Glass Artistry

Glass Artistry

Both palette and canvas, glass is infinitely mutable and eloquently transmissive. The seduction is powerful.

It is impossible to separate glass from light. It simply does not exist without light behind, below, before, above, or through it. It is that intrinsic relationship that draws designers and artists to choose glass as their medium. And as technology continually refines manufacturing techniques and lighting options, the possibilities inherent in glass are virtually limitless.

Glass is both the most elegant and the most mundane of materials. Its ubiquity poses perhaps its greatest challenge, says Ken Carbone, Carbone Smolan Agency (New York). “The trick is to do something new and fresh with it.”

The Carbone Smolan team went for high impact when it designed the W.L. Gore Capabilities Center, a 6,000-sq.-ft. marketplace for the company’s fluorocarbon polymer products. A 33- by 40-ft. glass display in the entrance looks like a dramatic piece of abstract art, but is actually a carved, etched, and edgelit depiction of the micro-fiber structure of Gore-Tex.

David Vanden-Eynden, Calori & Vanden-Eynden/Design Consultants (New York) likes the sculptural qualities of glass and enjoys working with fabricators to push its boundaries. For a huge office complex in downtown Singapore, Vanden-Eynden followed the unusual route of using cast glass as the main identity element.

In the heat and humidity of Singapore, Vanden-Eynden wanted to impart a cool, watery impression. He worked closely with a Chinese glass studio that handcast 14 letters, each 4-in. thick and 39-in. high, by pouring molten glass into steel molds. “Most people we spoke to said it was impossible to produce a cast-glass item of that size outside a Corning-type facility,” he says. “It took a lot of research, testing, and trail and error before we were finally successful. It was a lesson in daring to experiment.”

Amri Studio founder and head designer Christina Wallach Amri has a painterly eye and an artisanal approach. “Glass is a mesmerizing medium, with moods, life, and vividness. I look at how the carving and glass crystal are affected by light.” Amri is known for intricate, finely detailed pieces, including glass donor walls that layer carving, etching, and lighting. The 25-ft.-long glass donor wall at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, incorporates a computer-programmed, pulsating LED system that adds movement to the carved graphics and images as viewers approach it.

A brief history

Natural glass is as ancient as the planet itself, resulting when certain types of rocks are impacted by high-temperature phenomena such as volcanic eruptions, lightning, or meteor strikes. The first man-made glass, in the form of beads, dates to 3500 BC. But modern glass fabrication techniques have only been around about 50 years, says Roger Ostrom, founder of Ostrom Glass & Metal Works (Portland, OR).

“Glass is essentially melted quartz sand; the sand is merely disintegrated and sorted stone,” says Ostrom. Although it has been made for thousands of years, the current process of manufacturing glass developed between 1920 and 1959, when a ribbon of the honey-like melt was drawn vertically and slowly cooled as it rose. As the cooled ribbon emerged it was cut into sheets. But the ribbon was not uniform. Casting it as a plate, then grinding and polishing it to flatness, made good quality glass, thus “plate glass.”

In 1959 the Pilkington Glass Works of Great Britain introduced the “float” process wherein a ribbon of glass is drawn out horizontally over a bed of molten tin in a non-oxidizing atmosphere. The sheet relaxes into a smooth parallel film that is slowly chilled and cut into sheets. By varying the speed of the draw, sheets can be set as thin as 1/8 in. The process is run continuously until the refractory materials fail or the batch formula is changed. This is how almost all commercial glass is produced today, says Ostrom.

Affordable, clean, and green

Today, glass is one of the most dramatic and cost-effective media for environmental communications. “There are ways to work with glass that are as cost effective as working with other materials but, if you want to push its limits, considerable cost can go into experimentation and research,” warns Vanden-Eynden. “Sometimes the studio may eat that cost or the fabricators will be so wrapped up in the project they’ll absorb the cost.”

Carbone finds glass surprisingly affordable, perhaps less than stainless steel. “Acrylic is cheaper but doesn’t have the same impact or perception of substance as glass. The cost of glass is justified by its value and beauty.” 

“Glass is more cost-effective than stone because it requires less supporting structure, interior finishing, and maintenance,” says Charles Rizzo, president of Skyline Design (Chicago). It also has the significant added benefits of blocking UV rays, soundproofing, and insulation. “There is no aesthetic compromise,” he adds. “Glass can be melted, poured, cut, or fused. It is a strong, clean material.”

