If you were a child of the MTV generation like me, you are probably all too familiar with glass blocks — those stacked ice cube walls accompanied by neon lights, black tile showers, and shiny brass hardware. The postmodern, contemporary edge of glass block walls never spoke to me, even when they were popular. I was much fonder of the timeless appeal of Laura Ashley florals and the Anglo-inspired shabby chic style. Like everyone else, I hadn’t given glass blocks much thought since collectively gutting our 80s bathrooms. Until recently, when I discovered that glass blocks are trending once again. I decided to reexamine this material with an open mind — and I am so glad I did. In this Interior Design Glossary entry, I review the history, benefits, and applications of glass blocks. I also explain why we should give them a second chance.
What are Glass Blocks?
Glass blocks (also known as glass bricks) are translucent blocks with clear, textured, or patterned faces on either side. They are manufactured by fusing two separate halves while the glass is molten, creating a hollow center with a partial vacuum. The construction of glass blocks makes them good insulators and strong enough to be used for non-load-bearing walls.
My Personal History and Experience With Glass Blocks
Like many people, I used to consider glass block a horror of the postmodern 80s era. I would always recommend clients stay clear of the material and replace it with something else. I was on a mission to gut all the Miami Vice-style bathrooms left in existence! However, through my design research, I’ve realized that glass blocks have a richer history than I anticipated. They date back far beyond the time of Valley Girls and actually have a lot of admirable features and applications beyond shower wall partitions. There are many patterns and textures outside the ice cube look we came to know in the 80s, and these blocks provide opportunities to play with light while creating privacy. Now, I can see why glass bricks are trending again — they have fantastic versatility! I hope you fall in love with glass blocks, too, after you see all they have to offer.
A Brief History of Glass Blocks in Interior Design
While glass blocks may have peaked in the 80s, they’ve actually been used in American design since the late 1800s when French Architect Gustave Falconnier introduced them. By 1907, the glass block design was patented. However, many builders weren’t eager to use the product because the blocks tended to fog. Advances were made. Through the 1920s and 30s, glass blocks became a staple in Bauhaus and Art Deco-era design, especially in cities like New York and Chicago. Because of their strength, privacy, and ability to let in natural light, they were often adapted into sidewalk and vault lights to illuminate basements under busy city streets. Frank Lloyd Wright even designed his own line of glass block patterns. By the 50s, glass blocks began to fade in popularity as homeowners became enamored with new technologies that allowed for floor-to-ceiling clear glass panels that perfectly framed their suburban views. In the late 1970s, glass blocks were revived when the New York Times referred to them as an “alluring and mysterious…bright and sparkling…formal, but…intimate” design material. Glass blocks peaked in 80s design but fell out of favor by the new millennium. Today, glass blocks are once again recognized for their versatility, durability, and unique design.
Why are Glass Blocks Trending Again?
Glass blocks are cool again, and I am entirely on board after researching their potential. They’re making a comeback, being applied in new ways and designed with patterns and textures that hark back to Deco-era beauty. They provide a stylish way to break up spaces without blocking light. Plus, the new designs are strong, soundproof, and energy-efficient. Conclusion: glass blocks have a lot to offer; they just needed a little refresh and distance from their not-so-great 80s past.
Benefits of Glass Blocks
Provide Light and Privacy
Depending on their texture and design, glass blocks allow natural light to pass through while maintaining a sense of privacy. They even offer the potential to play with light with different textures and patterns, creating stunning light and shadow.
Create Visual Interest
When used in the right application, glass blocks can create visual interest in an otherwise flat or dark space. For example, a glass block wall can open up a room and flood it with beautiful light while concealing the not-so-pretty view outside with visual patterns and shadows.
Increase Energy Efficiency
Glass blocks offer excellent energy efficiency. New technologies seal argon gas inside the hollow vacuum of the block, creating an insulated product. Since glass blocks are laid and sealed like bricks, they prevent air leakages while also minimizing exterior noise.
Ways to Use Glass Blocks in Your Home
Build a Window
Standard windows typically come in rectangles or arches. However, a glass block window can be constructed in any design imaginable. For example, you can create a wall of single glass brick dots or even build out a window with a 3-dimensional relief.
Divide a Room
In interior spaces, glass blocks can create attractive room dividers that offer privacy while not inhibiting the flow of natural light. This could be a wonderful solution for open-concept loft spaces.
Shed Light on the Basement
Since the 1920s, glass blocks have been used on NYC sidewalks to illuminate basements below. Since glass blocks offer a water-tight seal and increased durability, they make a terrific option for basement windows.
Substitute for Breezeblocks
Glass blocks can be used outside in the place of breezeblocks to create interesting garden walls. You could use them around outdoor showers and cabanas or create a private patio off a bedroom.
Should We Give Glass Blocks a Second Chance?
As an interior designer, it’s important to examine and question materials and design periods you don’t understand or have an initial appreciation for, as I did with glass blocks. I tore down the metaphorical walls I had surrounding this material and replaced them with shimmering glass bricks in a gorgeous Art Deco pattern. We could miss something beautiful if we don’t look back at materials and design history. This is why we study interiors.
After all, what seemed to be a material choice limited to MTV cameos was actually a leader in the Bauhaus movement!