FOR centuries, glassblowers tried to get the imperfections out of their handblown stained-glass windows. Then technology made perfection possible. "Now homeowners seem to want the imperfections back," says designer John Everage of Santa Monica. He's one of many architects and designers who say their clients increasingly ask for handmade stained-glass windows that are designed, built and installed almost exactly the way it was done 900 years ago.
Whether for a faux chateau in Encino, a pseudo palazzo in Beverly Hills or a super-sized Craftsman in Venice, custom stained-glass windows made with handblown glass are now considered the ultimate finishing touch in some of L.A.'s most lavish new homes.
With their subtle waviness and tiny bubbles (a tip-off that the glass was made by humans, not machines), the windows are luxury items in the extreme: Each set is unique, designed specifically for the site, created to blend with the architecture and the homeowner's artistic preferences. Like jewels with a couture outfit, they exude artistry or a patina of Old World elegance that completes the architect's vision and perhaps the homeowners' fantasy of living in a different place and time.
Criminologist Sheila Balkan fell in love with stained-glass windows she saw in centuries-old buildings during a recent yearlong stay in Paris. "They made me feel peaceful," she says. Back home here in Venice, she didn't want to lose that peaceful feeling. "I wanted to recapture it in my house. It became a passion." Her architect referred her to local craftsman Mark Tuna, who designed and made about 60 windows of handblown glass for her two-story Craftsman style house. "I feel like I'm still in Paris," she says.
Don't be misled by terminology. Today the term "stained glass" -- interchangeable with "art glass" or "leaded glass" -- is used in home design to mean high-quality, custom-made leaded glass windows that may have bits of color or no color at all. The windows look nothing like the brilliant old church windows usually associated with the words stained glass. Nor do they resemble the craftsy amateur oddities that had a hippie heyday in the '60s and '70s, causing the entire genre to lose favor with much of the public for 20 years.
Architects and designers say most windows they commission for new homes are predominantly clear, to allow in undiluted light. Or they can be clear mixed with any of dozens of textured glasses that are used to blur visibility and create privacy where needed, eliminating the need for shutters or drapes.
Arthur Stern, a nationally known glass artist based in Benicia, Calif., has installed his stained-glass designs for homes and buildings in 36 states, Japan, Hong Kong and Canada. An expert on Frank Lloyd Wright (he created 92 windows for the restoration of Wright's Storer house in Hollywood), Stern says Wright preferred to use predominantly clear leaded glass in homes. Stern does too, but not totally.
The residential portion of his website (www.arthurstern.com) shows the variety of exquisitely subtle blends of color and texture Stern has achieved in what he sees as a reviving interest in residential leaded glass. His windows function both as art and as a unifying architectural statement that helps tie together diverse spaces in large homes, he says. A set of windows he titled Frozen Music for a residence in San Anselmo, Calif., for example, is a single design theme -- inspired by Mondrian and De Stijl -- carried out in multiple variations. He uses clear and opaque glass, flat glass and thick beveled prisms in doors and windows throughout the vast spaces of the recently built estate.
His work generally costs $200 to $400 per square foot but can cost more or less, depending on the quality of glass used and complexity of design.
Windows designed in L.A. by Tuna, whose Glass Visions studio is near Dodger Stadium, can be whimsical and contemporary or seriously Old World and ornate depending on the preferences of the homeowners and their designers. "Some want complicated leaded-glass patterns. Others want simple clear windows with color used sparely as artistic punctuation." The glass, often handblown in Europe, is just a starting point. How the lead is sculptured -- narrow or plump, straight or curvy -- is equally important to a design, he says.
Architect Eric Evens and interior designer Chris Barrett recently called on Tuna to create large windows for the renovation of a historic 1910 Pasadena house. The results are stunningly simple and contemporary: large linear, clear, leaded panes with just a few Miro-like squiggles of brilliant color. Barrett also called on Tuna to design about 80 more traditional European-style leaded-glass windows for a new Pacific Palisades house she likens to a Tuscan villa. Tuna's windows range from $50 to $3,000 per square foot, depending on glass used and intricacy of design.