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Emil Frei Stained Glass
The Emil Frei company has been a St. Louis fixture for over 100 years; in the early 20th century, they were the first and only choice for a St. Louis church looking to install stained glass windows. The studio maintains a prodiguous output today, producing windows and glass for churches and other buildings around the world; they have outfitted the windows of thousands of churches.

The company's stained glass has always commanded high respect for its artistry, craftsmanship, and integration with architecture. However, the company's Mid-Century designs - from 1938 into the late 1960s - stand out in particular. Artists working with the company developed several overlapping styles, producing a unique body of work of superior artistic merit.

Emil Frei (Senior) was born in 1869 in Bavaria, and immigrated to the United States as a young man. Setting up shop in St. Louis, he opened his own studio in 1900, producing traditional Munich Style windows for churches, and later mosaic designs. In 1917, he was joined by his son Emil Frei, Jr. The company produced windows for local landmarks such as St. Francis de Sales Church, St. Anthony of Padua, and St. John Nepomuk in Soulard, as well as the mosaic designs for the New Cathedral, in a venture that would eventually split off into a separate company, Ravenna Mosaic Company [a personal aside: in the 1990s, I roomed with a great-grandson of that company's founder at Wash U.]

Pre- and post-war work
In the late 1930s, Emil Frei Jr. teamed up with artist Robert Harmon, and began developing the style that would become the firm's signature after World War II. Though commissions were rare before, during, and after the war, they collaborated on designs for several exhibitions and a handful of buildings, most notably St. Mark's Episcopal in south St. Louis. Emil Jr. assumed the presidency of the company upon his father's death in 1942.

As the economy normalized after the war, the Frei company sprang back to life with a flurry of commissions in the late 1940s and early 1950s, including Faith-Salem, St. Catherine of Sienna, and a trio of churches by Murphy & Mackey. The building boom of the 1950s and 1960s ultimately led the company to produce a remarkable string of windows and designs for churches all across the St. Louis metro region. The firm's work was described as "some of the most advanced and experimental work being done in the country" [Luebbering and Burnett, Gospels in Glass]. Emil Frei, Jr. received the AIA Craftsmanship Medal in 1953, for his studio's "unusually fine work in a field neglected by master artists since its flowering in the Middle Ages." His death in 1967 was noted in Time Magazine.

Mid-Century style
The visual style developed by Harmon and Frei would carry into numerous designs by multiple artists working with the company. Many recurring elements make it instantly identifiable, such as:

  • A flattened sense of perspective
  • Stylized human figures, with brows and noses that are a single continuous heavy line; large, dark eyes; long, geometric fingers and hands; and heads that tilt and bend without any stretching or bending of the neck
  • Curving, colored swirls of patterns as backgrounds
  • Intensely decorated letters in a variety of original fonts.
  • Highly stylized Christian imagery, such as trianglular communion grapes and shield motifs in the shape of inverted parabolas.

    There were plenty of exceptions to these rules, however: the "primitive" style used in DuBourg chapel and St. Joan of Arc. The abstract surrealist geometry in the small repeating panels in St. Catherine of Sienna. The countless windows at Calvary Cemetery mausoleum, decorated with nothing but text and rectangular geometries. The stunning, flame-like abstractions on the clear windows of Kirkwood Methodist.

    The windows themselves are colored panels of antiqued glass, replete with air bubbles for texture and varied in thickness; this mutable quality adds to the distinctive Frei look. The designs are completed mostly with black paint; masks and sprays are frequently used to produce contrasts, sharp borders, and faded edges. A faint overlay of paint is often applied, with etched designs set into it. The style is heavily influenced by Art Deco designs and Cubist and Surrealist paintings.

    Color is always provided by colored glass; all applied artwork is painted on in black. The color pallette might be tamped down to black and white with mere whisps of red or yellow, as at Faith-Salem, Resurrection and DuBourg High; it might be restrained to a handful of basic colors - red blue and orange as at St. Joan of Arc. Or it might be a full rainbow as in many other commissions.

    The vast bulk of the Frei company's work is found in churches, particularly Catholic churches (a natural outgrowth of the Frei family's Catholic faith); thus Christian themes predominate. A handful of commisions were done for Jewish synagogues and secular settings as well. No matter the topic, always there is an emphasis on abstraction. Artists strove to convey the essence of an idea, concept or feeling, rather than a literal portrayal of an event. Thus the St. Ann window, an image of Calvary Hill where the Crucifixtion occurred, is barely recognizable as such; its tormented shapes and colors speak more to forces of dark and light, evil and good, fall and redemption, than to the mundane doings of the flesh. These delvings into non-concrete representation were widely hailed in the artistic, architectural and liturgical press of the time.

    The Emil Frei Studio's work further increases in stature when placed it alongside its contemporary competitors. Even simpler, less boundary-pushing Frei designs are leagues beyond the cartoonish styles used in places like Grace Lutheran Chapel. And in my years in Chicago, after visiting innumerable Mid-Century churches, I have found only one stained glass installation that can compete with the Frei studio's work.

    Today the company is in its fourth generation, led by Stephen Frei, and is busier than ever, producing windows for churches across the country.

