged room,” Kittrell says. “Stained glass is frequently used in new kitchen construction to enhance the cabinet doors, as well as over the sink area.”
Michael Cogdell, expert restorer of stained glass at Art Restorations at Inwood Road and Lovers Lane, explains that there are two basic types of stained glass: The old style, called “caning,” which uses lead; and the newer copper foil, used on the brand new Tiffany-style lamps and sun catchers made from the ’70s to the present. There are pros and cons to both.
“Caning is stronger, and is used on all the old style luminaria and cathedrals,” says Cogdell, “Lead caning holds up much better to time than copper foil, but it does need regular maintenance. Lead is so soft that you can actually melt it with a cigarette lighter. A lead-caned window exposed to the elements should be looked at yearly.”
Although it sounds blasphemous, Cogdell recommends installing Plexiglas barriers outside stained glass windows to protect them.
“Most people think Plexiglas is just to keep kids from throwing rocks through church windows, but without Plexiglas, lead becomes brittle and begins to bow,” says Cogdell. Without the protection, “over time it will get what we call lead oxide. The panes will then either fall out or malform, so proper maintenance for outdoor windows is key. You don’t want to have to replace the caning, because that’s where a lot of the value is.”
Value is paramount when it comes to one’s home, and the adornments of stained glass be it a utility room window, kitchen cabinet doors or a cathedral ceiling sun catcher are a priceless equity. As Louis Comfort Tiffany once said, “Show me a manmade object more beautiful than stained glass, and I’ll show you an object made by God, not man.”
Whether your taste runs to high Gothic in the bedroom or art nouveau in the breakfast nook, the message of stained glass is simple: Let the sun shine in.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, April 21, 2006.