Ariana Makau holds a Masters in stained glass conservation from the Royal College of Art in London, and is the president and principal conservator of Bay Area-based Nzilani Glass Conservation.
Makau is also the Health and Safety Chair on the Board of the Stained Glass Association of America (SGAA), a Fellow of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) and has been a conservator for over 25 years, having worked for numerous museums in the States and abroad including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, numerous Bay Area museums including: SFMoMA, the De Young, the Legion of Honor, BAMFA and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Nzilani is a highly specialized architectural glass preservation, design and fabrication company dedicated to making the profession more equitable by being accessible to under-served communities. What started as a small, one-woman studio has expanded to include a full-time core crew of glaziers, artists, project managers and interns.
Nzilani core values, “Be Safe. Have Fun. Do Excellent Work.” guide every project, including windows and domes for: private homes, churches, museums and monumental historic buildings. Nzilani focuses on self-empowerment through information: sharing processes, health and safety procedures (particularly lead awareness) and the importance of preserving cultural landscapes and the environment.
Capable of completing a project “in-house” from start to finish, they also enjoy collaborating with other folks in the trade (GCs, architects, masons, carpenters and metalworkers, etc.).
What You’ll Learn In This Episode
- The inspiration behind the name of the business, Nzilani Glass Conservation
- Be Safe, Have Fun, Do Excellent Work
- One particular moment that took the business to the next level
This transcript is machine transcribed by Sonix
Intro: [00:00:06] Broadcasting live from the Business RadioX Studios in the Bay Area. It’s time for Bay Area Business Radio. Now here’s your host
Lee Kantor: [00:00:17] Lee Kantor here, another episode of Bay Area Business Radio, and this is going to be a good one. But before we get started, it’s important to recognize our sponsor, Leah Davis, coaching inspiring women of color to claim their wealth legacy. Today on Bay Area Business Radio, we have Ariana Makau with Nzilani Glass Conservation. Welcome.
Ariana Makau: [00:00:38] Thank you.
Lee Kantor: [00:00:39] Well, I’m excited to learn what you’re up to. Tell us about your business. How are you serving, folks?
Ariana Makau: [00:00:44] We are primarily a stained glass preservation and fabrication studio based in Oakland, but we serve the Bay Area and beyond. We’ve had pieces in our studio as far as England, and we work for museums as well as residences and monumental buildings and, of course, churches.
Lee Kantor: [00:01:08] Can you share the back story? What was kind of the genesis of the idea to explore this part of business? It’s fascinating.
Ariana Makau: [00:01:15] Right? Well, I have a master’s in stained glass conservation, and I always thought that I would work within museums, but they’re actually two places in the world that have full time positions for stained glass conservators. So even though I’d worked in both of them, one is in England and the Victoria and Albert Museum and the other ones at the Met in New York. When those positions came open, I was studying or working in another part of the world, so I worked for another company for a couple of years and then established my company, Zolani, in two thousand and three because I wanted to sort of marry the work and experiences I had at museums, but serve a larger group of people.
Lee Kantor: [00:02:00] Now, can you share a little bit about the inspiration behind the name of the business?
Ariana Makau: [00:02:04] I would love to. So my father is Kenyan, which is where my last name comes from. Macao and our family on both sides really support education. So on the day that I received my master’s in stained glass conservation, my father, which is traditional with his family, gave me a name. Excuse me. So you’re given in his his tradition and his culture. You’re given one name when you’re born and another name when you come into your own, and that can happen when you’re five, it can happen when you’re sixty five. But he felt that on the day that I received my masters and I’d chosen my professional career that he would give me the name of his mother to be the Lani Macao. And I thought it only appropriate to name my company after my grandmother.
Lee Kantor: [00:02:55] And what? What drew you to stained glass as a young person to, you know, make it your life’s work?
Ariana Makau: [00:03:03] I have always been interested in making things, I started really young, working with my grandfather on my mother’s side, building things for as long as I can remember. So I always wanted to fabricate or preserve or salvage things. And as I grew up, I also was interested in the arts. And so it seemed like the perfect marriage between fabricating new things and preserving things that exist already.
Lee Kantor: [00:03:31] Was there anything that you saw or there was inspirational that said, this is I want to aim my my attention to this work because this stained glass, you know, kind of inspired me. Or it seems to me.
