Windows of Opportunity

Looking at the world through rose-colored glass has paid off for Lawrence Ribbecke.

by Amy Souza

Lawrence RibbeckeLawrence Ribbecke claims that at least part of the success of his Lawrence Ribbecke Architectural Stained Glass studio on Pine Street in Burlington is because he puts "something indefinable called 'soul' in there that's not like everybody else's."

There's something about an art supply store that gets the creative juices flowing. All those materials right there, waiting for inspiration, present infinite possi-bilities. That's how it seems at Lawrence Ribbecke Architectural Stained Glass on Pine Street in Burlington, where everything anyone needs to create stained-glass windows, lamps or mosaics, awaits the creative touch. There are forms and lamp bases, diamond blade saws and, especially, sheets of glass inside the yellow storefront. It's is the only place in Vermont to buy glass in this form.

ribbecke playing cardRibbecke never planned to corner the state's glass supply market; he began selling sheets of glass almost by accident. During the late 1970s and early '80s, Ribbecke would travel to Benheim, a large glass supply house in New York City, to purchase glass for his own projects. "I could rub shoulders and learn from other artists and distributors," he says. Eventually he began bringing back extra sheets to keep in his studio, because other artists came to him when they needed materials. "Nobody wanted to sell supplies, but I was always so hard up for the rent," he says. "By 1986, we kept about 25 colors in stock." Today, Ribbecke stores 600 types of glass in his warehouse 500 for sale and 100 for his own use. "We finally settled on a 25- to 30-percent profit margin on glass sales," he says. Although people might find cheaper prices online, Ribbecke points out, "Nobody wants to buy glass from the Internet. They want to handle it, touch it, see it."

ribbecke japanese ladyOver the years, his supply business has grown exponentially, but it remains just a part of the story. For 20 years, Ribbecke has been restoring stained-glass windows as well as designing and creating pieces of his own. He took up the craft as a hobby in 1970. He'd recently graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in electrical engineering, but his field didn't generate the same sort of passion that working with glass did a passion that began years earlier when he was a child growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y. During Ribbecke's sophomore year at Catholic prep school, his teacher kept assigning museum field trips on the weekends. "I hated it at first," he recalls, "and then after about six months, I began to enjoy it."

He especially loved visiting The Cloisters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which showcases the art and architecture of medieval Europe. Ribbecke would first close his eyes and listen to the music, then open his eyes and gaze up at the stained-glass windows.

Karen Dawson and Chris JeffreyRibbecke says he hasn't ever had to look for employees; "People just hang around." Chris Jeffrey (pictured) has his own studio, but comes to Burlington once a week to help Ribbecke, who gave him his start. Karen Dawson, a fine-art painter, has worked with Ribbecke for five years.

"Even though they were from the Middle Ages, they looked new every time light went through them. I've never been affected by an object like that," he says. "I had this eerie feeling that other eyes had looked at this window, and that led to natural speculation, 'What was that person's life like?'"

Artistic ability and inclination run in Ribbecke's family. His grandfather, who came to America from Osaka, Japan, was an artist; his father was a chemist who played clarinet, spoke three or four languages and built ship models and furniture. "He would send away for boat plans; he didn't use kits," Ribbecke says, "and he made each piece by hand. It would take him years. He probably inspired my brother," he adds, referring to Tom Ribbecke, a world-renowned custom guitar maker in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In 1971, Ribbecke moved to Vermont the way many do: "I came for a weekend trip that ended up being for the rest of my life." He considered knocking on IBM's door, and with a degree from MIT, he would surely have gained admittance. The money and security of a corporate job appealed to him, but Ribbecke never did contact the company. Instead, he chose to pursue his passion.

Initially Ribbecke practiced his craft by making small, decorative panels to hang inside windows, which he sold in craft shops. Then a minister in Hyde Park asked him if he could repair a buckling church window. That request opened a new channel of business for Ribbecke, who continues to get most of his church restoration projects through word of mouth. He's worked on churches in Vermont and across the lake in Plattsburgh, N.Y., and its surrounding areas, and though he tries not to travel too far for site visits, he says he "can't say no to an earnest voice on the phone."

ribbecke knightsThe church window restoration business continues to grow. "I don't know if they have more money or more will. Some of these little churches surprise me," he says, citing as an example St. Thomas's in Underhill, where he has completed two window projects. "They're determined to restore all 40 windows."

