Judson Studios: Restoration, Reinvention and a New Stained-Glass Renaissance
By SHANA NYS DAMBROT
December 20, 2018
Exactly 100 years after the formidable and luxuriously mustachioed William Lees Judson established the Judson Studios stained glass emporium in Highland Park in 1897, his great-great-grandson David Judson heeded the call of love and destiny and took its reins. Since that day in 1997, Judson Studios has grown both its operational footprint and the scope of its technical skills. For the past five years, Judson has actively pursued working with contemporary artists, expanding the studio’s core business from traditional religious and midcentury-modern fabrication and restoration to include a fresh category of creative collaboration and experimentation. Some astonishing projects have already come of this, with more in the offing.
You see, William Lees Judson was not only an entrepreneur but a professor and a talented plein air painter himself; some of his landscapes hang in the studio foyer. The workshop’s location, which Judson still occupies, was the first home — and William the first dean — of the USC College of Fine Arts and Architecture. From the moment you step across the first paving stones into the sun-dappled, tree-lined driveway, with the stone and wood, Craftsman-style structure nestled at the far end of a verdant yard, a large abstract stained glass sculpture in a roundabout, and a grove’s worth of old shade trees, you know you’re somewhere special.
As you move through a series of cozy offices and busy workspaces laid out around the compound, you encounter a surreal mix of the industrial and the beautiful, occasionally digital and more often dazzlingly old-school and analog materials and techniques in use. There are entire finished vintage glass pieces and some very special modern works integrated into its architecture; process sketches and historical photographs; various jobs, some still a secret, in various stages of completion; and loads of super happy people. Judson is the oldest family-run stained glass studio in America, but that family sense clearly extends past the formidable DNA to include everyone on the team — some of whom have been working there for decades.
The air is rich, not only with the intoxicating aroma of the clove and lavender oil the painters use to mix their powdered pigments into delicate paints but with history. Yet it soon becomes clear that David Judson, master in part-time residence Narcissus Quagliata, and the studio’s creative director, Tim Carey — plus Reed and Kyle and all the painters and artisans who come and go throughout a busy day or a long-term project — are just as comfortable in the realm of the abstract, pop, contemporary and avant-garde as they are in the more traditional realms of religious, midcentury modern and custom pieces.
The studio has a vast inventory and design resources to offer some 500 colors of glass — and that’s even before they kiln-fuse some into a full spectrum of other variations of gradient and texture. They primarily use two kinds of glass, which they order from trusted makers: the domestic machine-rolled and the European antique/mouth-blown.
David explains the alchemy of the fused glass as “something that’s a little bit different than your traditional stained glass, because you can basically take different colors of glass, put them in a kiln and fuse them together, which you can’t do with normal colored stained glass.” The panes and shards are arranged to melt together in predictable but organic behaviors based on the chemical reactions of their component colors. The effect is remarkably painterly, resembling brushstrokes and blended palettes. The antique glass can’t be treated this way, and instead is deployed using the leaded soldering and mosaic-style assembly that most people think of when think about stained glass.
The original site is still the location of the more traditional technical processes but now there’s a brand new 7,000-square-foot, fused-glass facility down the road as well. In all cases, the figurative detail that lavishly illustrates many of the panels is painted by hand, with lightboxes and tracing paper and freehand confidence, careful pigmentation and the unmistakable vibrancy of the personally rendered.
In the studios at any given time, you will see abstract expressionism happening in a dark kiln, techniques recalling the subject and style of illuminated manuscripts, contemporary portraiture interpreted, street art replicated and an endless pageant of tricks, illusions, effects and rule-breaking.
Of course, there are still the churches. So very, very many churches. Just off the top of David’s head, there’s a project in Jackson, California, a Catholic church in a former car dealership; and more in Modesto, Porterville and even Maricopa, Arizona. “There might be fewer churches these days,” David says, “but they are all bigger!” He shows me banner-size photograph of the piece Judson Studios did for a church in Lakewood, Kansas, which at 37 by 93 feet is the world’s largest single-image fused-glass window. There are elements of a monastery in Wyoming that’s going full-on 13th-century in its aesthetic and materials.
