Volume 46, Issue 2 - March 2011


Decorative Glass Stays Classic
Classic Glass’ Hard Work Makes Projects Timeless

Karen Elkin didn’t come to the nation’s capital to make beautiful decorative glass, but some twists and turns—and love for stained glass—eventually led Elkin to where she is now.

Elkin and a local glass artist Robert O’Toole went into business in the Virginia suburb of Alexandria 29 years ago.

“We started January 1981 and we were located in a second-floor walk-up above an antique store in Old Town and immediately we had some work because the antique store had lots of stained glass that needed restoration,” recalls Elkin.

“We met people in the industry who took us under their wing and helped us with whatever they could. Good friends, suppliers and other artists helped us if we had a problem we needed to work out,” says Elkin. “There were and still are a circle of artisans in the glass industry in Washington and we are all friends—it’s very friendly competition. When we got to the point where we needed extra help some of these people came and worked for us or with us. The support of the other glass artisans in the area has been the biggest factor in making it an enjoyable experience for us.”

Classic Glass does custom work exclusively and specializes in etched, carved, stained, laminated, backpainted and cast glass. The company now occupies a 1,000-square-foot showroom in Alexandria and a 6,800-square-foot fabrication facility in Bladensburg, Md. Elkin and her staff have seen the company grow with sales of just under $1 million in 2008 and they continued to fare well during the economic crisis with sales of approximately $650,000 in 2009.

The Snowball Effect
Once Classic Glass became established the work came rolling in. Due to its location close to downtown Washington, D.C., a wide variety of work presented itself. The company’s staff of five has had the opportunity to work on some unique projects.

“This is a wonderful place to be for a company like ours because the ‘national everything association’ is here. We have done signage, reception desks, special awards, etc. for many associations including AARP, law firms and others. Of course, the government is here and they have all of their agency seals,” says Elkin. “Our biggest client base is local glazing companies who sub out the decorative portion of the contract to us.”

Classic Glass has created agency seals for many government agencies in D.C., including the White House, State Department, FBI, Department of Defense and TSA.

“We’ve got a lot of residential work as well. There are obviously a lot of famous people in town. We’ve done work for Art Monk, the former Redskin, and Sugar Ray and that’s always fun. There are also the regular folks who have become our friends who come to our parties and are on our mailing lists.”

Hotels have also sought out Classic Glass to do work for them. Marriott is headquartered in the D.C. suburbs and Elkin’s company has done a lot of work for their local hotels. But, it’s the historical and government work in which Elkin feels the most proud because of its importance to the country. In some cases, this work could be displayed permanently for generations to see.

“We have work in some of the monuments downtown, museums—it’s a legacy,” says Elkin. “When I have out of town guests I take them around for the Classic Glass Tour so they can see some of the stuff in the public buildings. We are very proud of that.”

Inevitable Challenges
While going into business has been mostly positive for Classic Glass, all businesses struggle with inevitable challenges. Elkin recounts a tale about the biggest nightmare for a decorative glass company: glass breakage.

“What’s challenging are the experiences when glass breaks. In particular, there was a four panel screen that we were making for the reception area of an investment firm and it was the night before it was due. My partner, Robert, was finishing up the end and he had two of the four panels leaning against the booth door and he opened the door and over they went,” remembers Elkin.

O’Toole called her immediately. She remembers that she could still hear the pieces of glass tinkering in the

“I had to call in the morning to say, ‘Sorry, we broke your glass.’ The lady was so lovely and said, ‘That must have been a very difficult phone call for you to make.’ Those kinds of things are when the business isn’t fun, but that’s when you have to just suck it up. People think it’s very glamorous to have your own business, but you have to work really hard and it’s not always fun.”

Companies such as Classic Glass can struggle to compete with bigger companies, but Elkin feels that using a local company can make a big difference.

“I think the biggest challenge is marketing to architectural and design firms. We’re trying to get the word out that we’re a small local company that can produce the same, high quality products as the out of town companies with shorter lead times and better service,” says Elkin. “But it is hard to compete with the national/international companies that have sales representatives on the street and big advertising budgets.”

Future Ideas
As companies struggle to deal with a down economy Elkin continues to find new avenues to make decorative glass unique and ever-changing.

“I definitely see the industry growing. I have a personal affection for cast glass and I don’t think we have even scratched the surface of where that can go,” says Elkin. “It’s a popular medium, an exciting medium, and it’s green.”

To continue to grow Classic Glass, Elkin does have a few ideas on how to spice things up.

“There are automated machines so maybe someday we could buy an autoclave or more kilns,” she says.
However, Classic Glass already considers itself successful in terms of being a company that makes money, does timeless work and is part of a close-knit family.

“We’ve done a lot of projects that we are really proud of and will be around for a long time. In terms of that, I feel like we’ve made it,” says Elkin.

In a world of superstores, companies like Classic Glass continue to remind the public to “think local” and enjoy the results. As the company enters its fourth decade, Elkin is ready to see where decorative glass will take her.

Katie Hodge is an assistant editor for Decorative Glass magazine.

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