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Glass house

Shockingly strong, versatile material a sparkling option for sinks, vanities

Light pirouetting off a hard surface, grabbing the eye, teasing the soul -- that's the magic of glass.

These days, glass sinks, vanities, furniture, privacy screens, and even kitchen countertops turn up everywhere. According to Bert Weiss, artist and glass maker, everyone wants sparkle. Designers and homeowners use it for all kinds of interior features, from frameless steam rooms to lighted floors.

Mercurial in nature, glass can be as fragile as a dried rose petal or as strong as a slab of granite. It can be blown, cast, bent, or sculpted. It can be translucent, opaque, or iridescent. It can be painted or fused in colors that match the woodwork or drapes. Or it can be transparent and fired with a high-gloss sheen so it resembles a rain puddle.

For his Chatham, N.H., kitchen, Weiss created a glass countertop made of two layers of 1/2-inch-thick glass with a layer of crushed blue, turquoise, and clear glass in between. He heated the countertop in a kiln, fusing the layers together. To finish it, Weiss ground and polished a lyrical wave around the edge. ''It has more of an organic feel than geometric," says Weiss. The wave also makes the top resistant to chipping. Mounted on cabinets, the countertop serves as a divider between the kitchen and the great room.

Pretty, but is it practical?

''I don't put hot pots on it. I put mail on it," says Weiss. Slicing, dicing, and meat tenderizing are done on butcher block.

Then again, glass is a sturdier material than most people think. ''Granite and glass are similar materials," says Weiss. The main ingredient in both is silica -- commonly known as sand. The difference is that granite has been pressured much longer.

Glass countertops, backsplashes, and cabinet-door inserts are finding their way to many kitchens today. But the bling in today's bathrooms are glass sinks. Often they're mounted like jewels on forged stands. Some look like cut emeralds, others resemble mystical orbs.

Caleb Nichols, a Stoughton glass artist, takes his inspiration from the sea. An artist already known for translating coastal patterns --waves, fog, froth, and rolling boulders --into elegant sculptures and vessels, he does the same thing now with glass sinks.

Looking into one of his vessel sinks is like gazing through a crystalline tidal pool, seeing ripples, shells, and reflections. Nichols describes the process as ''glass trickery." The sink's interior is surprisingly smooth to the touch, even though the exterior shell has a frosted surface, like sea glass. Using a multistep process, Nichols imbeds rocks, shells, and textures within the glass. The sinks come in a variety of aquatic colors, including teal, purple, red, green, and blue.

Glass sinks generally fall into three categories: the vessel (a free-standing bowl that sits on a stand); the under-mounted sink (set within a cabinet); and the sink/vanity combination (the sink and countertop are one seamless piece).

Monique Feldman of Monique Studio in Burlington prefers the combination. ''The fewer the seams, the fewer the problems," she says, referring to durability as well as cleanup. Soap and mildew cling to bumps, creases, or seams in glass.

In her workshop, Feldman puts the finishing touches on a corner pedestal sink. It's made from two pieces of patterned, clear glass that mimic the shape of a tree. The curved base is the trunk, which hides the plumbing. The vanity top and sink (one piece) are patterned with branches, featuring various colors of glistening leaves. Cut from iridescent glass, each leaf is individually carved, etched, and then fused to the top. Price is $3,000.

Granted, it's more expensive than the average pedestal sink, but it's a one of a kind: Feldman carves a mold from refractory fiber paper (paper that can withstand 1,500 degrees) for each casting. After one use, the mold becomes brittle and falls apart. So each new casting requires a new mold. The amount of handwork involved and the complexity of the mold determine the price of each project.

Feldman's prices range from $40 to $400 per square foot. On the low end are simple textures and patterns. On the high end are personalized patterns. Practically anything can be represented in the mold: trees, flowers, dolphins, dogs, or something quite personal, such as the family pet, a favorite stretch of scenery, or the family crest.