But stained glass has never been, and certainly is not now, only for houses of worship. Judson masterpieces include projects such as the operatic rosette at South Coast Plaza; designs for the Standard Hotel Spa in Miami and the downtown Los Angeles Ace Hotel, where they did the Tiffany-esque Commune restaurant interior glass pieces; and an untold number of private palaces and fantasies of estate. Oh, and there’s the not-so-small matter of all the stained glass across the $700 million USC Village construction and renovation. David (MA ’96) oversaw the creation of the glass for buildings including Our Savior Parish/USC Caruso Catholic Center and the hallowed Mudd Hall.
“Eighty percent of our business is new work these days, but there have been and might be more times ahead where as much as 50 percent is restoration work,” David says. This often means the refurbishment of pieces that Judson did in the first place, however many decades ago. And that’s a long list of luminaries and landmarks in its own right. To start, there are the Frank Lloyd Wright treasures of the Ennis House (1925/2007) and Barnsdall Park’s Hollyhock House (1921/2015), both of which Judson Studios originally created and later restored. Ditto the beloved globe at the downtown Los Angeles Central Library and, as Kristin Friedrich of the Natural History Museum tells me, “They did our rotunda at NHM originally (we opened in 1913) and then fixed it up during our renovations in time for our 100th anniversary in 2013. For the century-long customer-client relationship win.”
A lot has changed for all concerned parties in those 100-year-plus stretches, not the least of which has been advances in the technology. Just kidding. Not much has changed at all. There are a few shortcuts like digital sketching and other computer assists, which do eliminate some man-hours, but have little or no impact on the labor-intensivity of the part where the work actually gets physically made. We’re talking about tools such as special three-blade scissors just for cutting patterns that account for the spaces in a pattern or picture where the lead seams will go. Tracing paper, lightboxes, endless test proofs for color and thickness executed at scale and temperature, and painstaking piece-by-piece assembly are still the core of the job.
“There’s an old joke about how the latest invention in stained glass was the glass cutter,” David says. “And that was 500 years ago.”
Nevertheless, contemporary artists are flocking to Judson Studios. Amir H. Fallah translated a painting of himself holding a sock-monkey doll representing his infant son into a luminous panel that was installed in a small, darkened chapel-like shed inside his acclaimed 2017 solo exhibition at Shulamit Nazarian. He’s completed a new lightbox-style piece this year, and is working with Judson on a large-scale public art piece, which will be finished in 2020. Fallah’s work lends itself to translation into stained glass through its pageantry, luminosity, saturated colors and tableaux-vivant sensibility.
James Jean made a large-scale, symbolism-rich pop surrealist triptych that was shown at Takashi Murakami’s gallery in Tokyo, KaiKai Kiki Gallery, featuring his signature characters and a panoply of meaningful, precious detail. He’s got a new piece they’re getting ready for a February unveiling, which is under strict embargo but is going to be ridiculously cool and is currently challenging and inspiring the entire Judson Studio staff. Dani Tull is in and out of the studio, as is Sarah Cain. Street artist David Flores made a piece that was shown at Sullivan Goss in Santa Barbara. Flores is known for painting his figures and faces with heavy dark lines that already reference the lead soldering of stained glass. It’s kind of perfect.
Laurie Frick made a large-scale, architecturally engaged, breezy abstract installation of colored glass tiles and small panels at Texas A&M University. Artists like Marco Zamora and Michael Davis likewise made great strides in translating their visions into these new-old mediums. “It’s important to us to figure it out,” David explains. “To see what can be possible. We are inspired by them, and the artists gain an appreciation too for what we do.” This mutual learning curve between glass makers, painters, illustrators, sculptors and architects proceeds along a continuum of the creative process, becoming every bit as obsessed with the world of stained glass as the architects of bygone eras ever were.
With a big juicy book on the history of Judson Studios due out from Angel City Press next summer, Judson Studios also is featured in the newest episode of Craft in America, which is entirely dedicated to California and debuts on PBS on Friday, Dec. 21 (check your local listings). And now through Jan. 26 at the Craft in America Center in Los Angeles, a classic piece from Judson Studios is on view as part of “Rooted: Craft Origins From the California Episode.”
The Highland Park studio grounds are open to the public on guided tours about once a month, as well as through groups such as regional heritage foundations or architecture preservation societies. Head to the website to sign up for the next one, get your mind blown along with the glass, and never see those pretty windows in the same light again.