Beauty That Breaks Through: Ken Berman and The Glass Onion
By Jenna MacFarlane
Photography by Jordan Randall
There’s something sacred about the way light gleams through stained glass. Is it the imagery, the story being told, carefully carved to represent a grander narrative? Is it the light distribution, coloring the room so gently? Or is it just that we’ve all associated stained glass with cathedrals and places of worship across the world?
Maybe it’s a mix of all these things. For more than 1,000 years, stained glass has adorned the windows and walls of sacred spaces.
For Ken Berman, the owner of The Glass Onion, stained glass creates a place of refuge. Ken’s quiet studio on Main Street in downtown Lakeland is unassuming. You wouldn’t guess that someone with more than 30 years of experience is inside, deeply focused, tinkering with glass and holding it up to the light.
Born and raised in Lakeland, he earned a Bachelors Degree in graphic design from Flagler College, but returned to his hometown in pursuance of making a living through his passion: the artistry of stained glass. At the time, decorative stained glass was typically pretty generic, with designs often copied straight from templates or traced from books. Ken knew he could offer something more meaningful to Lakeland, and started making handcraft commissioned stained glass pieces.
He began designing custom pieces for clients who wanted a little something special to adorn their entryways, kitchens and bathrooms.
He named his business after a Beatles song from the band’s 1968 self-titled release.
To this day, he hasn’t slowed down—he usually has a six to eight-week waiting list for new clients.
“I’ve always been drawn to more controlled mediums,” Ken said. He prefers art forms like architecture and glass work rather than watercolor painting or mixed media.
“It’s a good thing I liked puzzles as a kid because now my job is making puzzles out of glass. ’”
– Glass Onion Owner Ken Berman
He’d rather pore over the details, meticulously drawing, tracing and cutting glass until it’s just right.
“It’s a good thing I liked puzzles as a kid,” he says, “Because now, my job is making puzzles out of glass.”
When a new client commissions Ken’s work, they’ll usually go over the themes they’re wanting to portray in the piece, inspirations, art movement styles, and refer to some examples of Ken’s previous work. Ken also takes into account how light shines into the home, as well as the clients’ preferences and privacy needs.
Stained glass design is always personal, and that’s part of why Ken loves doing it. When clients have something so important to them that they want to carve it into the walls of their home, that means something.
Ken’s portfolio is impressive—he’s practiced just about every style of stained glass you can imagine. Once he’s ideated the design, he starts sketching, creating two identical drawings and using one for tracing the glass and the other for placement.
It’s a painstaking process to get it perfect, but that’s why Ken loves it. He becomes immersed in a state of flowing, uninterrupted focus. Ken does all the installation himself, too. Sometimes he works with contractors or designers to lay out the framework, but as far as handling the glass, he trusts only himself to do it.
The time it takes to complete a project largely depends on its size and scope, but he’s usually wrapping up within two or three weeks.
“I’ve sold out….but like, I’m selling out so I can shell out to support my music and then, hopefully the music of others eventually.”
In 2013, Florida Southern College commissioned Ken to supply all the glasswork in a new Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home they were constructing, called The Usonian House. To this day, it’s the work Ken is most proud of.
The Usonian House features more than 5,000 pieces of colored glass, all crafted by Ken. Frank Lloyd Wright believed in the beauty and function of stained glass, and believed it should be a staple in modern family homes, working with stained glass quite a bit during his career. (Needless to say, he’s one of Ken’s heroes.)
Today, Ken’s handiwork will live on in the Usonian House—a space Frank Lloyd Wright believed to be, “Out of the ground and into the light—a Child of the Sun.”
Aside from Frank Lloyd Wright, Ken also draws inspiration from Louis Tiffany and contemporary artist Narcissus Quagliata. He also loves strolling through Mayfaire every year to meet other local artists and see their work up close.
One of the most beautiful things about art is that it’s everywhere. It’s not limited to museum galleries or—in the case of stained glass— magnificent cathedrals in Italy or Peru. It’s on the walls of our homes, on the sides of buildings in Dixieland, and on the concrete of our driveways as our children’s hands are dusty with chalk.
The next time you see stained glass—or any piece of art, for that matter—take a moment to marvel at it. What colors stand out? Which ones do you have to linger to see? How does the light reflect and color the room? Art is all around us, when we look for it—when we choose to see beautiful things amid the chaos of everything else. Maybe that’s why stained glass feels so sacred. It’s a reminder of the beauty that breaks through.