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Glass consciousness

Forget church - stained glass now features in the most fashionable houses. By Rhiannon Batten
A FRIEND of mine recently bought a new house and, pleasant though the rest of the house is, if it were mine I would be tempted to spend all day in the downstairs toilet. This is not because of some nasty digestive disorder but simply because of the exquisite red sparkly window discreetly shielding the visitor from the outside world.

Glass seems to be in every fashionable new building at the moment but, for many, stained glass is something of a black sheep in this revival. Some specialist courses have closed down and, in an era of minimal furnishings, brightly coloured, glitzy windows are not hugely popular. Because of their unfortunately nerdish reputation, when most people think of good stained glass, churches are the thing that spring to mind. But, for those in the know, stained glass is now being reincarnated in a much more modern way, with soft, subtle colours and increasingly intricate techniques.

One of the designers at the head of this revival is 29-year-old Jenny Vyse, whose modern designs gleam out from houses and offices up and down the country.

Despite working three days out of five as a design and technology teacher - she finds the lifestyle a good combination of solitude and sociability - Jenny first began making stained glass by chance when, as a student in Manchester, the house she was living in - including the front room's stained-glass window - got burgled. The cost of a replacement window was prohibitive so Jenny decided to buy a set of tools and have a go at replacing the window herself.

After a frantic time spent reading up and pestering the guys from the local glass shop, Jenny set to work. Things went so well that she was soon moving on to the front door, and then her parents' front door, and soon a whole list of commissions and presents for family and friends, until setting up her own stained-glass business seemed the natural thing to do.

The satisfaction that Jenny gets from her work is obvious. "Breaking into a massive sheet of glass for the first time seemed such a dangerous and exciting thing to do," she explains. "For at least a year it seemed mad, but now working with glass seems totally normal."

One of Jenny's most popular designs is the bold marguerite window that glints out from her own house. In fact, the first thing you notice is the stained glass in the front door and, as she herself admits, "it's tempting to do everything in glass - I've even used offcuts from a lamp to decorate a row of tiles in the kitchen". Not only is the house a good advert for her work, it is also where the designs get made.

When I visited her small north London workshop, she was busy experimenting with new designs and techniques, and the window ledge was stacked with tiny glass squares, each the result of a different technique. Some have delicate shapes etched on to them, and others sit like jelly babies, the different-coloured glass pieces fused together in bizarre shapes.

For one of her latest commissions Jenny used dried leaves, painted gold and sandwiched between two sheets of picture glass. When it is light, the leaves appear as silhouettes; when it is dark and the lights are on, all the shades of pale green glass are lit up alongside the shiny gold leaves. Another fun commission was a pair of glass underpants for a menswear shop in Nottingham.

Jenny explains that she enjoys this kind of work because "it's a chance to have a bit of a laugh and move away from the boring associations that stained glass can have". The majority of Jenny's customers, though, are more conservative. They may have seen something particular they liked but often Jenny is the one who makes the suggestions. She always takes their personalities and surroundings into consideration.

A commission for a converted barn near Newbury, where large panels of glass were constructed to form a screen between two areas of the building, was based around the fact that the owners were passionate about flowers. The finished panels include "red-hot pokers" made up of hundreds of little glass beads, and delicate purple petals made using a copper-foil technique because of their intricacy - an effect that would be almost impossible to achieve with the traditional leaded technique.

The downside to this type of work is that the money you get doesn't reflect the amount of time spent on each piece. Current prices are between pounds 45 and pounds 65 per square foot, depending on the type of glass, the method and the complexity of the design. In real terms this works out at about pounds 20 for a small window- hanging, to upwards of pounds 2,000 for a large screen. In terms of time, a small hanging will take a day or more to finish. The upside is the enthusiasm of friends and customers.

Jenny is not surprised by the youth of some of her fans, because "the bright colours are great for kids - the light catches the glass in different ways throughout the day". Not bad for adults, either, and more and more are catching on; business is so good that Jenny is about to move into new premises. Too good, maybe. When I ask about future projects, Jenny replies: "There are so many things I want to do at the moment, but I keep getting asked to make front doors."

Vyse Ltd Stained Glass can be contacted on 0171-502 0434