  • Emil Frei Artists

    Emil Frei Jr. assembled a team of artists, some of whom were full-time employees of the company, and others who worked on commission while operating out of their own studios. Each commission had a team leader, but was handled as group work. Among the company's most prominent artists were:

  • Emil Frei Jr. (1896 - 1967) - son of the firm's founder, he guided the studio through its evolution from traditional Munich style windows into the modernist styles prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s. He studied art at Washington University, and joined his father's firm in 1917. On his father's death in 1942, he became president of the company; he held that position until 1963, when he handed over the reigns to son Robert Frei.
  • Robert Frei (1925 - ) - grandson of the firm's founder. He became its third president when his father passed away in 1967. He assisted in the development of the faceted glass window, which uses thick chunks of fragmented colored glass set in a cement matrix. As of 2010 he was still involved in the company's work, though day-to-day operations are the business of his son Stephen Frei.
  • Robert E. Harmon (1915 - 1999) - the most visible and prolific of the Frei studio artists, his work spanned an incredibly long career. Like many members of the Frei atlier, Mr. Harmon graduated from Washington University, and rose to prominence with his early collaboration with Emil Frei Jr. on St. Marks in 1938. In 1947 he became the studio's chief designer. After retiring from the Frei studio in 1967, Harmon set up his own studio in Arcadia, MO and continued to work, creating countless windows on innumerable projects well into the 1990s.

    A 1990 documentary on the St. George Chapel features an interview with Mr. Harmon, who cites the advice of art critic Herbert Read: "Good true and beautiful is alright, but good true and vital is better." Commenting on his own work: "As an artist, I have a certain idea in mind. I have to work with architecture, in the sense that what I do blends and is compatible with it. And at the same time, I get excited about mythological and theological patterns. And I let them...begin to shape the designs that I do. I feel that I get a vitality from that."

  • Siegfried G. Reinhardt (1925-1984) - a childhood immigrant from East Prussia, Reinhardt attended Washington University, graduating in 1950 with a degree in English Literature and later teaching there. He was set on becoming an artist since childhood, and drew on Modernist artistic influences including Picasso and the Surrealists.1 A locally celebrated artist, he was mentioned as a notable up-and-coming in Time in 1960, and hosted a 7-part public TV show in the 1950s taking viewers through the creation of one of his paintings.
  • Siegreid Reinhardt @ Wikipedia
  • Francis A. Deck (? - 2001?) - vice president of the company alongside Robert Frei; a 1940 graduate of Washington University.
  • Milton Frenzel (1914 - ?) - was working with the Frei company by 1948. Mr. Frenzel also produced paintings in a WPA-era style.
  • William Schickel II (1919-2009) - the son of an architect, Mr. Schickel studied at Univesity of Notre Dame, where he was introduced to Emil Frei Jr. He moved to St. Louis and apprenticed with the Frei company beginning in 1945, starting at the very bottom of the window assembly process and working his way up to designing. He fell in love with Emil Frei Jr.'s daughter; they were married in 1947 and subsequently moved to an Ohio farm outside Cincinnati. Opening his own studio in 1948, Schickel and his wife lived a frugal life supported by subsistance farming and income from artistic endeavors.

    Mr. Schickel continued to produce stained glass designs on commission from the Frei company, as well as paintings, sculpture, and architectural design, through a prolific career that continued to the end of his life, and earned him widespread aclaim. His work was the subject of a 1998 book, Sacred Passion: The Art of William Schickel. Today, the Schickel Design Company now operates under the management of his daughter.

    Mr. Schickel espoused a philosophy of "frugal splendor"; he was a dedicated Catholic whose art focused on inward reflection and simplicity. Two of the Frei works directly attributed to him share a minimialist aesthetic, with figures and elements shown in the barest of terms, as if they were icons scratched onto the wall of a cave.

  • Joan Cresswell Velligan (1929-1994) - an Alton native and graduate of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Mrs. Velligan worked as an art teacher and art department head at Blackburn College. She opened her own studio in 1958, Dixon-Velligan Studio.
  • Rodney Winfield (1925 - ) - a graduate of Cooper Union, Winfield joined the Frei associates in the early 1950s and has been a prolific creator since then. After getting his start in the arts in Manhattan alongside his brother, he moved to St. Louis and taught art for nearly three decades at Maryville College. As of 2011 he still maintains an active artistic practice in Carmel, California, and still does work in association with the Frei company.

    In a 1989 Post-Dispatch article, Winfield cited early influences including Cubists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Persian art, and Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca, as well as the Jungian notion of interpreting and portraying the images of the mental landscape found within his own unconscious mind. On his approach to working with stained glass: "How can I extend the architecture of the building?...What is...the spiritual essence that the clergy want expressed?"

      Notable works:
    • Shaare Zedek Synagogue
    • Sculpture at Temple Israel (1962)
    • "Space Window" at the National Cathedral, Washington, DC (1977)
    • Sheldon Memorial Concert Hall (2001)
    • Christ the King Chapel at SLU Hospital
  • Rodney Winfield official site
  • This tour brings together designs from over thirty churches and other buildings around the St. Louis region, and traces some of the common design elements and evolution of the various styles applied by Frei company designers.

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