Ariana Makau: [00:03:44] Yeah. So I had the opportunity when I was an undergrad to study in Paris for a semester and the courses that were offered by my school, although we’re really interesting in the arts. I was looking around and I like to say that I fell in love in Paris, but not with a person or an experience. I fell in love with stained glass because there’s so much amazing stained glass there. And that’s where I took my first course in stained glass, and I loved it as a medium and I was an undergraduate art major. So I started fabricating my own pieces, but realized pretty early on that I wasn’t making it fast enough to have it as a profession in its own. And also, I really like to interact with people and learning the history of their pieces and working in museums as well, working on pieces that were three, four or five hundred years old. It’s sort of spoke to everything that was interesting to me. So there’s history, there’s science, there’s preservation, there’s fixing things right. And a lot of people get really caught up in the stained glass aspect and don’t think about the fact that it’s actually acting as a window. So you have to think about the construction aspect of it as well as I have a C17 Glazing California glazing contractor’s license, and I really like that every day there’s something different and it’s marrying all of these things together.
Lee Kantor: [00:05:21] Yeah, I think that when you do spend time thinking about it, it’s one of the things that you see it. And when you see it, you’re kind of in awe of it, but you don’t maybe think about it in in the way that I’m sure you do. But stained glass, like you said, is a window. But it’s also a lot of times tells a story and a lot of times it talks. It’s really kind of a moment in time. There’s a historical element to it as well. I mean, it touches in a variety of ways the the person who’s looking at it.
Ariana Makau: [00:05:51] Correct? Yeah. And I think that’s the more people who think about that and have that realization, the better. And part of what I feel is my job is is sharing the knowledge that I have with the public and also the people who choose to spend their time working for my company. If it’s a short time, if someone’s doing an internship for a couple of months or someone’s been working with us for years at a time, I hope that their experiences are. Are are good and sort of shine a light on on this. You know, people try to say it’s a dying art. I don’t think it’s a dying art. I think it’s an art that is unique. And once you start looking for it, it’s kind of like that that that old saying, you know, if you’re looking to buy a pair of shoes, you start noticing everyone else’s feet where you didn’t before, and it’s the same thing with stained glass.
Lee Kantor: [00:06:54] Now, was it a difficult transition to go from the academic world to kind of this artistic world to now the business world and now running a business? Is that was that a difficult transition?
Ariana Makau: [00:07:07] I would say yes and no. I always like to organize things. I always like to really do the best and everything that I do so in that way. Starting my own business wasn’t wasn’t a challenge. All of those things are interesting to me, right? So the art part is interesting, the preservation construction side of it. What was the most revelatory for me, actually, was the fact that I like the business aspect of it as well. And I think as a woman of color and a female business owner, oftentimes when you’re first starting off, you’re sort of not encouraged or given the space to to own the fact that you do like to do that and you are proficient at it and you are good at it. So I feel like I’m in a really good space now where I love what I do. I love coming to work every single day and I love the challenges are almost opportunities for me to sort of reassess them and do the best that I can and make sure that our clients are served well, but also that our team is having a good time working on things. So I, for the internal part of the business, it’s great. I can’t say one thing that is challenging for us is that stained glass. The main components of it are glass and lead, and people are really knowledgeable.
Ariana Makau: [00:08:48] I think across the board about having lead safety. When you’re talking about conserving or repainting someone’s home or even an industrial space that has old lead paint in it to take certain precautions. And the same precautions are applied to what we have to do when we’re taking, especially when we’re taking out old old windows that have less oxidized lead. You have to have a containment unit. You need to make sure you’re really clean when you’re closing, closing up your space, your workspace, you’re not moving everything around and you need to make sure that your team that’s working in that space daily is wearing the proper PPE or personal protective equipment. And with that comes cost. And so conveying that to our potential clients and making them understand that our employees go through the same rigorous training that any lead worker goes through. And occasionally we’re working with asbestos as well with some of the other sealing materials. And and that cost that we charge for the work that we do is attributed to making sure that the clients are safe. The the general public is safe where we’re working and also our employees on a daily basis are taken care of so they can do the best work they can do for as long as they they want to do it.
Ariana Makau: [00:10:16] And then secondarily, the you sort of touched upon it saying that there’s this art component to it. I mentioned earlier as well that I have a C-17 Glaeser license, so if people think about general construction and what costs are attributed to doing construction work, they put it in a certain category. And when they think about an artist doing work, they put it in a second category. And I think there’s this misperception sometimes that artists do the work that they do for the love of it. And and that’s fulfilling enough. And yes, I love what I do, but I also like to eat and I like to live in a nice home and I like to invest in my community. And definitely as a business owner, I like to make sure my employees are taken care of. And I think the more people who sort of think about all the different steps that we do, we bring this construction component and also bring an artistic component to every job that we do. And we’re not asking for more than what we do, but we should be paid on par to what other construction professions do. I think that would be really helpful. And that’s that’s something that I’m trying to make more people think about, right?
