Bob and Patricia Nugent complete each other’s thoughts, each other’s sentences, and of course their stunning stained glass work. The collaboration began early. Together since they met at age 17 — “I’m four months older!” Patricia is quick to point out — at Oak Park and River Forest High School where they resembled happy flower children. These days the couple own Tiffany Stained Glass Ltd, on Des Plaines Avenue in Forest Park, and work on projects ranging from windows in luxury homes, to the outdoor lighting at Ravinia Park, to matching the missing piece of glass in a bungalow window.
They moved their business from Chicago’s North Side to Forest Park fairly recently.
Pat credits her teachers at OPRF for reaching out and encouraging her to show her artwork, which she says she would not otherwise have done. “They got me started as an artist for the student paper, the Trapeze,” she says. She draws and still does watercolor painting. An easel stands on the floor of the studio ready for employment.
“Pat’s major was art history,” says Bob – “Actually, it was an emphasis in art history,” Pat corrects – “at Dominican, Rosary College back then. And that’s where we cut our teeth in the business: knowing the history behind pieces we were repairing and restoring.”
While Pat was in college, Bob went straight to work, essentially learning the foundation of their present-day business at a Chicago lighting manufacturer. When the manufacturer ended its run, the Nugent’s “picked up the company’s assets” and in 1975 formed Tiffany Stained Glass, which operated on Wells in Chicago until a couple of years ago.
The present business grew out of the more limited scope of the lighting company. According to Bob, “We were actually being called out to work on ‘Tiffany Glass’ – the term was being used as a generic, like ‘Kleenex’ or ‘Xerox’. Once Pat and I dug in deeper, we realized Louis Comfort Tiffany was an unsung, nearly unidentified hero of American art history.
The Nugent’s design and restore many lamps, of course – their own are always made of bronze – but the business is by no means limited to lamps. “The original Tiffany studio in New York made lamps until the market was saturated,” says Bob. “We went into designing windows too.” There was some work for churches, but unfortunately the Nugent’s studio opened at a time when churches were modernizing. So the bulk of clients were luxury homes, restaurants and the like. “I hate to use the term, but ‘high-end’ clients are what we have. The 1970s and 80s were the golden age for that type of work. It’s sad about the modernizing of the churches, but we were fortunate not to fall into that pigeonhole because of the breadth of our work.”
The authenticity and depth of the research behind a Tiffany Stained Glass Ltd project is a point of pride with the Nugent’s. “Our clientele are highly educated, often experts in their own fields, and demand a level of accuracy in period reproduction pieces that they can’t find elsewhere. In fact we have had people complain that it’s hard to tell our pieces from the original New York studio’s work – so we are always extremely careful to label our work ‘Tiffany Stained Glass Chicago’ to distinguish it from historic pieces,” says Pat.
Tiffany Stained Glass also acts as something of an “Antiques Roadshow” for people who need appraisals and don’t know what they’ve got. “We can value their pieces and place them in historic context,” says Pat. “However many clients collect Tiffany, Prairie and other pieces. They know the defining features of each. So we take pains to study the artists, their aesthetics – you ‘ve got to know it to reproduce it. Less than that won’t fly with someone who knows the art.”
“Our focus is mainly restoration,” says Bob, “as well as luxury items designed to fit into finer homes. That’s it in a nutshell.” The resurgence of interest in bungalows offers another niche for Tiffany to fill. “We do a lot of matching of glass elements and refinishing of frames. We can reproduce a piece based on an old photograph,” supplying important background information such as what colors and combinations would have been used in the era in question.” Domes and skylights are also in demand. For their own designs, “we ask for a sample of wallpaper, fabric or even a picture of the front of a client’s house,” says Pat, “to understand how what we are making fits into the whole.”
For each stained glass lamp – the glass portion, that is — the Nugent’s create a mold in the correct shape. The pattern of glass pieces is drawn onto the exterior, and the glass is meticulously placed upon it, like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. When the glass is applied, leaded and finished, the mold is removed – something like popping the balloon that gives a papier-mâché piñata its shape – and the glass is ready to be attached to the bronze lamp base.
Though both grew up in Oak Park, the Nugent’s lived in different worlds until high school brought them to each other’s attention, says Pat. “We went to different schools and different pools!” she at St. Giles and Ridgeland Common, Bob south of the expressway at Ascension and Rehm Pool. The four Nugent children, now in different lines of work, all assisted with the business at some point. Their oldest daughter was often in a backpack as Pat and Bob studied art and architecture in local libraries in preparation for work on one or another commission. “She was a great baby,” says Pat.
The Nugent’s, who have lived in River Forest for 40 years, made the switch from the Chicago studio to Forest Park because “people can come here from every direction and not have to pay ridiculous Chicago prices for parking,” says Bob. “Forest Park has a long history of both manufacturing and artisan businesses. It’s like an incubator here for businesses like ours. The town is so receptive. The Chicago area has a great legacy of architecture and design. We stand on the shoulders of giants.”