A Look at How Glass is Redefining Interior Spaces

By Ellen Rogers

The U.S. mirror industry might not be as booming as it was 30 or 40 years ago, but it’s still the core focus for Gardner Glass Products based in North Wilkesboro, N.C.

“It’s still our core competency,” says John Myers, senior architecture and design officer. “We did not de-emphasize that business.”

Like many other mirror manufacturers, Gardner (now under the Dreamwalls brand name), was impacted when much of the U.S. furniture industry moved production offshore. While domestic mirror production may be small compared to other flat glass products, mirror still represents a big market for the U.S. glazing industry. Of glass retailers surveyed by USGlass magazine parent company Key Media & Research, 80% say mirror is a product they regularly sell; 61% say the same about decorative glass¹. This demand has led many companies to develop and expand new products to meet interior glazing needs.

Backpainted Solutions

Some mirror manufacturers didn’t survive the off-shore shift; Dreamwalls did. In the 2000s, the company began producing backpainted glass for interior applications, and Myers says those products have helped the company expand and diversify its operations.

“When we came up with [backpainted glass], we didn’t know where it would be used,” says Myers. “We thought it would be a lot of residential. We were considering all these different concepts, such as cabinet doors where you would normally have glass. But we ended up way outside of our [original] target. There is some residential use, but 80% is commercial. It’s primarily wall claddings and marker boards—a lot of marker boards—  but also lobbies, elevators, bathrooms—because glass is so hygienic—and a lot of sports facilities.”

He adds that the backpainted products are usually tempered and often with a magnetic backing. He says much interest stems from the ability to color match anything, from paint to swatches.

“We heat-cure and put two coats on it,” he says. “Overall, decorative backpainted is still catching on and gaining momentum, so we’re marketing quality and working to stay ahead of the curve.”

Workspace Aesthetics

Backpainted glass also allows architects and specifiers to bring a unique aesthetic into their projects. Andy Russo, vice president of Glass + Metal Craft in Wixom, Mich., says his company is seeing a growing amount of backpainted glass in the actual workspaces.

“We’re seeing bright colors rather than white and black; the color can spice up the look,” he says. “In the workspace, owners are building office spaces to be more attractive to workers, knowing they have to get them out of the house to make working [in the office] extremely attractive.”

James Wright, vice president of sales with Virginia Glass Products/Virginia Mirror Co. in Martinsville, Va., agrees that building owners are using backpainted glass and other interior glazing products to create an environment that makes people want to come into the office to work.

“More folks are doing it, and there are more options. Offices want to make the entrance area look good with backpainted glass and their logos. There are marker boards, conference tables, interior walls and more. [Customers] are getting more creative than in the past.

“We’ve seen an uptick since last year that’s continued to grow,” Wright says, pointing to office renovations as a significant driver. “The office is not dead. We’re seeing a lot of offices being re-done with [glass] walls and partitions,” he says. “This is happening because old tenets are moving out and new ones are coming in, or companies have decided to re-do their offices.”

Like Dreamwalls, Virginia Mirror/Glass has a history rooted in mirror production. Founded in 1913, Virginia Mirror Co. started as a producer of mirrors for furniture manufacturers in Virginia and North Carolina. As the company grew and expanded into other areas of glass production, it opened a subsidiary, Virginia Glass Products, in 1956.

Most recently, Virginia Mirror/Glass entered the laminated glass market. Wright says this is another big growth area for interior glazing products. The company installed a laminating line about three years ago, helping create new opportunities.

“Previously, we did a lot of monolithic handrails, and now we can offer those laminated to meet those code requirements,” he says.

“Laminated glass is very much growing,” adds Myers. As a decorative solution, he says it can be backpainted and can also have a color or patterned/printed interlayer.

“Materials like leaves, grass and fabrics can also be laminated,” adds Myers.

Building owners often want to make a statement with their lobbies, podiums and entrance areas. That makes those spaces a big draw for interior glazing, and an increasing trend. Russo says glass is starting to replace metal or other materials in some systems and applications.

“That’s primarily the lobby area, which is the space that gets people wanting to move into the building,” he says, adding that high-traffic areas are also popular. These include partitions, railings and stairways.

As far as aesthetics, the minimalist approach is in demand.

“Designs are calling for less metal and obstruction and more visibility and clarity,” Russo says. “We’re doing a lot of renovation to bring in more outside light. Customers also want small metal hardware that doesn’t block the view.”

Entrance vestibules, which resemble a glass box, are also seeing significant demand. Russo attributes this to increasingly stringent codes.

“We’re starting to see codes that are more specific in energy reduction and comfort of the individual,” he says, noting that the vestibules or “buffer boxes” are a major product focus.

There’s more to the vestibule than aesthetics and energyperformance, however. Russo says these represent a prime example of how a discussion can shift from energy and comfort to safety and security.

“The vestibules create a secure barrier,” he says, providing another layer around the entrance. “You can use privacy glass in these installations, but many prefer to leave them clear because the occupants prefer to see what’s on the outside.”

Russo adds that the systems can also be used in schools, “which are on everyone’s mind.”

Bridging the Gap

These systems create a unique aesthetic. However, the jobs can sometimes be challenging. For example, on interior projects, architects often have a vision but don’t always know how the system will connect to the substructure or the rest of the pieces. While a design-assist process can alleviate some concerns, passing the design responsibility to the glazier can create issues, and sometimes the system is value-engineered out.

As an alternative, Russo’s company developed a family of pre-engineered systems that have drawings and specs already established and are highly customizable.

“Architects can drag and drop or work with us on a custom system. There aren’t as many surprises on the glazing end, and we work with the glazier to help them install it,” says Russo. “This is much more of a consultative approach with both the architect and the glazier to connect the gap in the middle.”

Whether backpainted or clear, glazing products provide ample opportunities for architects and designers to bring more glass into interiors. As customers continue to search for the next big thing, glass companies are finding and offering new products that use glass in ways they might not have thought about before. Wright says they’ve found just that: glass chair mats, which replace typical plastic mats.

“We were skeptical at first, but they can hold 1,000 pounds,” he says, “and they’re seeing a lot of interest.”

¹. Retailers are defined as glass shops that primarily sell products and services to consumers.

Ellen Rogers is the editorial director of USGlass magazine. Email her at erogers@glass.com and connect with her on LinkedIn.

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