THE chameleon trait of stained glass -- in the fall, yellow becomes amber; in summer, blue more violet -- has kept it an architectural favorite in homes since the Renaissance. Its designs have glorified coats of arms in Gothics, bejeweled Victorians, framed nature in Craftsmans and added abstract punch to stark Moderns. Even overworked Jamestown settlers found the time to make decorative windows.
Made of chunks of glass and shafts of lead, stained glass can be practical, increasing a home's distinction and resale value, adding privacy from nearby neighbors or blocking an unsightly landscape. But most of all, textured glass lures in light. And the right placement of glass can make that light dance, across walls, floors and faces, in saturations of colors that can't be duplicated by man.
A vibrant display of stained glass' range can be seen in two new exhibits. The J. Paul Getty Museum is debuting 22 panels it recently acquired that were made for houses, town halls and churches during the 13th to 16th centuries. And the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens' showcase of William Morris' Arts and Crafts pieces from the late 19th century opens Saturday. These two collections, along with works in private homes, make Los Angeles "a major center for the study of stained glass and a place to see significant stained glass," says Diane Waggoner, curator of the Morris exhibit.
Morris was an English artist, poet and socialist. Through his work, writings and speeches, he promoted the medieval ideal of taking pride in creating decorative objects by hand. In his stained-glass work, he concentrated on color and composition, placing rich crimsons next to soft pinks and emphasizing their shades with properly placed lead lines.
His philosophy of quality and beauty in the home influenced American Arts and Crafts designers, from bungalow architects Charles and Henry Greene to Walter Horace Judson, who co-founded an art glass company, Judson Studios, in Los Angeles in 1897.
The studios' work is found throughout Los Angeles. Sandy Kennedy's Craftsman house in Windsor Square has stained glass that was inspired by medieval and Morris designs, and made by Judson in 1910. The five panels span almost the full length of a 15-foot bay window in the mahogany-and-teak dining room. They depict a feast with three servants catering to a lord and lady. Clear glass outlines the scenes and offers a view of pine trees in the yard.
With an eye toward tradition, designers of Craftsman homes often mimicked nature by re-creating it in colored glass. Greene and Greene's Gamble House in Pasadena has a lacy oak tree encased in layers of opaque glass on the front door.
In many cases, Craftsman homes have leaded glass flanking the fireplace, above a china cabinet or on bookcase doors. Images may have a California theme such as the state flower, the poppy.
Or, says David Raposa, a real estate broker who lives in a 1909 Craftsman home in the West Adams area and who has served on the board of the Los Angeles Conservancy, the stained-glass piece could have a "fantasy Eurocentric design with a castle, stream and stone bridge."
The colors in the glass in many of the houses complement the stain of the wood floors, the paint on the walls and the glass in the light fixtures.
Kennedy, who lives with Linda Lack in their Windsor Square Craftsman, says the formal-looking panels were the reason they decided to buy the house eight years ago.
"They have the deepest ambers and the richest avocado green, chartreuse, emerald and burgundy," says Kennedy, a landscape designer. "It's on the north side of our house, so when the sun is lower in the sky in the winter, it's a lot more muted. We can follow the seasons this way."
Judson Studios, the foremost maker of stained glass in Southern California, has seen business growing, especially among devotees of the Arts and Crafts movement and those who want to distinguish their homes from their neighbors'. "People recognized it as an art form," says David Judson, who runs the company with his mother and brother. "And they like that everything we do is custom."
On the opposite side of the style spectrum is Joe and Alice Coulombe's stained-glass window in their contemporary home in Pasadena. Brick-shaped pieces are stacked on the five vertical panels. Rectangles and squares of yellow, red and green, and a lone yellow circle, interrupt the blue bricks.
Joe Coulombe, the founder of Trader Joe's markets, went to the Judson Studios with a book on Bauhaus and asked for something simple, but bold. Even though it's as modern as Mondrian, the window was made with medieval techniques: slowly and by hand. "It wasn't a really fast project," says Coulombe.
He quickly ordered two more windows for the upstairs and downstairs bathrooms. Then he and Alice waited.
To them, patience paid off.
The Coulombes travel the world to attend symphonies and operas, but there's something unmatchable about sitting in their home with their luminous art. When the sun's out, the effect is like turning up the volume on the surround sound. They just have to wait for the right time of day, then sit back and watch the light dance around the room in a costume of colors.
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Getting a closer look
"Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."
-- William Morris,
"The Beauty of Life," 1880.
An exhibition of some of William Morris' accomplishments, "The Beauty of Life: William Morris and the Art of Design," will be on display at the Huntington beginning Saturday and continuing through April 4. The highlight of the library's extensive collection of Morris & Co. works is a 10-panel, 15-foot-high stained glass window from the demolished Unitarian Chapel in Heywood, Lancashire, England. The illuminated window has been installed at eye level, making the experience more intimate than in its original setting.
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino. (626) 405-2100; www.huntington.org.
The Getty has an exhibit of newly acquired medieval and Renaissance stained glass on display also through April 4. "Images in Light: Newly Acquired Stained Glass" includes 22 panels from Gothic churches, cloisters and houses.
A vibrant ruby-and-gold panel from the late 15th century symbolizes the coat of arms of a Swiss family, depicting a boar ready to attack a maiden.
The Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 440-7300; www.getty.edu.