When Judson Studios created the world’s first—and still only—fusion glass studio, it was kind of a lark. This detail becomes somewhat overshadowed by the striking images and rich history in the new book JUDSON: Innovation in Stained Glass, but it’s there. The studios, which have been located in Los Angeles since 1897, made a proposal in 2016 for the basketball court–size window of the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. It was an impressive bid replete with vibrant colors, stunning narrative imagery, and sparse lead “came” (the black lines that hold and separate different sections in traditional stained glass). It was a fantastic proposal but, according to David Judson, president of the studios and a fifth-generation Judson, “We designed something that, essentially, we didn’t exactly know how to make.” Then they won the bid.
To realize their vision, Judson had to strip back everything he knew about his family’s legacy and contemplate both the history and trajectory of the stained glass industry. In doing so, he found the courage to build an unprecedented facility dedicated to glass fusion. He also found a fascinating story that mixed his family’s lineage with the growth of Los Angeles, the religious trends of the nation, and the technical advances of the glass industry. In developing the facility, he wrote a book. While the book is a veritable review of how political and social events shape design, what resonates is Judson’s take on why stained glass—a dated, traditional, and somewhat rigid aesthetic—is having both a comeback and a reinvention.
“What strikes me is realizing we are just scratching the surface with this—with what is possible with stained glass,” says Judson. Traditionally, the aspects of stained glass that could be customized were the size, color, and surface of the glass, with surface effects being rather limited to etching and painting. With glass fusion, the glass itself is manipulated from within—adding another dimension to the glass itself. “Fusing is extremely easy to do, but it is extremely hard to do well. That’s why we decided to build the studio,” he notes, adding that technology had reached a point where it was actually possible. “I felt like it would change the industry of stained glass, what people thought of stained glass. With the new facility and equipment, I saw this technique being something that painters and contemporary artists would be interested in. It strips all the constraints from traditional stained glass.”
What results is a type of stained glass that is provocative. It has a sense of familiarity, but an element of newness that contemporary artists, designers, and architects are being drawn to. “I find that artists really love that idea,” Judson notes. “Taking something with this connotation of being traditional and rigid and then turning it and twisting it a little.” Most people think of churches when they think of stained glass. A setting with strict rules, established behaviors, and an air of nostalgia. What Judson Studios is seeing in this embrace of stained glass is the ability to use that familiarity as a mooring for interacting with bold new designs. It’s a subtle, familiar point of reference that happens to be eye-catching. According to Judson, “there’s a trend in design right now in which the hand is present—some sense of the quality of the materials. Glass fits really well into that.”
Introducing this new opportunity to a vanguard of creatives is not always easy. Designers are often looking for something specific for a particular environment, artists are searching for mediums to translate ideas, and architects are most interested in form. Judson stresses the need to explain the material itself and coach people into taking advantage of its attributes. Fused glass is something to work with, not employ. After all, the end result is something that is intended to be looked through, not at. “You’re working with transmitted light—that’s the key. It’s not reflected light, like with a painting in a museum,” Judson explains. “I think that’s why it has this spiritual connotation. It feels so ethereal in a way. You’re manipulating something that is coming from outside of it. It’s kind of a superpower that glass has.”
Some have been quick to harness that superpower. Artist James Jean has been working with Judson Studios and used his background as an illustrator to “push the limits of what can be done, cleverly playing with dimensionality,” says Judson. The two are currently in the process of developing a 3D glass structure that can be walked into. Designer Kelly Wearstler has been working with the studios on her numerous hotel projects and furniture creations. While she doesn’t typically use fused glass, Judson says her take on the possibilities of glass in contemporary design are particularly exciting. Amir Fallah created arresting portraits that utilized both fused glass and traditional stained glass. Notably, Sarah Cain created a luminous and stunning 10-by-150 foot fused glass wall for the San Francisco International Airport. According to Judson, “Sarah had no interest in fusing when she first started the project. But the more time she spent in the studio, the more she realized we were able to create these large pieces of color transition that she didn’t think were possible.” Now all of San Francisco’s weary travelers can be awash in a luminous and colorful glow.
It’s this shared experience of stained glass that Judson sees as the true creative future of the craft. “Public art is one of the things we felt immediately and I think will continue to evolve and become more sophisticated over time,” he says. He feels that glass can provide a calming, soothing, and authentic respite from an increasingly digital world. Judson sees glass playing a role in his work with artists to create built environments that conjure a sense of awe, sensibility, and structure. His perspective nods back to that mention of glass having a superpower of being spiritual and ethereal. “In essence, I think the glass of the future will do the same thing that ancient cathedrals did for people. It doesn’t have to be in a religious setting, but it can create the same kind of feeling.”
JUDSON: Innovation in Stained Glass by David Judson and Steffie Nelson is available here.
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest