Volume 39, Issue 7, July  2004


Obscure Speculations
Is Obscure Glass on the Verge of a Comeback?
by Dez Farnady

In a recent visit to an older home in Berkeley I noted that a couple of glazing applications used a narrow reed pattern that was particularly well-suited to the age and style of the house. I had not seen the pattern in a long time. It reminded me that there are a bunch of other obscure products out there. 

Among all of the products on the glass market, the least promoted or recognized, possibly the most limited in domestic production and certainly the most obscure of all, is the product group we call obscure glass. Obscure, pattern or rough-roll; what you call the glass does not matter a whole heck of a lot, because all three names describe the product. It is one of the oldest and, by its nature, most decorative types of glass still made today. Aside from its decorative feature, its most common use is to let light in from the outside while limiting what can be seen when looking through it. To the best of my knowledge (at the moment) only two major U.S. manufacturers are still making obscure glass. 

Location, Location, Location
In this country obscure glass is found most commonly in the bathroom. Shower doors and bathroom windows are still the mainstay. There used to be a lot of patio tabletops and sidelites adjacent to entrance doors, but those seem to have faded in popularity. At one time I could name every pattern made in the United States, but now I mostly notice the ones that are not. The foreign manufacturers seem to find a much larger market worldwide with a far greater range of applications. 

For the sake of this column, I shall divide obscure glass into three somewhat arbitrary categories. The art glass or stained glass business is one. It represents an entirely different portion of the glass business that offers a mind-boggling variety of colors and patterns. One supplier friend recently told me that his company’s stock includes at least 300 different varieties of blue glass alone. 

There appears to be a second area for thin pattern glass for the cabinet and furniture market. Some of these products have an antique look and actually creep into the architectural market to fill residential restoration glass 

The third type is the typically ¼-inch architectural product. I am not sure what is available outside of New York and San Francisco, but on the two coasts a couple of major importers stock Asahi, Glaverbel, Pilkington, Saint Gobain and other manufacturers’ products in quantities that will surprise you in their variety and quality. 

There are more than half a dozen of the fluted or reed patterns in the 4-, 5- and 6-mm thicknesses. A variation in the reed patterns also comes in what are called cross-reed patterns with the flutes creating rectangular grid patterns. Pyramid patterns are sharp, v-shaped grooved lines, while grid patterns come in a variety of sizes from the tiny grid mistlite to 8-inch rectangular shapes and on up. There are heavy glass patterns available up to 3/8-inch that are temperable and should make the shower door guys drool. 

Likes and Dislikes
I particularly like the grid pattern, like little 8-inch glass pyramids, which I call prismatic because it is similar in pattern to the plastic light fixture lens of the same name. It is a much sharper and crisper pattern than the plastic version and offers a very bright option to the white lami typically used to produce the diffused light often required out of skylights. 

The diffused option I like the least is sandblasted glass because it is usually expensive, frequently inconsistent in its blast pattern and practically impossible to clean. It is particularly subject to greasy fingerprints. The obscure glassmakers have found a solution to the sand blast problem by offering an entire family of acid-etched products. The etched glass family consists of some 30 to 35 different patterns. Sometimes etched surfaces are combined with a variety of different, what appear to be, rolled patterns. Etched glass is available in up to ½-inch thicknesses. Some of this stuff looks something like the rice paper patterns of the Japanese specialty laminates where the varieties of patterns are provided by the vinyl interlayer and not the glass. 

In what has become a retro world with new cars that look old and ancient fashions revived, it would not surprise me a lot if patterned glass made a comeback. I still remember the hundreds of cases of obscure glass lined up against the fence at the Havlin-Witkin distribution warehouse yard with cases and cases of amber Flemish, clear Flemish, amber bottle, green bottle, tulip, mistlite, rain, factrolite, whizmac, whatchamacallit, and whateverits name. They were too old and someone thought they would never sell so one day they all disappeared. Who knows, in this retro world maybe they will come back again. 


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