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The 21st Century Master of an Ancient Art: Stained Glass [Slideshow]

Paul Housberg is rescuing stained glass from the realm of fusty old churches and giving it new life.

Stained glass has a few associations for us, namely: church and church. Also: church. Which makes what Paul Housberg does for a living nothing short of revolutionary: He takes the fusty old art of stained glass and updates it for hotels, offices, and universities — those sanctuaries of the modern world.

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The resulting installations are giant, geometric arrays of colored glass that owe more to abstract art than to the windows of a 13th-century cathedral. Case in point: Housberg’s latest project, a set of six backlit murals at Princeton University’s new Frick Chemistry Lab. The building is fiercely contemporary — a study in glass and steel — and Housberg’s work is designed to both echo the space and warm it up. Squint, and the murals look like Klimt paintings, all oblong shapes and bright, monochromatic colors. “I originally worked with traditional stained-glass techniques,” Housberg, who’s based in Rhode Island, says. “The way I?m working now is an evolution from that. It’s something relevant to contemporary architecture.”

The crux of Housberg’s technique is layering colors to achieve what he calls “an envelope of experience.” His goal is to ‘create an environment rather than a series of focal points,’ he says, adding quickly: “Not to get too art-speaky here.”

So he cuts ?-inch-thick colored glass sheets into strips and stacks them up on top of each other, collage-like, to produce a single variegated tile. Then he throws the tile in the kiln a couple times, first to fuse the glass together, second to press the whole thing into a mold. Each installation consists of dozens of these tiles. A map indicates which ones goes where, and in the last step, they’re mounted on a tempered glass substrate. The complete process, from first sketch to last tile, can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.

Housberg has produced installations for organizations all over the map: Pfizer, CalSTRS , Marriott, St. Regis, and the California Pacific Medical Center, among others. For each assignment, he says, he likes to “create work that feels like it can’t be sited anywhere else.” He starts by feeling out the architecture. ‘I try to understand the space and the lighting the conditions and who uses the space,’ he says. “That usually suggests a general approach, and then I develop a palette.”

What’s the business benefit? Much as traditional stained glass connotes an unmistakable churchiness, his glass art gives today’s offices and civic spaces their own fresh character. “It distinguishes businesses from other, similar businesses,” Housberg says, “That’s why I?m asked to do this kind of work. It’s all about identity.”

[Images courtesy of Paul Housberg]

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.

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