Sometimes art transcends beauty to achieve something more spiritual and everlasting.
Such is the case in the work of stained glass artisans Emil Frei & Associates. For five generations, the Frei family has created colorful, light-harnessing masterpieces for some of the most iconic churches in St. Louis and around the world, carefully marrying art with architecture to become part of the very history of the city and its built environment.
Aaron Frei, the great-great grandson of founder Emil Frei Sr. and the studio’s current president, works alongside three of his siblings and his father Stephen Frei, who passed him the reins three years ago. His grandfather Robert Frei worked until his final days in 2016. Emil Frei Sr. had founded the studio in South St. Louis about 120 years ago after moving to the United States from Germany, and Robert relocated the operation in the mid-1960s to its current home on a wooded, 10-acre lot in Kirkwood’s scenic Sugar Creek Valley. Aaron Frei literally grew up at the studio, eventually embracing the family business as his destiny.
“My earliest memory was coming out here searching for turtles in the creek, and as a byproduct, I was introduced to the work itself,” he says. “I would go to church dedications with my dad when I was five or six. Any time a new church was formally dedicated, they would have a big ceremony and invite my father as a speaker. At that point I recognized, ‘Hey, this is something special.’”
Though he began working in the studio at age 10, sweeping floors, waterproofing windows and other tasks that exposed him to the craft, it wasn’t until after college and a brief stint as a teacher that Frei realized stained glass was his true calling.
“There are a lot of good teachers out there. There are not a lot of great stained glass craftsmen,” Frei says. “The desire just started to grow, develop in me, to come back here, and I recognized just what a special gift this was.”
As he immersed himself in the work, he slowly realized that his father was grooming him to take over the business. Today, he couldn’t be happier that things have come full-circle.
“I live on the property in the house that my great-grandfather built, the first house built on this lot,” Frei says. “So not only do I have a touchstone with the work that he does, I literally sleep in the same room that he used to sleep in and relax on the same patio where he used to relax.”
Though Emil Frei & Associates has crafted stained glass windows for secular buildings such as the Sheldon Concert Hall, St. Louis County Library Lewis & Clark Branch and Gravois Bank, the studio’s primary focus continues to be theological spaces. Perhaps the most famous local example is St. Francis Xavier College Church at Saint Louis University, featuring windows designed by Emil Frei Jr. and inspired by Chartres Cathedral in France.
“My great-grandfather designed those windows and he spent a year-and-a-half in France just studying that church; not to copy it – that was a very strong point of his – for inspiration only, for principles,” Frei says.
Though it’s been more than 120 years since Emil Frei Sr. founded the studio, the process remains mostly the same today.
“My father likes to say that we are a 15th-century trade, and that is largely true. Very little in our craft has actually changed over the last 200 years,” says Aaron Frei. “The handiwork, the craftsmanship, you can’t do that by machine. When we design, we don’t design on a computer, everything is hand drawn. If you remove the hand from that process, you’re, in a sense, removing the soul from that process.”
The studio’s work is divided into restoration and fabrication. In restoration projects, the team strives to return worn stained glass windows to a pristine state and protect them from the elements. “Most people think of stained glass as this very fragile surface. It’s actually the lowest maintenance and, usually, the longest lasting item of any building,” Frei says.
When it comes to fabrication, studio designers typically start by meeting with clients to discuss their goals. “Each church is different in terms of their identity, the architecture, their denomination or dogma, and in terms of their very life, so we have to custom-make a window according to each of those facets. No two churches are exactly alike,” says Frei.
Since Emil Frei & Associates is one of only a small handful of firms across the country specifically dedicated to church windows, they often must inform clients and the architects themselves about the unique needs of stained glass in a building.
“Stained glass has always been a handmaiden of architecture. As the architecture has developed, the stained glass has too,” Frei explains. “What we do is control and manipulate and play with light. And that light and its impact on the interior of a space has great metaphorical meaning, especially in the sacred arts, sacred architecture.”
It can take years to complete a project, but once finished, the impact is timeless and immeasurable. Frei says the most enjoyable part of the process is creating something that will continue to surprise and inspire people for decades.
“Beauty itself is a language, and so a lot of times it’s just the hue of a stained-glass window, the light that it casts on a space – sometimes that’s all you need,” he says.
While the bulk of the studio’s work is created for churches, Frei notes that his team receives feedback from many people who don’t necessarily attend services, but rather those who live in the neighborhood or simply appreciate art and architecture.
“I think it speaks to the value of what we do,” he says. “Beauty should reach everyone. It’s in that sense transcendental. It can reach across space, time and culture.”
Intent on keeping the business on the family’s land in Kirkwood, Frei and his siblings are constructing a new, much larger studio on their lot to meet the growing demand for their work both in St. Louis and around the world. The family continues to be inspired by the local landscape.
“St. Louis offers something that very few other cities do. There’s a history here. Not only do we have old buildings, they’re beautiful old buildings,” says Frei. “Our family’s here. We are proud St. Louisans. It’s just a great place to live.”
Join the Story
- Hear Nicholas Frei explain the nuances in the windows that Emil Frei Jr. had created for St. Francis Xavier College Church.
- Watch HEC Media’s video about the studio’s strong connection to spirituality.
- Read our story about how Pauline Lee and Rachel Lindsey are documenting “living religion” in St. Louis, including at College Church.