THE CREATORS: A new NW Living feature launches with a look at Glassworks and its one-of-a-kind architectural art glass.

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UPSTAIRS, GLASSWORKS’ SHOWROOM shimmers like a busted piñata of precious stones. Glittery jewels of light — amber, sapphire, pure transparent sunshine — radiate from piece after piece of handcrafted architectural art glass. Bulging grape bunches and raised wavy vines embellish a full-size wine-room door. A tucked-in thread of LED lights bounces blue throughout a glowing glass countertop, itself nestled beneath a backsplash of shining, mirrored glass bricks.

It’s an airy menagerie of glass and artistry, of “textures, thickness, possibilities,” says Glassworks designer/founder Steve Shahbaghlian.

These particular transparent/translucent treasures are for inspiration only (all of Glassworks’ work is custom-crafted by master artisans) — to admire, to imagine and definitely to touch.

The Creators

This week, we debut an occasional NW Living feature focused on the creative people and places who shape the way we live — stories encompassing a body or form of beautiful architectural work, rather than one particular beautifully designed residence. Know a super-talented creative type more people should know? Please email sdunham@seattletimes.com.

“Glass is really tactile,” says Glassworks principal Tish Oye. “We encourage clients, architects and designers to come here and get a feel of what they like.”

Clearly, architect Nils Finne likes a lot. Glassworks has crafted stunning custom, sometimes-curvy countertops for homes he’s designed in Mazama, Lake Forest Park and along Elliott Bay. They’re currently collaborating on two more homes, Finne says — on Bainbridge Island and in Venice, Calif. — along with a 7-foot-tall, creativity-in-motion glass wall sculpture that Finne designed for the lobby of his Fremont office.

Architect Nils Finne sketched his design for a 7-foot-tall glass wall sculpture, which Glassworks will fabricate from layers of clear, white and black glass, for the lobby of the FINNE Svendsen Building in Fremont (designed by Finne). “The entire form undulates!” he says. (Courtesy Nils Finne)
Architect Nils Finne sketched his design for a 7-foot-tall glass wall sculpture, which Glassworks will fabricate from layers of clear, white and black glass, for the lobby of the FINNE Svendsen Building in Fremont (designed by Finne). “The entire form undulates!” he says. (Courtesy Nils Finne)

“It’s composed of layers of clear, white and black glass, and the entire form undulates!” he says. “There is something magical about glass in a building interior, especially if that interior is filled with warm wood tones. The glass creates the sparkle and light touch that make the wood tones intensify. Sometimes, I even think of the glass as light itself. Glassworks is a firm that I have relied on for many years because of their exquisite craftsmanship and understanding of architecture.”

It is called architectural art glass for a reason. Glassworks’ pieces creatively, technically and beautifully fuse architectural form and practical function, through glass walls, headboards, countertops, tabletops, stairs, balustrades, doors, sinks, vanities.

“We contribute to the beauty of the surroundings,” says Oye. “We create one-of-a-kind functional works of art in glass. Our pieces are seen and used daily. They add stunning focal points while being useful at the same time.”

Every stunningly useful focal point Glassworks creates (no simple decorative pieces, no spec work, very little blown glass) is crafted on-site at its two-level studio in the Rainier Valley, where it moved after 15 years in Belltown.

 

DOWNSTAIRS, GLASSWORKS’ multiroom workshop is … not a single bit like upstairs.

The atmosphere is significantly more intense, for one thing — both in tone (fiery lava-red inside the variously sized, computer-controlled kilns) and in temperature (up to 1,600 degrees, but no higher).

Designer Steve Shahbaghlian, who founded Glassworks in 1968, shields his face from the heat as the lid of the giant kiln The Behemoth is lifted to reveal molten glass counters. Depending on the glass, kiln temperatures range from 1,400 to 1,600 degrees. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
Designer Steve Shahbaghlian, who founded Glassworks in 1968, shields his face from the heat as the lid of the giant kiln The Behemoth is lifted to reveal molten glass counters. Depending on the glass, kiln temperatures range from 1,400 to 1,600 degrees. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

And so is the sound. There is sandblasting. Cutting, carving, casting, polishing, popping. Off the main oven room, claiming its own significant chunk of glass-melting workspace, one singularly huge kiln acknowledges that creativity is not always delicate and light: It’s called The Behemoth.

With 125 square feet of bed space, Shahbaghlian says, the question is not so much: How do you get the glass in that thing? (“Typically, it goes in in pieces, crumbled and shoveled in.”) It’s: How do you get it out? (“People, forklift, elevated gurney,” he says. “We can get it out, but it goes in easier.”)