Ribbecke's woodworking abilities make him even more sought after, for church projects and those in private homes, and he often builds his own window frames. "I learned that so many stained-glass artists didn't know a thing about building," Ribbecke says, something he found frustrates architects and builders. "Many couldn't tell whether something they'd made was square."

In the shop, Chris Jeffrey rubs grout into a leaded window to make it weather-tight. He can't help but think about the past. "This is the same process that's been used for the past thousand years," he says. "Some of the technology's changed but the basic principles are the same."

Twelve years ago Jeffreywalked by Ribbecke's shop, then on Pearl Street, and noticed a sign in the window advertising a free stained-glass class. The all-day class kept Jeffrey enthralled. "I really like the process," he says. "I like building stuff." Jeffrey, who had just completed law school, started hanging around the shop and has been working with Ribbecke ever since. ribbecke castle

Though he opened his own studio in Barre a year and half ago, Jeffrey comes to Burlington every Tuesday to work at Ribbecke's studio, "partly because of the money," he says. "A day's pay is good, but I really enjoy it, and I really like Larry. I'm still learning new things, even after 12 years." Loyalty, too, plays a part. "I owe Larry everything," Jeffrey says. "He's been phenomenally generous to me."

"I was glad to see this alumnus go," Ribbecke says of Jeffrey. He realizes it goes against business principles to embrace a former employee's new, potentially competitive business, but Ribbecke sees his employees more as apprentices, and he's clearly proud to see Jeffrey striking out on his own.

Jeffrey, Karen Dawson and Gretchen Begnoche work part-time at the studio, helping Ribbecke restore windows and design and complete commissioned pieces. Begnoche started out as a customer. "I took a stained-glass class eight years ago and just got hooked," she says. "I started hanging around at Larry's, buying supplies and asking questions here and there." She quickly turned into a part-time employee.

"Her initial reward was knowledge," Ribbecke says. Begnoche, who comes from a family of crafters, holds a studio art degree from the University of Vermont. For her, stained glass is where art meets craft.

"I love the physical craft aspect of it and I love painting with color," she says, and though she puts in 50- to 60-hour weeks at Fletcher Allen Health Care, she continues to work at the studio on Friday evenings and Saturdays. "Larry is a fascinating individual. I like working with him. He's so open and straightforward in his dealings with people, and you don't always find that." This winter, Begnoche is sharing her own knowledge with others, teaching her first class at the Shelburne Craft School.

Emily Stoneking, Ribbecke's only full-time employee, manages the retail shop. "Some people just walk in and say, 'I've driven by a million times and I always wondered what was in here,'" she says.

Each employee brings a distinct, complementary strength to the studio. Ribbecke particularly admires Dawson's use of color, and says when they collaborate on a project, it's like a "mule hitched to a greyhound. We're very different in the way we approach things," Ribbecke explains. "We make a better window than each one of us could alone."

Dawson, a fine-art painter, has worked with Ribbecke for five years and spends two days a week at his studio. "Working with glass presents different issues than painting," she says. "You're working with reflective light versus illuminative light." She also enjoys the variety of the job. "What's neat about a small shop is we all have to wear all the hats."

Emily Stoneking, Ribbecke's only full-time employee, has managed the retail shop for 18 months, and Ribbecke feels lucky to have found her. "She's cheerful, young, energetic and smart, and she can make a judgment that I can live with." Stoneking works with customers, reorders stock and ships finished pieces her least favorite task because the breakable merchandise requires so much packing.

Stoneking loves her work in part because she's surrounded by creativity. She's been making mosaics since she was a child, first from paper then from stone and ceramic. She never thought much about glass until she entered Ribbecke's shop. "I learned about the process and I said, 'Oh yeah, that's for me.'" Now, during her off time, she designs and creates her own pieces. She calls Ribbecke "the most amazing boss. We can talk politics all day and be ironic and bitter." He also lets Stoneking learn by doing, "and that's how I learn best," she says, "but you can ask him as many questions as you want."