Lee Kantor: [00:11:41] And it gets tricky. And a lot of businesses, especially, I’m sure of the size that you deal with. It’s almost like it comes from two different departments, right? Like you have the fix the window department and then you have the, you know, the people that purchase art department and they they don’t tend to work together or know each other or kind of collaborate. And you’re saying, Hey, our thing does both of those things. So maybe you can kind of put your budgets together for this initiative and they don’t think that way. There are a lot of them are siloed and they can’t separate. No, I do do windows. So that’s that number is too high for windows or this is art. And like, well, that sounds like it’s windows so that we don’t do that. So it’s hard to educate them that, hey, in this case, we might have to collaborate internally.
Ariana Makau: [00:12:30] Exactly. You’re hired, you can those person.
Lee Kantor: [00:12:34] But that’s I mean, I run into that in my business because our are the service we provide is sales and marketing and sales has a budget and marketing as a budget, and they’re usually separate. And a lot of times they don’t play nice together because they get very territorial about their budgets.
Ariana Makau: [00:12:50] Mm, yeah, it’s a really good point.
Lee Kantor: [00:12:53] Now in your business, you mentioned safety, you mentioned fun and you mentioned this level of craftsmanship, those kind of core values. Is that is it hard to hire and find the right folks to work there? It sounds like, I mean, getting clients has its own challenges, but I’m sure once they become your clients, they see the value. But those kind of elements are those part of your kind of company culture?
Ariana Makau: [00:13:20] Yeah. So our company motto is be safe, have fun, do excellent work. And I strongly believe that that safety comes first for a reason because if you’re safe, those other things are going to make themselves available to you. So having fun? I’ve mentioned a couple of times that I’m passionate about what I do. I love what I do. We all can can have a laugh when we’re working together and everything’s just really fluid and working as a team and we deliver excellent work. And in answer to your question, is it hard to find people? Yes and no. And I think a stronger emphasis on no than yes. So I’ve had over the years, we’re coming into close to 20 years of being in business as a company where I’ve had other employees have done what I do longer than that. I’ve only had a handful of people who have had a master’s degree in stained glass conservation like myself. But every single person who’s come through our doors and has worked for Zolani has been really passionate about the work that we do, and they bring a new, new insight with their own, their own experiences. And I can tell you about a few people. We have one person that seems like a pretty easy parallel who does glass blowing. But it never built a flat window, so experience with glass and three dimensionality, but not building, having the lead can go around the glass.
Ariana Makau: [00:14:59] But then we also have had people who we had a musician who is also a lyricist writing their own their own songs, and we do a lot of documentation and what we do. So that person, in addition to learning how to build windows, does great written documentation and explaining what we do to a larger audience who isn’t with us every step of the way to explain what we do. We have ceramicist. We have someone who works on ink on paper and very delicate, detailed work. That person that translates to to doing our three dimensional glass fabrication or three three dimensional glass. When I say fabrication, it’s taking tiny little shards and lining everything and putting it back together. We often will have someone bring in a family heirloom and it’s in a box and 60 100 pieces, and that person is really good at putting everything back together and making it look pretty much like it did before it broke. So I’m really passionate about finding. People who are equally passionate about what we do and also providing access to our general community to know that this is a profession that they can pursue, it’s not this really lofty thing that there’s only one avenue that you can get to where we are.
Lee Kantor: [00:16:31] Now, do you see a time where stained glass isn’t only for, you know, like churches and religious places that it can just be incorporated in more and more of architecture and in buildings and homes to add? To me, it adds so much. It’s something that it’s like you said earlier, it’s a window, but it’s art. It combines multiple things and with people, you know, spending so much time there, HGTV ing of the world, you would think that there would be some opportunity for stained glass to be part of some of this design.
Ariana Makau: [00:17:08] Yeah, that’s a really excellent question, and I’ll sort of take that in two parts. The first is the HGTV people who are renovating their homes. We’re based in the Bay Area, like I mentioned. And so there are these Victorian homes that people are slowly renovating back to the way they they looked back in the day, but also adding these modern amenities and stained glass definitely fits into that category of we preserve the windows that were potentially damaged to look the way they looked. One hundred years ago. Conversely, you can do these really fun, newer fabrication opportunities where. You can do something in the style of a Victorian window, but adding new subject matter, if you want to do a really detailed, painted painted window or you can do the same design, but with modern colors. One of the things that we are really lucky at and frankly really good at is matching the styles of what came before us and making it seamless. So based on all of our preservation work in the past. If someone comes to us and says and this has happened, you know, I’m building a huge addition onto my home and I have this front door and I, my architect, says, let’s put in 40 more windows. Can you match the front door? But hey, the dimensions of all the other windows are different.
