Company offers illusion, beauty of stained glass

Stained glass has long been the stuff of European cathedrals, expertly wrought Tiffany lamps and carefully crafted transoms.Today, however, a company in Timonium focuses on turning this once-expensive and exclusive art form into a design feature that's less costly and widely available.

SGO Designer Glass of Baltimore, on York Road, is a franchise for Stained Glass Overlay, a product applying a modern twist to the creation of custom-designed lampshades, windows, transoms, skylights and more.

"Many people say they can't tell the difference between our windows and cabinet doors and such and stained glass made the old-fashioned way," said Tom Johnson, owner of the Timonium business.

"We've had more than one person come up to us and ask us how we get our soldered joints so smooth and perfect," he said.

The secret lies in the way Stained Glass Overlay is created.

Traditionally, stained glass items are made by painstakingly joining together pieces of colored glass with hot solder _ a time-consuming process that requires considerable training and expertise.

SGO, on the other hand, makes use of Mylar film - available in 200 shades, colors and textures - applied to a single piece of tempered glass. Lead strips, resembling solder and backed with adhesive, are added, giving the finished product a stained-glass look.

Johnson admits that there are "stained glass purists" who view the company's process with disdain. "If it's not real stained glass, they're not interested," he said.

But others are intrigued by the process's durability - better than true stained glass, Johnson said - and flexibility.

"Because we are not working with small pieces of colored glass that must be cut and then fitted together, we can do things design-wise that cannot be done using traditional stained glass methods," he said.

Johnson said this flexibility means that the sky is the limit as far as what designs are possible with Stained Glass Overlay.

"Customers can choose a design they like from what is on display in our showroom or from a book or a magazine or even a photograph," Johnson said. "We have more than 200 textures and colors people can choose from, and those can be mixed and matched any way they want."

Examples of available designs are on display at Johnson's Timonium showroom and include everything from a transom which takes its colors and design elements from signs on the London Underground to a Maryland state flag window custom made by Johnson.

"These are just here to show people what is possible, to give them ideas," Johnson said.

The actual designing and construction of each Stained Glass Overlay product is done largely in the back room of the shop _ a large, bright space filled with light tables, cutting tools and sheet upon sheet of colored Mylar.

"It takes about two weeks for us to work up a complete design for a customer once we know what they want and they have spent time going through the colors and possibilities with us," Johnson said.

A former Fidelity and Deposit Company systems analyst, Johnson learned the SGO process during a two-week training program in California before he opened his business in 2002.

Today he does all of the design work on site on a computer with the help of his son, Ben, 25, a graphic designer.

Detailed copies of the design plan, along with swatches of the colors, are then sent to the customer for a final approval.

It takes about six weeks from the time a customer approves the design to delivery and installation of the final product, Johnson said.

When restaurant owner George Balog was looking for a way to update his Perry Hall eatery's interior, Stained Glass Overlay seemed to provide the perfect answer.

"When I bought the place, they had rows of fish tanks dividing the space between the booths in the main dining room and that was problematic for me both for the way it looked and maintenance of the place," said Balog, who became owner of the Perry Inn in October 2002. "So I needed something to replace those tanks."

Stained glass seemed like a good option, but when Balog contacted stained glass artisans about the job, many seemed less than enthusiastic about taking it on. Balog also worried that stained glass partitions - when made the old fashioned way - might not be sturdy enough.

Then a customer told him about SGO Designer Glass.

"Tom Johnson came out and worked with me, showing me what they had and what they could do for me," Balog said. "He ended up taking a pattern from one of the Tiffany lamps and working up a design for panels to run between the booths."

Today, Perry Inn customers often compliment Balog on the look of the panels, which are done in various shades of yellow, brown and a milky mauve.

"They look great and because they're made of one pane of glass, I don't have to worry about them being sturdy enough," the restaurateur said. "It's not cheap, but it was cheaper than regular stained glass. It worked great for us."

Prices for a Stained Glass Overlay product range from about $200 to more than $4,000, depending on the size and complexity of the design.

"We've done something as simple as a single pane of glass and other things as complicated as windows for a church," Johnson said. "The variety really is amazing."

Also amazing, he said, is the satisfaction he gets in working directly with customers on these highly creative projects.

"Early on in my career, I never imagined I would be doing something like this," he said. "So when I got to the point where I wanted to have my own business, this seemed like a natural. I really enjoy it."

600450 Company offers illusion, beauty of stained glass
Date: 23 January 2004

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