Born in Bavaria in 1869, an enterprising and industrious Emil Frei realized his calling as an artist and enrolled in the Munich Academy of Art. Alarmed by the fascist direction that Germany was heading and the accompanying mandatory military service, he immigrated to New York where he would be free to practice his art. In 1895, he moved to San Francisco with his new bride, Emma, to work as a muralist.
Shortly thereafter, his wife fell to the homesickness that is part and parcel with living in a new land and speaking a foreign tongue. While strongly considering a move back to their homeland, Emil was invited to St. Louis to design the stained glass windows for St. Francis Xavier (College) Church, a monumental church then under construction. Like many Midwestern cities at the turn of the century, St. Louis boasted a large and vibrant German community where the traditions and native tongue were fiercely clung to. With Emma suddenly feeling at home, the decision was made to permanently settle in St. Louis.
Emil Sr. started his own stained glass company, Emil Frei Art Glass, in 1898 on South Broadway. In 1907, he moved the company to 3934 S. Grand where it would remain until 1971. Indicative of the simpler times, a large portion of the Studio on S. Grand was built by the Franciscan Friars of St. Anthony of Padua as payment for the windows for their church.
During the tenure of Emil Sr., the studio became known for some of the highest quality Munich pictorial stained glass windows in the world, as evidenced by the grand prize won at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition for windows done at Holy Family Church in Watertown, New York. This style, characterized by its utterly life-like portraits of saints and biblical scenes, particularly of the life of Jesus, was the pinnacle of painting on glass. So detailed were these windows that many of the artists at the studio would spend their whole career painting nothing but faces and hands. And with the rapid construction of new churches to meet the surge of immigrants, there was no shortage of work. To meet this heavy demand, the company established a branch in Munich, Germany which survived until the Second World War when it was first seized by the German state and then destroyed by Allied bombing in 1944.
The growth and reputation of the studio was further enhanced by its entry into the field of mosaics. In the 1920’s, Emil Frei Sr. was commissioned to undertake the mosaic design for the New Cathedral on Lindell Boulevard, the first million dollar church in America. Collaborating with a mosaic firm in Berlin, Emil Sr. founded Ravenna Mosaics, Inc. as another arm of his studio to complete this project. (The Ravenna Company, as it would ultimately be known, later separated from Emil Frei, Inc.) The New Cathedral is credited with having the largest collection of mosaics in any one single location and remains an unquestionable jewel of the St. Louis landscape.
Upon the death of Emil Frei Sr. in 1942, leadership of the studio was assumed by his son Emil Frei Jr. A graduate of the Washington University School of Fine Arts, he had joined the studio as an artist in 1917. Under his tenure, the company experienced a remarkable growth in artistic scope and creativity; consequently, it became a pioneer in the field of modern liturgical art. He recognized that creating one style of windows, no matter how expertly done, would eventually lead to a stale reaction to the art. The challenge, as he saw it, wasn’t to create something merely beautiful and edifying, but something personally meaningful and spiritually provocative, a work that would constantly beckon the individual to return and contemplate. This principle is visibly incarnate in Emil Frei Jr.’s most widely acclaimed work, the windows of St. Francis Xavier (College) Church. Drawing inspiration from Chartres Cathedral, Emil Frei Jr. created a mystic feel reminiscent of the gothic cathedrals of France through the use of deep jeweled colors, heavy usage of symbolism, and an overall plan intricately interwoven.
The effort to promote the revival and modernization of stained glass was not left to Emil Frei Jr. alone. A team of highly gifted artists working in the Studio brought with them a variety of new ideas, innovative designs, and expert skill. Chief and earliest among these was Robert Harmon, who joined Emil Frei, Inc. in 1938. Under the tutelage of Emil Frei Jr., Bob Harmon soon earned a reputation as a trailblazer in the modern stained glass movement. Windows he designed for St. Ann’s in Normandy, Missouri were featured by Time Magazine as one of the boldest attempts to break the poor imitation of gothic windows so common during his era. With the rising costs of labor and a shift towards the contemporary, Munich Pictorial became more and more a thing of the past, to be replaced by a new generation of art. No less integral to this development was the work of Francis Deck, Milton Frenzel, Charles Eames, Robert Frei (Emil Frei, Jr.’s son), William Shickel, Rodney Winfield, Siegfried Reinhardt and Russell Krauss. The plurality of artists also ensured that Emil Frei, Inc. did not fall victim to the charge of a static style, as each individual left a footprint entirely his own. Each church received its own utterly unique windows.
After Emil Frei Jr. retired in 1963, the presidency of the company was handed over to Robert Frei, the third successive generation and an artist at the studio since 1946. The liturgical arts landscape had changed drastically since the days of his grandfather. No longer were churches being built at the incredible pace set in the early 1900’s. Dwindling church membership, increasingly tight budgets and a diminishing appreciation for the arts meant that Robert Frei had to adapt the business in order to avoid the collapse that plagued so many of his colleagues at this time. The drop in demand carried with it the need to scale back the studio and so, after nearly 70 years at the S. Grand Avenue location, the company relocated to Kirkwood, where it currently resides.
Following the lead of his father, Robert also recognized that much of the beauty of stained glass windows lay in the material itself. With such a marvelous and wide array of textures and colors present in the glass sheets themselves, he sought to let the glass speak for itself through simple yet elegant designs. The result was a crystalline creation stressing the dynamic differences in glass as well as a renewed appreciation for the importance of lead lines in the design. Prior to this point, stained glass largely concerned itself with images within the window itself. Robert Frei, however, sought to incorporate objects on the outside, such as trees or a water fountain, to play with the texture of the glass and, in so doing, to create a more three dimensional field.
Leadership of the studio reached the fourth generation with the presidency of Stephen Frei after his father retired in 1990. In the over two decades of his administration, Emil Frei and Associates has been recognized as one of the foremost studios at restoration. With the assistance of his brother, David Frei (vice-president), creative and effective solutions to difficult situations have become the norm. The studio continues to hold a formidable presence in the creation of new windows throughout the country. Many of the older artists, such as Robert Frei and Rodney Winfield, still design monumental works of art, albeit not at the prolific pace they once did. They have handed over the reins to the next generation of artists such as Br. Martin Erspamer, O.S.B. who has quickly become one of the top liturgical artists in the nation, dotting the map with his designs in multiple mediums.
The fifth generation of the Frei family has been working at the studio since the mid 1990’s. With a variety of skills collected since their childhood and considerable theological background, they serve various roles as glaziers, cutters, cementers, artist’s assistants, installers, and theological consultants. Their love for the art, and the humbling realization that this is a gift not their own, ensure that they will be capable heirs for a promising future.