Ariana Makau: [00:18:52] So some of them are four feet by 12, four feet by two. And then there’s another one that’s two feet by only seven inches tall. Can you match the same design but fit into those different spaces? That’s something we can do. If someone brings us something that’s a hole painted section is missing. So there’s a figure and there was an arm missing or a leg or a face missing. We can match that. We have a master glass painter who trained in Europe as well as here in our studio space so they can match anything that’s missing. We start with a base layer of the glass and then paint on top of that. And then we also because we’re working on these different genre of existing windows. If someone comes in and says, I have this brand new idea for a window, can you do it? Do you have the skillset to do that? You say, of course. What do you want to do? Well, we’ll match it. So that’s really exciting that we even though every project is quote unquote new and different, we draw on the base of our experience. Up until that point that we can give examples to a monumental building, but also a residence that we can match.
Lee Kantor: [00:20:14] Now, the work that you do legacy is an important component of it. Is there any concern for you in terms of your legacy and the company’s legacy to have this go beyond you and what you can do as an individual? Is there kind of a roadmap for the future?
Ariana Makau: [00:20:37] Great question and definitely something I’m so excited about, something I just did this summer and I want to continue to do is opening up the opportunities for this profession to a larger swath of people. And when I say that sometimes people think about, Oh, you’re just trying to find more young people to do this work, which is one component, but it doesn’t matter how old you are or what your background is, you just really have to be passionate and interested in doing this. This hands on work, and I had the opportunity to work on a hands on preservation experience. Hope Crew for the National Trust for Historic Preservation this summer in Astoria, Oregon. And it was an all women run crew and mostly women powered crew, and we worked with some young people from the Job Corps at one point there as well. And that’s the kind of legacy I want to leave. I don’t really. It’s not really that important if people remember my name. What’s really important to me is that this profession continues and more people have access to it. So that’s sort of what my roadmap is moving forward, always having Villani glasses as a core, but just reaching out and finding maybe public private partnerships or more opportunities to give back to the community and also involve the community and starting like we did at the beginning of this conversation to starting, how do you look at stained glass? Are you starting to see that within the fabric of your of your city? And then if you’re interested in it, how do you go about preserving preserving those windows? We’re talking about preservation and building, but it’s also preservation of space and preservation of your environment. The more you can preserve and re reconstitute existing windows, that’s less going into the landfill. That’s less of using older materials that like plastics that don’t can’t be maintained. And so that sort of the legacy I would, I would love. I would love to leave, and I’m actively working towards fabricating and making and having now.
Lee Kantor: [00:23:22] Can you share a little bit about who this ideal client of yours is? Is it primarily the churches? Is it, you know, these kind of buildings that have some of this work inside that need to conserve it? Or, you know, kind of spruce it up, refresh it, maybe. Or. It sounds like it could be also a home, like you said, a residential home that they discovered, Hey, look, this is here. Why don’t we just kind of refresh this and give it new life?
Ariana Makau: [00:23:52] Great question. Short answer is yes. And the longer answer is my ideal client on behalf of Zolani is. A collaborator, right, because we have multiple projects that we’re having at this, that we’re working on at the same time and we dove and drill deep when we’re working on a on a piece or pieces, and then once our work is done, we go on to the next one. And so the ideal client is someone who’s really invested in preserving their window or windows or working with us to create a new one. And then someone who will continue being excited about those windows after after we’ve left. And so it could be a large church or a monumental building, it could be someone who just has. For example, we have two windows in our in our studio right now. They’re really small. They’re two by two by three feet, but it’s from a residence of a home here in West Oakland, where the client purchased the home with the help of a parent and the parent has now passed on. And the windows were the things that that really resonated with with both of them. And so preserving those windows are legacy of the family’s history. So it’s not the size of the project, it’s it’s the interest. And there’s that word again, the legacy of the work. So people who who value the work that we do and with whom we can value the work that they bring to us.
Lee Kantor: [00:25:43] Well, congratulations on all the success if somebody wants to learn more. Is there a website there is.
Ariana Makau: [00:25:50] We are at WW W Z and that is silent n so n as in Nancy Z, I play and I. And we’re also on Instagram at underscore sorry at Z, Loni underscore glass.
Lee Kantor: [00:26:10] Well, Ariana, thank you again for sharing your story. You’re doing such important work and we appreciate you.
Ariana Makau: [00:26:15] Thank you so much for your time.
Lee Kantor: [00:26:17] All right, this is Lee Kantor. We’ll see you all next time. I’m Bay Area Business Radio.