Decorative Glass Stays Classic
Classic Glass’ Hard Work Makes Projects
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,”
“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
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.”
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
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.”
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
“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,”
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
Katie Hodge is an assistant editor
for Decorative Glass magazine.
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No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.