Stoneking also assists Ribbecke and his crew with production and installation. A few months into her new job, she learned about the dangers of glass the hard way. Out on a job site, Stoneking worked alone on the second floor, using a putty knife to remove a window's 200-year-old grout. The putty knife slipped, and Stoneking's right hand slammed into a piece of jagged glass inside the frame, slicing her first three fingers just above the knuckles. "I figured it was going to happen at some point, and I just got it out of the way quick," she says.

It's true that everyone gets cut eventually, Ribbecke agrees, and little cuts are common. "People need to respect the medium but not be afraid of it," he says. There are other dangers inherent in the process, and Ribbecke likes to work with people who respect both chemical dangers and gravity. "When we put a ladder on a steeple, we check it three times before climbing up."

Ribbecke, who is self-taught and doesn't consider himself a fine artist, is certainly a teacher to his employees, but he gave up formal teaching long ago. "I don't want to teach any more. I have no time and no space," he says. "Around the nation, most of the mom-and-pop shops make a serious effort at teaching, but it's teaching to pump supply sales that's the aim. I hate that."

When working with clients, Ribbecke's main goal is to create a design that makes everyone happy. Still, that doesn't mean he's always attracted to the same things his clients are. "My most frequent requests are Mount Mansfield or Camel's Hump," he says. "I'm so sick of drawing Camel's Hump." Other customers want pieces inspired by existing styles like those of Frank Lloyd Wright or Charles Mackintosh or Charles and Henry Greene and Ribbecke is happy to oblige. "I have a gift. Like a cover guitarist who can play the Beatles, I can do historical styles pretty well."

Though his focus is on creating and repairing windows, he occasionally takes in lamps for repair. He rarely designs them. "To do something different or affordable is really hard," he says, "though we do have a class of customer who's willing to pay good money for a Tiffany reproduction."

Ribbecke stores 600 types of glass in his warehouse: 500 for sale and 100 for his own use. "We finally settled on a 25- to 30-percent profit margin on glass sales," says Ribbecke, pictured here with Deborah Davis, the bookkeeper, who works part-time.

He also gets no thrill out of making lamps. "I enjoy working with my medium to change the way a space feels," he explains. "If someone commissions a window, they feel they've had a part in it; it says what they want to say: This is a special place; somebody really thought about this."

That philosophy calls to mind the Arts and Crafts movement, which promoted well-designed, handmade objects and furniture in lieu of mass-produced ones.

"This is a great country for stuff," he adds. "You can get anything; but on the other hand, there's not much thoughtfully made for the individual by another individual. Here on Pine Street, though, the vision looks different."

Even with six or seven hours a day devoted to designing and restoring windows, Ribbecke still has a backlog of work. "I wish I could have a time-stretching machine. I don't feel at my best when I have 30 to 40 jobs backed up. I'd like to freeze the universe for two months and get caught up."

Ribbecke's biggest joy comes from working in his studio where he says he's "happier than a pig in mud" and though he uses a computer to keep track of inventory and other numbers, he prefers a pencil, not a mouse, when creating designs. "There's a divide between people who design on computers and those who don't," he says. "I never use ... [the computer] for graphic work.

Recently, a builder for whom Ribbecke has created many custom windows urged Ribbecke to raise his rates. He finally relented, upping his $36 per hour rate to $40. "It's probably inevitable that our other prices will get raised soon," he says. For the most part, he is happy the way his business has progressed. He never wanted to run a bigger company, nor does he consider himself entrepreneurial. "It's like playing in a band where nobody's in charge. You're just going where it seems obvious to go."

Ribbecke recently got rid of the studio's coffeemaker, so several times a day he walks to Myers Bagels for a cup of coffee. Often, he continues to the back of the parking lot to peer into the barge canal, which is being drained so the EPA can complete its Superfund cleanup. Ribbecke enjoys watching the progress each day as the water lowers and the hulls of sunken coal barges appear, providing a glimpse back in time. It's a fitting diversion for the boy who used to travel back to the Middle Ages in the middle of New York City. One day in the far future, maybe someone will look at something Ribbecke created.

"This is an enduring craft. In engineering you make an object, but it's brief and ephemeral. Here, I make things and some of them will get smashed or lost or broken, but still, one hundred years down the line, there'll be something left. Somebody will be looking and think, 'What was their time like?' It's my immortality."

Originally published in February 2003 Business People-Vermont