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Piecing Together the Past and Present at Lenox Stained Glass

John Lenox uses Old World techniques to restore old stained glass windows and create new ones; photos via <a href="">Patricia Chang</a>
John Lenox uses Old World techniques to restore old stained glass windows and create new ones; photos via Patricia Chang

Lenox Stained Glass has been at its current location at 1840 Clement Street for over three years, but it still looks like they are just moving in in. "Every year I tell myself I'm going to straighten the place up. Every year I say, this is going to be the year," says owner John Lenox.

Lenox is a packrat by nature. The further back in the studio you go, the more there is. He knows he ought to do something about it, but he has years upon years of treasure here, rare and finely crafted glass of species and styles that they simply don't make anymore.

↑ Unbeknownst to most of us, not all glass is created equal. Every glassmaker has his or her own formula and style, which a glass connoisseur can often identify on sight. Lenox has so many choice sheets that he might need a lifetime, or even in several, to use them all.

The workspace is a broad array of worktables, tools, frames, sketches, and of course glass panes of every size and color, like squares of brittle candy. Yes, it's mildly chaotic. But here, perfection comes out of chaos.

John Lenox at work; photos via Patricia Chang
↑ Lenox moved to San Francisco 34 years ago for love—friends set him up on a blind date with his now-wife right before she moved to California for a job. After a minimal degree of soul searching he said "What the heck," and followed.

He found his other love—stained glass—through similar serendipity. "Someone asked me if I would do a stained glass window for them. I'd never done one before. I said okay," he explains. Lenox had previously restored mirrors as a hobbyist craftsman, and the leaded glass is similar to that in a stained glass window.

Out of this experimental work order Lenox got two decent quality windows and a new calling. He chucked his previous career plans (parks and recreation) and became a stained glass man, piecing together windows, skylights, and ornamental installations for countless San Francisco houses. Over three decades the shop has seen ups and downs, and it's presently riding high on the white-hot real estate market. It seems that what's good for Realtors is also good for craftspeople.

↑ Lenox can't always quite put his finger on what the elemental appeal of glasswork. "There's just something about the way the colored glass plays with the light," he says.

The work that goes into is gritty, hard, and blue-collar. With the exception of diamond grinders, the tools are the same as they were a century ago, mostly pliers and glass cutters. Most of Lenox's orders are contractor commissions. "They've all got their plumbing guy, their wiring guy, and their stained glass guy," he says.

It's a best of both worlds formula: Stained glass work lets him be an old school craftsman who works with his hands and also a savvy artist producing works of fragile beauty.

The challenge is also part of the appeal. Glass is an unforgiving medium, and it prefers to do things on its own terms. "It wants to break a certain way" when you put pressure on it, Lenox explains. Coercing it to break the way you want—the way that will create pieces shaped to fit your design—is a test of patience and diligence, not to mention the steadiness of your hand.

Straight lines are easiest, inside curves the most difficult. (Lenox's hardest commission ever was a quarter-sphere of colored glass.) Most jobs are for residences, either new pieces or restorations of old ones. Lenox has lost track of how many thousands of San Francisco houses feature his work. In some neighborhoods he can cruise slowly down the block and point them out, one after another. Not all the work is residential: Right now he's working on a metal and glass memorial for a middle school student.

From left: John Lenox holding Roxy, Bob Lucas, and David Fontes; photos via Patricia Chang
↑ Gentrification has been good for business Lenox admits, cringing a little at the term. He's felt the sting of the city's soaring real estate market himself through the rising cost of owning a business (Clement Street is Lenox Stained Glass' third location), but he's working more than ever.

Which of course means that that long-deferred cleanup may have to wait just a little longer. But there's always next year. —Adam Brinklow

· Lenox Stained Glass [Official Site]