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The Munich Atelier Where Stained Glass Comes to Life

By Gisela Williams

The Mayer of Munich building has 15 glass and mosaic ateliers within its 54,000 square feet. This one is dedicated to glass painting.
 
Credit: Matthias Ziegler
The Mayer of Munich building has 15 glass and mosaic ateliers within its 54,000 square feet. This one is dedicated to glass painting.

The extravagant Ludwig II, the so-called mad king of Bavaria, was said to love nothing more than a room aglow with painted glass. Indeed, his obsession with the art form galvanized the revival of stained-glass making in Germany, initiated by his grandfather Ludwig I in the early 19th century. During that era, elaborately designed windows — in churches but also secular buildings — became fashionable, with many German artists and artisans adopting the craft, including Joseph Gabriel Mayer, who in 1847 founded Munich’s Mayer Institute of Christian Art, a workshop that produced religious sculptures and altars. By the 1880s, Mayer, who had by then been joined by his son Franz Borgias, had offices in Paris, London and New York City. (The company still has an office on Manhattan’s Madison Square Park.)

Over the years, Mayer created the windows for Ludwig II’s Neuschwanstein castle chapel in Bavaria, as well as the Königshaus am Schachen, his legendary folly of a hunting lodge near Garmisch-Partenkirchen. In 1892, Pope Leo XIII awarded the company the church’s prestigious Pontifical Institute of Christian Art title and, soon after, one of the most important commissions of that era, now perhaps the most recognized stained-glass window in the world: the Holy Spirit window above the main altar of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, an abstract design of deep orange and yellow splinter-shaped glass surrounding a dove. Mayer’s work, distinguished by its saturated colors, painterly but naturalistic images and allusions to late Gothic artists like Hans Holbein the Elder, came to define the era’s Catholic churches.

In the offices of the present-day Mayer of Munich atelier — a six-story, 54,000-square-foot industrial-style building from the early 1900s in the city center — a small framed etching of Joseph Gabriel Mayer hangs on the wall. With his unkempt curls and intense gaze, he bears a remarkable resemblance to his great-great-grandson Michael Mayer, who now runs the company alongside his architect wife, Petra. Michael studied mosaics in Friuli in his 20s and soon afterward dedicated himself to the family business. Petra wrote her architecture school thesis on how German cities should acknowledge historic Third Reich-era buildings with the conviction that we should not erase history; that societies should not be allowed to look away from their darkest deeds. “There are still multiple Nazi buildings in Munich that are, shockingly, not marked as such. The city tends to keep the buildings and just repurpose them as cultural or social institutions,” she says.

Credit: Matthias ZieglerA mosaic atelier on the second floor.
A mosaic atelier on the second floor.

The couple, who are in their 50s, met in 1993 when Petra was hired to help redesign P1, a legendary Munich nightclub in the basement of the Haus der Kunst, a modern art museum designed by one of Hitler’s favorite architects, Paul Ludwig Troost. Applying the ideas of her thesis to a public space, Petra decided she wanted to repurpose a type of metallic gold mosaic common in Third Reich-era Art Nouveau interiors to line a huge column in the center of the bar’s dance floor. “It’s fine to preserve these buildings and transform them into cultural spaces, but I think it’s important to note their origins,” Petra says. “In appropriating those historic gold mosaics, I meant to both mark and transform that World War II-era architecture.” She had heard there were historic examples of the tiles somewhere in the basement of the Mayer workshop, and made an appointment to see them. Michael showed her the company’s collection of Puhl & Wagner mosaics, which it had purchased in 1969 from the German government. Not long afterward, Petra and Michael fell in love and moved into his tiny bachelor pad in the workshop’s attic.

The Mayers oversee the business from a series of sunny, art-filled rooms on the top two floors of the building. Dozens of warrenlike workshops and ateliers crowd the four floors beneath — here, workmen restore historic stained-glass windows and mosaics, while others make contemporary works. The labyrinthine basement archive houses an extensive collection of vintage stained-glass works.

Even before the couple officially took over in 2013, they had begun transitioning the bulk of Mayer of Munich’s clients from religious institutions to contemporary artists. (Sometimes, the two overlap: Michael worked with Ellsworth Kelly to create the colored-glass windows of “Austin,” the artist’s 2018 chapel at the University of Texas’s Blanton Museum of Art.) In only the past two years, they collaborated on a massive outdoor mosaic created by the German artist Kerstin Brätsch for the Bas Smets-designed park at the LUMA cultural space in Arles, France; a pool designed by Peter Marino for the Hotel Cheval Blanc in Paris, opening in 2021; and public works for various New York City M.T.A. stations by Firelei BáezWilliam Wegman and Diana Al-Hadid. (One of their largest commissions to date has been the expansive white marble mosaic by Ann Hamilton that was installed two years ago at a World Trade Center subway station.)

In Petra’s boudoir, a portrait of her by Kiki Smith presides over an antique daybed from Lamu and a green Baroque dresser — a gift from Michael’s grandfather.Credit: Matthias Ziegler
Credit: Matthias Ziegler

So dedicated are the Mayers to collaborating with artists that there are even three small one-bedroom apartments reserved for visiting artists next to the couple’s living quarters on the top two floors, which they share with their two young sons. Kiki Smith, who has worked with Mayer of Munich on more than 20 projects, and who attended a neo-Gothic church in New Jersey growing up, recalls being mesmerized by stained glass as a child. “I am very attracted to a serial pictorial narrative, and to the medium of glass,” she says. “I’m fascinated by something that can keep transforming. Glass can be a slow-moving liquid and a solid.” The Mayers have hosted Smith several times over the past decade. “I love being there,” she says. “To wake up in so much light every day is heaven for me.” Indeed, the Mayers’ top floor — a high-ceilinged atrium that includes the living room, dining room and kitchen — feels almost open to the elements, floating over the city. Stuffed birds perch on the shelves, and panes of antique stained glass are propped against or installed in windows. All this shares space with an eclectic collection of art: a cluster of framed Bavarian folk oils from Michael’s grandfather; three drawings on paper by the contemporary American artists Mike and Doug Starn; and a set of ginkgo leaves suspended in a series of glass cubes by the artist Jan Hendrix. Tucked in a small nook over the kitchen are a daybed and a large drawing of a pregnant Petra, a gift from Smith.

One of the windows in the living room, which faces in the direction of Munich’s Old Town, is made from broken pieces of painted glass — discards from one of Smith’s projects. “I have an impulse to save and fix things,” says Petra, who is constantly repairing forgotten treasures from the Mayer archives. A few years ago, she had a ceiling removed on the ground floor and found a stunning Expressionist archway from the late 1800s. More recently, off that same hallway, she claimed a small room with a mezzanine floor and turned it into a cabinet of wonders, displaying a series of works that 17 of the Mayers’ artist friends created for the company’s 170th anniversary in 2017. These include a piece entitled “Dancers” by Eric Fischl, in which four layers of painted glass reflect on one another, seemingly moving with the changing light; and a tiny triptych of mosaics by Vik Muniz.

On the workshop’s facade, Petra and Michael installed 14 abstract mosaics that represent the stations of the cross made by the Nigerian artist Uche Okeke, who had worked at Mayer in the early ’60s. “I found these pieces gathering dust, and my friend Okwui Enwezor, who was the director of the Haus der Kunst museum, confirmed that they were Okeke’s,” says Petra. “It’s important to bring things out from the dark,” she adds. “And to let light heal them.”