A Glass Menagerie

story and photo by Jeff Tryon

What makes great stained glass great? It’s as much about engineering as art. It’s the glass, of course. But it’s also the way it is put together, how well the design will stand up to the inevitability of gravity and time.

Perched on a chair in a workshop in the rear of his Gould Street shop “A Glass Menagerie” owner Bill Gottwalles muses on art and commerce, engineering, consumer psychology and retail philosophy, and on quality artwork in glass.

The front rooms of the shop are abundant with every shape and style of stained glass window, a beautiful collection of stained glass lamps ranging from the very traditional to the downright surreal, and just about every other kind of glass art imaginable.

“It’s more than just putting pretty pieces of glass together,” he said. “You have to engineer it too, because you’re using soft, malleable metals. You’re fighting gravity and the elements.

“Gravity is a tremendous force, especially over time.”

Over the years, Mr. Gottwalles has learned a lot about how stained glass constructions hold up over time, even very long periods of time, through his repair work.

“I do a lot of church repairs and I like that, because I get to walk in and see old stuff,” he said. “I’ll never see my stuff old, because I’m already too old. I won’t be around. So I look at older things.

“My engineer mind says, ‘That works,’ or ‘That didn’t work,’ ‘How am I going to fix that?’ And ‘How am I going to incorporate that into my little repertoire of information?’ The next time I run into that situation, I know to do it that way, so it will stand up.”

“Unfortunately,” Mr. Gottwalles said, “the difference between quality and questionable work isn’t always apparent to the untrained eye.

“Most people really can’t spot the quality, unless they have done it before and know what to look for. They can’t tell the difference between one of my lamps and one of the Chinese-made lamps,” he said.

He said the difference is in the construction; the soldering, the reinforcement, and the care for detail with which the piece is constructed.

“The soldering especially. They do a pitiful job of foiling it. They don’t reinforce at all. I do so many repairs on them.”

And then there’s the glass; all glasses are not created equal.

“I stay away from the hobby glasses, the bright shiny glass; I lean toward the traditional,” Mr. Gottwalles said.

“The customer is always right, and if they want some of that shiny glass, I’ll show it to them. They specifically make it so that every piece looks the same. There’s no variation in the glass.

“Good art glass, glass with character, when the sun comes through it, you’re supposed to see all kinds of things,” he said.

“One of my favorite glass companies is Kokomo Opalescent up in Kokomo. They’ve been in business since 1888. They make good, moderately priced art glasses.

“Anything you build with them will look stunning—it’ll look old. It will have prestige and character. That’s what I look for in glasses; character.”

Mr. Gottwalles points out that a menagerie is an assortment, and the shop bears out its name with a wide variety of styles, shapes, colors and objects.

“I like to spread it around,” he said. “I have very traditional. I have very contemporary. I have very abstract, bizarre. I try to cover the whole spectrum.

“I do what the customer wants done,” Mr. Gottwalles said. “I’m willing to step outside the boundaries of what is ordinary in order to do that. If somebody comes in with some wild idea, I’ll do my best to make it happen.”

No slave to style, Mr. Gottwalles believes the driving force should be what the customer wants. But he also believes that every piece, no matter what, has a customer that is destined to buy it.

“I’ve never had a stained glass class, I’ve never had an art class. I think that’s probably one reason I’m successful. Because I’m not biased,” he said.

“I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘They said I couldn’t have it this way’ or ‘They said I had to take it right out of the book.’

“No,” Mr. Gottwalles said. “You can have it any way that you want. That’s up to the individual.”

“Everything is unique,” he said. Every single job that comes through the door is unique. Everybody has their own idea of what they want as a finished piece of artwork for a home.”

That is, assuming the individual can figure out what they want.

“Sometimes it’s hard getting it out of the customer,” he said. “Sometimes they don’t know what they want, or don’t know what they like. So, I’ve got to be versatile.”

He says there’s a customer for whatever piece of quality art glass he might choose to make.

“I have a philosophy on this type of work, that goes totally against typical retailing,” he said. “My philosophy is that everything will sell eventually.

“You could take anything, put it over in the corner and put a $50 price tag on it. Sooner or later, someday, somebody’s going to walk through the door and say, ‘Oh my! I’ve been looking for one of those all my life! And you only want $50 for it!’

“No matter how wild or bizarre, or how traditional I get, there’s always somebody out there that’s going to be the owner for that piece, whatever it is.”