Picture This: Etched Glass Gives one Denver Resident a Special View

As if it were short of beautiful works, the Denver Art Museum recently gained a new work of art—though one only a select few will ever get to see in person. To be more specific, a penthouse apartment at the Denver Art Museum Residences—the residential component of the Frederic C. Hamilton Building—recently had a custom glass mural installed as part of the balcony railing. The piece is so special, it even has its own name: Moving Mountains.

According to artist Elizabeth Gill Lui, her intention “was to create a series of images that referenced the Rocky Mountains.” She says the original images were made by shooting the city lights of Los Angeles from her own studio.

Images by Elizabeth Gill Lui
Images by Elizabeth Gill Lui

“Panning my camera over the lights of the city at night created the streaks of light on the final images. I shot thousands of images to get the series I finally used. After meticulous editing I linked up a series of images on the computer to create the illusion of a connected image, finally to read as a continuous mural,” she explains.

“My work in photography is broad based and I have completed several site-specific glass installations using a wide range of photo based etched and fritted techniques,” says Lui. “These projects are challenging because of the technical and engineering aspects of the end result, but the collaborative nature of the process is extremely rewarding.”

She adds, “My personal attraction to combing glass and photography is that fundamentally they are both
mediums of light, the first its transmission and the second it’s capture.”

Thousands of photos later, Lui had what she wanted, editing a small selection of photos together to create an image that tricks the human eye into seeing one continuous image. In this case, mountains. Those designs were then etched onto Starphire® glass and provide different looks for the glass, depending on the time of day.

“My intention was that the day and night views of the balcony would provide completely different readings of this piece. During the day the imagery is subtle. However one enhanced daytime ‘effect’ occurs when direct sunlight hits a panel causing a shadow of the etched design to be cast against the back panel,” Lui explains. “This effect creates a prominent double image that moves with the sun, which can also be seen from the plaza below. This is a passing effect that has a kinetic aspect, for as the sun moves across the sky the images also move across the panels.”

At night, the imagery is lit with LEDs, creating another look for the piece, one the artist calls “dramatic.” The final piece consisted of 28 irregularly sized panels and spanned 120 linear feet. It stretches across both the north and west sides of the balcony. The balcony already had permanent, translucent white pieces in the railings that, while not factored into the design aesthetic, would still affect the final look. Though, according to Lui because the piece was designed to be visible during the day as well as night, there had to be enough contrast between the etched glass for the image to be seen. The final installation saw the etched glass fused to a lite of neutral gray density glass.

An artistic vision is just that, though, until someone can make it happen and in the case of Moving Mountains, that job fell to On-Site Systems Inc., headquartered just outside Atlanta. The company, led by Derek Lindeborg, offers etching, laminating, digital imaging and edge-lit LED signage, among other processes—and celebrated 30 years in business last year.

Despite that kind of expertise backing them, it was not an easy task.

“I’d say the etched glass itself was the most challenging because the ‘right’ combination for color contrast actually caused new challenges, the first of which was making sure the prototyped glass would work with the lighting hardware. Since the laminate absorbs so much of the light from our fixtures, we needed to be sure there was room in our channels to center the edge of the thicker low-iron panel directly over the diodes so only the etching would be illuminated, yet allow for expansion and contraction due to Denver’s extreme temperatures year round,” says Feybrah Goyette, project manager with On-Site.

The illumination of the piece was never just the flip of a switch, either (though it can now be controlled by a dimmer switch).

“The lighting component was the second most challenging aspect because the implementation involved the most collaboration,” Goyette explains. “The entire run was divided into sections for separate fixtures designed, fabricated and delivered to the site as part of my contract then installed by the general contractor and his electrician. A custom cap was designed, engineered and manufactured to unify the existing balustrade with our new one and to create a raceway for the lead wiring on each fixture to its driver concealed in an electrical box.”

She added that the electrical boxes are not located within an easy distance of those fixtures, either. They had to get it right, and the most efficient way to do that was to sit down together and work it out.

“Our solution was to schedule a meeting where everyone involved could meet together to discuss and fine tune the choreography between the fabrication of the glass and lighting system”–Goyette and her team at On-Site–“with the artist, owner, interior designer, architect, engineer, general contractor, property management, electrician and glass installing technicians,” she says.

It may not be the way projects are always done, gathering all the players in one place at the same time, but in a way doing so added something special to Moving Mountains, at least for Goyette.

“It was a team camaraderie atmosphere. Everyone was helpful to everyone else. I learned, personally, how important it is to meet at the site with everyone who’s involved. Everyone. Architects, designers, electricians, homeowners. Everyone had important information to contribute. If we hadn’t met on site, it would have been pieces ordered and it wouldn’t have worked on site. It was the biggest project I worked on with that many subs and we all came together, nationally, to make it happen.”

And sometimes when you get the right group together, the work doesn’t just happen, it’s enjoyable; G.E. Johnson based in Denver was responsible for construction and installation. Working closely with everyone involved, Goyette explains, is what gave this project extra special meaning to her.

“It was special to me because it was fun. Our assignment was to take a stunning piece of custom abstract artwork and turn it into a functioning residential application. Being part of a true team where everyone had the view to enthusiastically and creatively solve problems as they came up, in the interest of the project as a whole was refreshing,” she says. “Not ever before or since have I worked with a team so happy to overcome hurdles. I believe a direct effect of everyone thinking outside the box then going above and beyond what is typical in our respective fields is that the installation was completely seamless without unexpected complications, staying on time and in budget.”

That’s even factoring in the Home Owners’ Association and its rules governing the appearance of the balcony.

“It was absolutely the most creative project I had worked on yet in my project managing career in glass. I feel like incorporating practical applications of artwork into design is the way we’re heading in life. I get tons of requests from other architects who have the same ideas but don’t have a way to articulate it in drawings because the hardware we are developing specifically for them is new,” says Goyette. “If you can envision it, it can be created. I think that’s the most exciting open-ended aspect of things. In glass, to be original, we have so many different, new processes to get designs across. That part of it is exciting.”

Though it’s hard to say when, or even if, Goyette will have another project that comes together the way Moving Mountains did, the project serves as a reminder of what can be accomplished—starting with glass.