With glass capacity like that, Glassworks has fabricated five 10- to 12-foot-tall, lighted Art Deco panels for the sales office of a New York City condominium project; a 12-foot-long glass headboard (which had to be secured at the top and the bottom during installation); and a tall, spectacularly textured glass wall that divides the entry and dining area of a contemporary Kirkland home designed by Rick Chesmore of Chesmore|Buck Architecture.

Tish Oye, the owner of Glassworks, poses with a bamboo slumped glass panel at the company’s Rainier Valley studio. As a former social worker, she says, “We strongly advocate giving back to the community and have a long history with numerous nonprofit organizations.”  (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
Tish Oye, the owner of Glassworks, poses with a bamboo slumped glass panel at the company’s Rainier Valley studio. As a former social worker, she says, “We strongly advocate giving back to the community and have a long history with numerous nonprofit organizations.” (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

Three Glassworks craftspeople manage 10 to 15 projects at once, at various stages, Shahbaghlian says. Some take three months; some take two years. The Kirkland room-dividing piece took 18 months from start to finish, Oye says — and then there was that part about turning it into a wall.

“You wouldn’t have thought: ‘What keeps it there?’ ” says Shahbaghlian. “But because of the location, there were issues of sufficient support, legal codes and public access. We had holes drilled in the top, and tempered the glass [for safety] after the kiln.”

Architect Chesmore says his firm has worked with Glassworks on 10 or so projects over the years, “And our clients are always blown away with the finished product. We can give Glassworks the reason we would like to use custom glass in a particular design solution, and they create the glass to not only meet the purpose of using glass, but they keep in mind that the design of the glass should be unforgettable glass art.”

As is often the case with Glassworks’ work, the divine dividing wall was the finishing detail of the Kirkland home. “Putting that in, you don’t want a lot of other things going on,” says Shahbaghlian.

Glass is amazingly resilient, says Oye, but in a separate lower-level area of Glassworks called the cold shop sits a reminder of its vulnerability.

It’s a giant slab of gorgeous glass destined for a teriyaki bar at Virginia Tech. “We made four of these 10 years ago, and they broke this one,” says Shahbaghlian. “This is the replacement. We made it 4 inches larger, cut it to the shape and polished the edges. Not a lot of people around can make a piece this big.”

Course, not a lot of people have a Behemoth.

Glass specialist Aaron Ostman of Glassworks distributes broken glass pieces into a mold inside a kiln, where they will be heated and fused to create a glass countertop. “We use glass from many sources,” says Glassworks designer Steve Shahbaghlian. “A lot of low-iron, plate glass without the greenish hue. A lot of what we make is made out of that.” (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
Glass specialist Aaron Ostman of Glassworks distributes broken glass pieces into a mold inside a kiln, where they will be heated and fused to create a glass countertop. “We use glass from many sources,” says Glassworks designer Steve Shahbaghlian. “A lot of low-iron, plate glass without the greenish hue. A lot of what we make is made out of that.” (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

LIKE THE PROCESS that turns crushed nuggets of glass into carefully crafted works of art, the two divergent levels of Glassworks’ studio generate their own kind of fusion: of unexpected heft and delicate details, of creativity and science, of safety and sustainability, of smooth surfaces and rugged edges, of the impressively complementary skillsets of husband-and-wife team Shahbaghlian and Oye.

Shahbaghlian founded Glassworks in 1968, after working with stained glass and “receiving some large commissions, like Herzl-Ner Tamid on Mercer Island and all the Black Angus restaurants throughout the country,” Oye says. “As designs changed, his work morphed into more sand-etching and carving, and finally kiln work in the late ’80s.”

Oye bought Glassworks in 1990. “I came into the picture after a career in social work and subsequently obtaining an MBA,” she says. “I purchased the business as the kiln work was being launched.”

They’ve been together 30 years. At work, Shahbaghlian is “the creative source,” he says; Oye is the client whisperer.

Glassworks founder and designer Steve Shahbaghlian works on a leaded-glass window. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
Glassworks founder and designer Steve Shahbaghlian works on a leaded-glass window. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

“I’ll interact with the architect and designer; Tish, too — they come in through Tish,” says Shahbaghlian. “We converse with the production manager, Jay Martell — he has a real glass background, chemical nature, glassblower past — the technical side. I know 90 percent, but it may be pooh-poohed.”

