Local Van. custom glass fabricator will design anything for a price

Splendour in the glass

Sinks, sculpture, even walls and fences: City firm's work is beautiful and functional

John Mackie

Vancouver Sun

Friday, August 26, 2005

CREDIT: Steve Bosch, Vancouver Sun

Joel Berman can supply artistic installations to meet any need, such as ...


There aren't too many artists whose resume includes work for the United Nations, Trump Casino and Disney. But Joel Berman isn't your everyday artist.

The 53-year-old is the head of Joel Berman Glass Studios, a multi-million- dollar Vancouver company that designs architectural glass for clients all over North America.

Berman and his staff of 50 can make functional glass artwork out of almost anything. Sheets of tall, thin corrugated glass with a touch of blue-green make a stylish outdoor windscreen on a terrace. Cast glass sinks on a glass counter top make for a very cool bathroom. Multi-coloured glass sculptures turn a partition in an airport lounge into an "art wall."

The company's creative versatility, imagination and technical know-how have resulted in commissions all over the world. Berman is doing a 6,000-square-foot glass sculpture on an exterior wall in Germany. Last year the company did glasswork in two hotels in Japan. Its biggest commission was doing three buildings for General Motors in Detroit.

But the company also does lots of residential work. For a penthouse in Coal Harbour, Berman is doing an art wall and a light sculpture in the dining room. The company put together a glass staircase for a client in West Vancouver. Another West Van client put up a glass fence.

"That was beautiful," says Berman.

"With a translucent glass it gives you privacy [but lets in light]. Given that we have a lot of rain here, a high degree of light transmission is good. This [glass] would get about 70 to 85 per cent light transmission, depending on the texture."

Texture is one of the things that makes Berman's glass special. Some of his glass looks like a rock face, other glass has a ribbed look, some looks frosted. And it comes in a wide variety of colours. A suspended glass sculpture at Nortel Networks headquarters in Atlanta mixes a deep red wine colour with a vivid cobalt blue; strategically-placed spotlights bring out all sorts of hues.

Berman does some design, but stresses that the company is a team of artists and artisans who each add something special to the mix. The staff literally comes from all over the world. The two master mould makers come from Japan (Hiro Taniguchi) and Quebec (Daniel Masse). The head painter, Nenad Strebac, hails from from Sarajevo, Bosnia.

Berman is from Winnipeg, where his family ran a jewelry business. His father sold blown glass from Italy, and young Joel grew to love it. He learned leaded glass making in Winnipeg, but found there wasn't much of a market. So he decided to study cast glass at Pilchuck Glass School near Seattle.

He moved to Vancouver in 1980. He started off making glass sculptures for private clients, but soon was commissioned to do corporate work through another Winnipeg expat, designer Ian Dubienski of Group 5 Design.

"We do corporate offices, and offices always have glass in them," explains Dubienski.

"They have side lights for the doors, boardrooms that need glass. They need visual protection so that you can't see through, but it allows light in. We were looking for some method to have something nice on the glass without putting drapes or blinds on it."

Berman rose to the challenge in style. He started doing singular work for clients, modifying designs to suit each company.

"One job we did years ago for a shipping company," recalls Dubienski.

"We were able to mould sextants and sea life and waves and things into a board room, so it looked as though it was a sculpture in a wall."

Berman proved to be as adept at marketing as he was at art, and Joel Berman Glass grew from a small office/studio on Granville Island into an international company with offices on Granville Island, a 28,000-square-foot production facility near Japantown and a showroom in Chicago. He also has some glass mass produced in Europe.

He has an A-list of corporate clients, including Air Canada, AT&T, Bank One, Bank of Montreal, Bell South, Boeing, Continental Airlines, DKNY, Ford Motors, The Gap, IBM, Loblaws, Lufthansa, McDonald's, Microsoft, Motown Records, Nokia, Northwest Airlines, Price Waterhouse, Ritz Carlton, Westin Hotels and Xerox.

Berman's glass has become quite popular in high-end residences in the States.

"We do a lot of work in New York," he says. "We did a 35,000-square-foot house in Vail for a single guy."

Metropolitan Home magazine recently featured a Berman glass shower from a home in Washington, D.C. This week, editors from Metropolis magazine and Architectural Record are in town to tour his facilities and interview him.

In homes, Berman's glass is used as doors, in showers, as backsplashes, balustrades, divider walls, skylights, and yes, even windows.

Glass stairs are proving to be quite popular.

"It's something that's a little bit new, something that has a novelty to it," says Berman.

"We can do them in all kinds of colours. Glass stairs are a function of engineering, how thick to equal a load you can put on it, non-slip for safety and all that."

Glass stairs start at about $120 a square foot, or $500 per stair. For an average staircase with 16 stairs, that's about $8,000. Backsplashes start at $16 a square foot, doors at $25 a square foot, and guard rails/balustrades at $50 to $70 a square foot.

"Everybody has different budgets and different needs, different sizes," he says.

"We have glass that's inexpensive, we have glass that is very expensive. We approach [a residential project] from three ways: what you and your family want, what your budget is, and what your expectations are of how it's going to work."

Sometimes residential projects mix production pieces with specially cast glass. There is also a large inventory of glass in the warehouse basement clients can look through.

"We probably have $300,000 worth of leftovers -- too big, too small, chipped corner -- that we can cut down and turn into something else," says Berman.

Dubienski likes Berman's glass so much, he had some installed in his home.

"I've got one of his moulded products that was developed for offices," he says.

"I put four big sheets beside my front entrance way, and it looks beautiful. You can't see in, I get a whole bunch of light, and it gives a prismatic effect as car lights go by, it's really quite beautiful."

It works as art, and it works as architecture, which is why Joel Berman has become an international success.

© The Vancouver Sun 2005