First-time visitors, click here to start at the beginning of this bizarre tale of stained glass design …
It was P.R. Exec. #1 who broke the silence: “Where did you say that this new stained glass window was going?”
I stood my ground (though a less brave man would have been reduced to ashes): “A crematorium …”
P.R. Exec. #1: “A crematorium!”
Indeed. Anyone would have thought we’d proposed a two-week holiday in the Ninth Circle of Hell.
Yes, people always behave strangely when one mentions crematoria: only a few days earlier, we’d had a visit from Patrick Reyntiens, the stained glass artist with whom David did his 8-year apprenticeship.
Just guess what Patrick said about this project?
When I described the incident to Sir Roy Strong, this gentle and eminent art historian and former director of the Victoria & Albert Museum soothingly replied:
“Patrick can indeed be a devastating putter-down. Don’t worry about it: just count yourselves lucky to have the work.”
And, whilst we gladly accepted Sir Roy’s advice, it was really no surprise that even the combined majesty of P.R. Exec. #1 and P.R. Exec. #2 should grow pale at the thought of one of our stained glass windows – no matter how magnificent – in a place of sorrow, a melancholy crematorium.
Do you know what? – I even see their point.
When we win that commission to design and make some extraordinary stained glass windows for a celebrity-packed Hollywood night-club, you can be sure that our wonderful P.R. executives will drum us up so much publicity that journalists and papparazi will travel from all over the world to ignore the celebrities and admire our stained glass.
A crematorium is altogether different: people always assume it can’t make headlines like a night-club can …
But David and I had leapt at the idea the moment that our client suggested it.
The Hereford Saga had all begun a few weeks earlier: Mr. R.C. had rang and asked to visit us at our studios at Stanton Lacy.
“Crematoria are always such depressing and miserable places,” he began (and we agreed).
“But they’re building a new one at Hereford,” he continued (and we listened).
“Here’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make this crematorium different!
“My idea is to pay for a beautiful stained glass window.
“So – and I see it’s a quite a tricky task – could you please design and paint a window that will lift people’s spirits and help make this crematorium ‘happy’ and ‘light’?”
Now please consider this.
Our client, R.C., wanted to make a gift of this window to a public crematorium – a building that is run by the state.
Which means of course that public officials would also want to influence the design.
But our immediate loyalty was to our client, R.C.
Therefore, rather than approaching those public officials straight away, we chose firstly to spend more time with R.C. in order to get a clear idea of the stained glass window that he wanted to give.
Conversations and meetings are necessary between us and our clients, precisely because we do not have a monolithic “studio style” – we can design and paint in many styles: that’s the whole point of why we do architectural stained glass.
Perhaps it’s excellent to be known for a particular style, but we feel we might as well be known for always repeating ourselves in conversation! It’s not how we do things. For one thing, we’d get bored if we worked like that, imposing a single style on every stained glass window that we made.
Therefore, when we talk with a client, we don’t pull out our catalogue and say: “You can have this design one in red and green, or yellow and mauve. And purple is very popular this year …”
By contrast, what we often do is this: we look through our portfolio of stained glass designs and discuss the ideas and features which, in the client’s view, stand out.
Or we might also talk about:
- The kind of art that the client likes
- Whether they like puzzles
- The countries they have visited
- How they like to travel
- The food they like, the shapes, colours, tastes and textures
And so forth: in this way, design-ideas emerge.
It’s such an exciting process. Something invariably clicks, and everyone says, “Yes, that’s it!”
(Just the other day, a different client announced: “The Fibonacci sequence: that’s that we want!” And this is a series of stained glass windows that we’ll design and paint in 2009.)
And, even though we’ve not yet committed anything to paper, everyone knows instinctively that something was created right then.
No matter how big or small the stained glass window is, we always establish a brief.
Sometimes the client articulates the brief directly; other times we work together and talk and listen until the brief emerges, which takes as long as it takes.
The window will endure for decades. Its design is its essence. The design emerges from the brief.
Talking with our client, R.C., it quickly became clear that colours were important due to the sense of calm that he wanted: shades of blue, green and yellow.
Here R.C. also mentioned that he liked paintings by Claude Monet.
And an abstract design, he said, not a literal one: nothing definite, nothing recognizable – no landscapes, no human figures, no animals, no fish, no birds …
“Apart from an owl,” he mysteriously added, “a hidden owl: only my friends will know it’s there”.
“And I really like that,” he said, pointing to a design which David had painted a few years ago, but which we’d never made. (It’s surprising how often it is that things which are purely done for their own sake will also come in useful one day.)
The last two features were the size – roughly 1 metre wide and 5 metres high (which is about 3 feet wide and 15 feet high) – and, of course, the function of the building: a public crematorium.
(Owners of celebrity-packed Hollywood night-clubs: don’t delay, telephone today!)
Now we couldn’t go and visit the building, because they hadn’t even begun building it yet.
So we rang the architect and discovered the size of each individual section – there were four in all:
This information was enough for us to get started with. We found our water-colour paints and started the long journey of design:
- Uplifting, calm
- Abstract, suggestive, non-literal (apart from one owl – hidden), impressionistic (Claude Monet)
- Blues, yellows and greens
- The design which R.C. saw and liked in our studio
- Scale proportions of 1:5
- A state-owned crematorium.
Stained glass design is a process that moves from doubt and hypothesis toward conviction and agreement. Then the actual painting and making is relatively straightforward.
Sometimes, once we have a brief, we might feel as if we could draw the final design immediately.
But we’ve learned from experience that this feeling, however strong, is misleading.
Therefore, even when we’re absolutely convinced about what it is that we ultimately want to do, the design always begins in a provisional, tentative and explorative way.
In some measure, the whole process of design requires us to put our egos on one side: we always remember we are using our skills for individual clients and particular buildings.
A good stained glass designer is like a magnificent cook. Such a cook knows a vast quantity of recipes and is an excellent judge of how to prepare a huge range of ingredients. But he or she still wants to produce a meal that his customers will adore. Otherwise it’s a waste of fine ingredients.
Our way, at Williams & Byrne, is to begin with small sketches.
These sketches are rough and incomplete. But they can of course be beautiful.
They can also be exciting, because they suggest and promise something new.
We then have further conversations with our client. And this allows us to become increasingly confident not just of what the client wants but also what the building wants.
In this case, for R.C., and all the time bearing in mind the six-point brief that we’d established until now, we then prepared two sketches, each one about 2 inches wide by 10 inches tall.
Here are the two sketches that we presented to R.C.
So, once we had re-assured R.C. that we had not forgotten his owl, our next question was:
“Given this window is going in a crematorium (and not a night-club), which one of these two sketches begins to convey the right impression?”