Glass also scores high for sustainability. While projects using stone, resins, and metal often produce a lot of waste, “With glass you’re only paying for what you ordered,” says Rizzo. It is also 100 percent recyclable; while plastics end up in landfills, glass can be re-used. Because it allows light to spill through, glass also saves power by reducing the need for artificial light.

Discovering new possibilities

The more glass products and techniques you can actually see and feel, the deeper your knowledge and confidence in using them. Material ConneXion (New York) showcases new and innovative glass products such as laminates, composites, cast recycled glass, electroluminescent polymer privacy glass, frosted-to-clear privacy glass, glass beaded flexible fabric, glass textiles, LED interlayers, and titanium oxide-coated, self-cleaning panels. A growing family of decorative films expands the palette even further.

The techniques used to image glass are as diverse as the projects they represent, ranging from carving, etching, and engraving to silkscreening, painting, and photostenciling. Most fabricators and glass artisans have carved their own niches in the architectural and EGD glass market by perfecting signature techniques. Skyline Design, for example, has a proprietary eco-etching™ process that transfers photographic images onto glass using a medium that can be reclaimed and used repeatedly. The firm also uses a wide range of other imaging techniques.

Many fabricators guard their own special techniques and processes closely, explains Oleg Boldyrev, production manager for Carvart (New York). “We can do any process with glass. We offer 200 colors of laminated glass that can be textured, acid-etched, back-painted, or crackled. In addition to film interlayers of any image, we can laminate everything from fabrics and stainless mesh to rice papers. The possibilities are limitless.”

Successful partnering 

Fabricators are continually challenged to do the impossible with glass, and often do. Working closely with Pentagram and Dale Travis Associates, Brian Walls Glass (Brooklyn) is V-carving donor names into ¾-in. radius-curved glass balustrade panels for a spiral staircase at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. “Hand carving such deep letters onto bent glass is extremely tricky, and we’ve had some breakage,” Walls explains. “It takes a lot of patience and working well with the entire design team.”

Skyline’s Rizzo suggests that designers and architects don’t always take full advantage of the qualities of glass. Fabricators can help. “Find a vendor with a good portfolio and ask a lot of questions. We educate our clients by showing the most creative solutions, supplying good shop drawings, and providing samples of techniques.”

He also suggests establishing a budget early so that you can work with your vendor to determine what’s possible and what isn’t. “We ask, ‘What is it intended to do? How do you want it installed? Are there a lot of visual barriers? What are the privacy issues? How is the light going to affect the glass surface of informational signage or artwork? What type of lighting will be used?’ When you’re working with glass, coordination and communication are critically important.”

Gary Stemler of Nordquist (Minneapolis) says the synergy between designer and fabricator is key. Nordquist worked with Carbone Smolan on a donor recognition system at New York University’s Smilow Research Center. Nordquist contracted with GlassArt Design (Minneapolis) for the glass carving and etching, and was responsible for engineering the components, final assembly, and installation. “Working with the right fabrication team is really critical because we don’t have all the answers,” says Carbone. “They know how the material behaves and enjoy being pushed. It demonstrates their ability to do things beyond the ordinary.”

Dealing with realities

While the expressions made possible by glass are infinite, it does pose some limitations. Of course there’s the obvious.

“You have to be very respectful of the material,” says Wallach. “Glass is unpredictable and unforgiving. We treat it with kid gloves, pack it in bulletproof crates, and install it with great care.” She advises architects, designers, and contractors to anticipate various installation methods and consider building access well in advance. Work out, and communicate, these issues before installation, and even before fabrication, she adds.

Because glass is so common a material, there’s also the danger of it looking banal and ordinary, warns Carbone. “When not used creatively, glass looks expected. The designer should at least make the typography and mounting mechanisms well integrated and nicely detailed.”

Vanden-Eynden agrees that glass has its limitations. Doing your research is the best way to work around them, he says. “We’ve been experimenting with glass since the late 1980s. You need to know about the manufacturing process, controlling color, how it is annealed and tempered, about coatings and surface treatments. We’ve done just about everything we can do with glass, but there are probably a few things we’ve yet to try. And that’s the beauty of it.”

--By Linda Bowen Cooper, segdDESIGN No. 20, 2008

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