For a bathroom in Lexington, Feldman created side-by-side vanity/sinks from a shimmering, greenish-tinted glass, patterned with tree branches. Each sink/vanity measures 24 inches by 48 inches. The glass, semi transparent, rests on silver standoffs about 6 inches above handmade, bow-front cabinets. If Feldman had set the vanity top directly on the cabinets, the glass would appear opaque, thus losing the beauty of the design. But sitting slightly above the cabinet, the sink casts an intriguing circular shadow on the cabinet below. Mounted this way, the sink and cabinet surface are also easier to clean. Each sink/vanity cost $2,500.

In the same room, Feldman created a frameless steam room. The free-flowing branches form a non-repeating pattern that continues over the five glass panels of the steam room. Though the walls are transparent enough to see a figure inside the steam room, Feldman's patterns blur all details.

Glass sinks and vanities designed by glass artists cost more than ready-made objects available through plumbing and building suppliers. However, artist-designed glass features are competitively priced with custom interiors. For instance, a typical frameless glass shower door sells for $1,200; Feldman can create one with an art design for around $1,700. It's a $500 difference, but then the art glass becomes the focus of the room. ''A lot of people put so much money into tiling a bathroom. But if they have a decorative door or walls of a shower, they don't need to put so much into the tile work," says Feldman.

''I like to think of our work as design accents," says Jason Berg, who has worked with glass for 18 years.

Four years ago, Berg opened a glass foundry, New England Glass Design, in Northampton, where he created furniture from slabs (up to 2 inches thick) of glass. Smith College Museum of Art took notice and commissioned Berg to create a bench for the entryway of its new museum. The bench defies the old glass-is-fragile notion. Made of two arcs of thick glass lightly etched with concentric circles in a swirling pattern, topped with a massive slab, the bench can support several thousand pounds, says Berg.

''It's such an amazingly versatile material. They've been making and altering the formulas [for glass] for thousands of years," he says. Some formulas increase rigidity. Others, such as those calling for lead, enhance sparkles.

Berg's mission is to blend art, architecture, and glassmaking in designing striking interior features. ''My favorite projects are when we work with the customer, use our imagination, and end up with something that we didn't expect when we started," he says.

To date, his most challenging project has been a splashy residential entry in Lexington that features an 8-by-5-foot lighted glass floor designed by both Berg and the homeowner.

Glass on the floor? Certainly this raised eyebrows with building inspectors. After negotiations and several alterations to designs, inspectors finally gave the go-ahead, and Berg's customer will have her special floor.

Any time glass is used structurally, as in doors, walls, and floors, it must meet safety codes. Nonstructural uses of glass, as in countertops, vanities, wall inlays, furniture, and light fixtures, don't present code issues.

Brian Gore, technical director for the Massachusetts Board of Building Regulations and Standards, says that glass must be tempered or laminated wherever it might be accidentally kicked and broken, particularly within a door or within 18 inches of the floor. Tempering means that the glass has been exposed to extreme temperatures, which creates compression within the glass, making it stronger. Thus, if someone should kick it, causing it to shatter, the glass breaks into tiny square pieces, not pointy shards.

But not all glass can be tempered. Any glass with bubbles (such as blown and art glass) cannot stand the extreme temperatures required for tempering. Thus, window glass (which can be textured and molded with patterns) is often used for doors or shower walls.

Tempered or not, a thick slab of glass ( 3/4 inches or thicker) is considered relatively tough. Glass artist Eileen Jager has tested glass samples by dropping them from her fourth-floor Easthampton studio window (after closing) to watch them bounce along the asphalt in the parking lot. Feldman told about how one of her displays collapsed at a home show, which caused a heavy glass mirror to crash onto a glass vanity. The mirror shattered, but the vanity survived without a scratch.

Still, Feldman says, visitors walk up to the glass vanity and exclaim, ''Oh, I'd never put that in my kid's bathroom."

She shrugs, ''People just can't let go of their fears. Glass isn't as fragile as they think."

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