(As the resident former social worker, Oye feels a special connection to Glassworks’ charitable side. “I recognize the needs of nonprofit agencies,” she says. “When a past client refers us to a new client, we donate in the past client’s name to a nonprofit organization of his/her choice. We have donated to over 40 organizations over the years, some more than once.”)

ART AFICIONADOS Kathleen Kemper and Gary Smith are past clients; return clients; and, clearly, serious fans of glass art and Glassworks.

Glassworks had created an exterior water feature for their previous home, so after the remodel of their artful and art-filled Kirkland condominium (with Scott Allen Architecture and contractor Roberts Group), the couple turned to their go-to interior designer, Kay Stewart (Kay Stewart Design), and their go-to glass studio to enliven the resulting “blank canvas,” Stewart says.

“We were looking for something bright and cheerful,” says Kemper.

It is hard to imagine a result brighter or more cheerful than their swooping, 12-foot-long, 2-inch-thick, amazingly delightful kitchen countertop.

“Kathleen and Gary are fearless when it comes to living with color,” Stewart says. “Their love of glass was the inspiration for a spectacular focal point and art piece, which was the basis for the vision behind the entire interior.”


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Stewart and Shahbaghlian collaborated on the design, which was “highly influenced by the abstract work of [Russian painter Wassily] Kandinsky,” Oye says. “The glass colors were chosen for their vividness and embedded within the piece to show movement and vibrancy.”

Science made this artistic process less straightforward than it might sound. “Interpreting the Kandinsky colors in glass proved a particular fascination since glass changes color when heated, so it was often a best-guess scenario with total trust in Steve’s artistry,” says Stewart. “I knew what we wanted, and he knew how to create it.”

GLASSWORKS’ COLLABORATIVE creative process launches with “renderings and concepts and picking materials,” Oye says.

Clients view drawings and presentations, and handle fascinating glass samples, in Glassworks’ upstairs conference room, where the meeting table itself is one big, beautiful sample of wow: four layers of glass (one blue, three low-iron clear), with a wavy edge. (“We came up with this a few years ago,” says Shahbaghlian. “It looks like water.”)

“We get into the interaction of the house and the people. We come up as a segment in the creation of a great home,” he says. “A lot depends on someone’s expectations: something that will light up, the translucency of something. What does something need? What can we make with enough strength, opacity? I show them samples and suggest ideas. ‘Here. Here’s glass that matches up. This is the baby right here.’ ”

Samples are crucial — especially when you’re shipping custom, site-specific pieces nationwide, Shahbaghlian says: “We don’t like surprises, and there’s the opportunity for massive, expensive surprises.” (Glassworks pieces have appeared in HGTV shows; they also frame the entry to the sparkling Tiffany & Co. store at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, and grace homes for recent clients as far away as Florida and New York City.)

For the colorful and substantial Kirkland countertop, interior designer Stewart says, “Steve created a sketch from which a mock-up was built to test size and height and feasibility in a kitchen already under construction. The hundreds of pounds of glass required a specially designed and constructed steel foundation that came up from the floor through the actual center island and needed to visually ‘disappear’ in the process. Once the shape was refined and the height confirmed, the process of creating the crescent began, using the entirety of the length of the Glassworks kiln.”

Now installed, admired and in use, the spectacular countertop pulls in “plenty of natural light from a waterfront setting during the day, and is dramatically underlit when the day darkens,” says Oye.

A thick, textured glass countertop lighted by a thread of blue LED lights glistens under mirrored glass bricks in Glassworks’ Rainier Valley showroom. “We fabricate one of the healthiest hard surfaces available,” says principal Tish Oye. “Glass is nonporous, so it can’t harbor bacteria; it does not emit harmful volatile organic compounds; it does not require sealing; and can be cleaned with a damp cloth.” (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
A thick, textured glass countertop lighted by a thread of blue LED lights glistens under mirrored glass bricks in Glassworks’ Rainier Valley showroom. “We fabricate one of the healthiest hard surfaces available,” says principal Tish Oye. “Glass is nonporous, so it can’t harbor bacteria; it does not emit harmful volatile organic compounds; it does not require sealing; and can be cleaned with a damp cloth.” (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

In the shimmering showroom, in the scorching glow of The Behemoth, in a dazzling Kirkland kitchen, light enhances glass, science enhances creativity, functionality enhances art — and, by meticulous design, Glassworks’ custom art glass enhances architecture.

“We do things across the board,” says Oye. “We’re going to be at the top of what we do.”