A hundred years ago, almost every house built in the Bay Area had some stained glass in it. That level of craftsmanship and everyday beauty was expected then, even in a modest Sears Roebuck bungalow. Today, stained-glass elements are the exception rather than the rule, especially in new construction.
But for the past two decades, Theodore Ellison—working out of a converted 3,000-square-foot pool hall in Oakland—has been trying to change all that. He designs and creates what he calls “finely crafted” stained-glass windows and doors, mosaic fireplaces, backsplashes, and murals for clients in the Bay Area and beyond.
“There is a renewed interest in site-specific hand-crafted work,” he said. “People respond to this personal touch, and there are now small makers all over the country making stained glass and mosaics for people’s homes.”
Ellison specializes in using traditional materials and techniques to create art that is relevant to contemporary architecture and styles.
Jenny Kinder and her husband fell in love with Ellison’s designs when they saw photos of his work in American Bungalow magazine. “He does exquisite, intricate designs that we thought would be perfect for our Craftsman house,” said Kinder.
The couple commissioned Ellison to create a stained-glass window for their bathroom, in order to provide some privacy from a house situated about 10 feet away. The window is largely made of an opaque white glass, to allow maximum light, with some delicate blossoming branches.
They then commissioned a laylight, a decorative panel set flush with the ceiling to allow in diffuse lighting, and a mosaic surround for their fireplace.
“The trick with the laylight was to bring in more light, but not to attract too much attention, because within a few feet you have the fireplace,” she said. The result is an understated black-and-white geometric design for the stained-glass ceiling panel, and a dimmer switch that allows for different lighting choices.
The mosaic fireplace, on the other hand, is a showstopper.
“It’s the first thing people notice when they come into our house,” said Kinder. “Ted showed us these patterns he’d been working on, based on Japanese embroidery. He thought it would be really beautiful to add falling flowers to the classic design.” Though initially, the design was “kind of a stretch for us, because we had always imagined the fireplace would have a very Arts and Crafts look.”
The couple had originally imagined that the fireplace mosaic would be a dark green color, appropriate for the 1912 house. But they trusted Ellison, and decided they didn’t want the house to feel like “an Arts and Crafts cliche, checking all the boxes.”
After approving the design, the Kinders deliberated for months about the color. They were leaning toward different shades of ochre and red—warm colors they thought would light up the room—but eventually settled on indigo, the traditional Japanese fabric color that Ellison had suggested.
“We just felt this was a very natural fit,” said Kinder. The Art and Crafts movement was, after all, influenced by Japanism.
Ellison, who studied art at San Francisco State University, creates original designs for all his mosaic and stained-glass work. While his work is inspired by the glass designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and Charles and Henry Greene (Greene and Greene), he does not do reproductions.
“I am interested in keeping these centuries-old techniques going forward,” not in recreating old patterns, he said. “The problem is that when you are working with traditional trades, it’s always an uphill battle against people’s perceptions that the work has to be crafty or look a certain way.”
Early on, Ellison was drawn to Japanese design and its emphasis on positive and negative spaces.
“I like to have areas of interest, places where the eye can rest,” he said. “If there are leaves everywhere, it’s too much for the eye to look at. If you leave some openness, people can appreciate the layout of the design.”
Ellison jokes that the most important tools he has are his eraser and white-out pen.
“I spend a lot of time drawing, but an equal amount of time erasing and refining,” he said. “If there is something that doesn’t serve the overall design—a line or an element—you have to remove it.”
This minimalism and clarity of design gives Ellison’s work a unique and identifiable look. It is less busy and fussy than much of the stained-glass work being done today, and Ellison has also developed a palette that is more muted than that of many other artists.
“I am kind of a nut about hunting down obscure glass,” he said.
Ellison regularly travels to glass factories around the country, and spends hours sorting through bins of glass. When he can’t find a specific shade or design he wants, he will have glass manufactured for his studio.
“We have to buy crates of it to make it worthwhile, but we do it to get the glass we need,” he said.
Certain colors and finishes specific to Arts and Crafts glass are difficult to find today, but Ellison has his sources. This attention to detail is appreciated by his clients.
“I work from home, and I spend an extraordinary amount of time with the pieces that Ted created for us,” said Scott Runcorn, who lives in a 1907 renovated Edwardian in San Francisco’s Lower Haight.
Runcorn is particularly fond of how the light changes in the spring, for example, and how that alters the look of the stained-glass windows in the entryway.
“When people come into our house, the first thing they do is gravitate toward those windows,” said Runcorn’s wife, Nancy Spoelhof. “They are such a dramatic feature in the space.”
Runcorn wanted a foxglove flower design, and Ellis chose a muted tan-colored glass because it had shading reminiscent of the flower.
“I like Ted’s colors because they are not overly literal, they are not modern, and they are not over-played,” said Runcorn. “I was less interested in the color than in the creative shape.”
Ellison added that Tiffany often used foxgloves in his windows, so he had plenty of inspiration.
A second set of windows at the couple’s home features jasmine, a flower selected by Spoelhof, who is also an artist. These windows receive less light, so Ellison used mostly translucent white glass and an open design that lets in as much light as possible. The couple wanted stained-glass windows in the dining room because the house next door is a few feet away, and Airbnb renters were “waving at us as we were having dinner every night.”
The most recent addition to the Edwardian dining room is a fireplace mosaic, which Runcorn commissioned as a surprise for his wife. Her father, who had recently passed away, was an avid gardener from Rochester, New York, who loved black-eyed Susans. So on her father’s birthdate, Ellison delivered a mosaic fireplace surround that was installed while Spoelhof was out. The mosaic flowers decorate both sides of the fireplace, but there are some fallen petals installed on the floor as well.
“It was a total surprise,” said Spoelhof. “I wish we could have filmed it.”
Ellison, who studied carpentry and worked in construction, delivers his projects in one piece. They can be installed quickly either in a permanent manner, so they stay with the house, or in a way that will allow for removal when the owners move.
“If it’s done right, this work provides privacy, interest, and color,” said Ellison. “I like to let the materials speak for themselves, so the work will never go out of style.”