Sheer Beauty

Tico Tech’s Rafael and Janet Calvo create custom stained-glass pieces that throw colorful light on California homes and businesses.

– Noela Hueso – November 1, 2010

Spend a few minutes with Rafael and Janet Ellis Calvo, the personable owners of Altadena design firm Tico Tech, and you can sense their contentment. Their partnership, personal and professional, is effortless, and they’re excited about their life’s pursuit. As far as they’re concerned, all’s right with the world.

Who can blame them? Their custom leaded art-glass business is thriving, born at the start of their marriage nearly 13 years ago; Tico Tech is an American Society of Interior Designers Pasadena Chapter industry partner, and its stained-glass windows and doors have been part of the Pasadena Showcase House of Design for four years running. The Calvos’ work has also been featured on PBS’ This Old House and the Planet Green TV network’s Greenovate, and they’ve left their colorful mark on residential and commercial buildings throughout the San Gabriel Valley, including such notable structures as Caltech’s stately Athenaeum.

One of Tico Tech’s specialties is kitchen projects, including pantry and cabinet doors, skylights and custom-fused glass tile for backsplashes. For one client, whose love of Diego Rivera’s calla lily art was already reflected in her kitchen’s accent tiles, the Calvos took the design a step further by creating kitchen cabinet doors with the same pattern. But Tico Tech’s work isn’t limited to traditional windows or doors. For a Hastings Ranch home, they created a stained-glass front door flanked by 22 stained-glass louvers, which enhance the circulation of fresh air; it’s all adorned with a pattern of wisteria blossoms, and when the louvers are closed, the design coheres so that one can hardly tell they’re louvers.

Stained-glass projects — which can be created using lead, copper foil or zinc and clear, colored and textured art glass — range in price from $175 per square foot for beveled rectangular kitchen panels to $550 per square foot for a quatrefoil pattern window. Custom sandblasted work starts at $75 per square foot and goes up to $175.

It all begins at the Calvos’ cozy home, which is equal parts manufacturing facility and showcase, filled with examples of their handiwork, from decorated sandblasted doors to patterned mirrors and stained-glass windows. “It’s a wonderful business for us because we each really enjoy people,” says Janet, 57, chatting in the couple’s living room. “When you walk in someone’s home [to bid for a job], you immediately get into the intimate parts of their personality — their color, décor, what they like in design. We feel by the end of the process that the majority of our clients are friends.”

It was Rafael’s desire to understand the stained-glass window-making process — and his love for his wife — that led to his career in design. Eight months before the couple’s first wedding anniversary in May 1997, Rafael, 51, went hunting for the perfect gift for his bride. He didn’t have to go far. Traveling the circuit as a retail sales rep for Sparkletts, he observed one of his clients, the owner of a stained-glass company, creating a piece. Intrigued, Rafael asked the client how he could make his own stained-glass window and almost immediately began to craft his gift — the image of a woman on a horse, an homage to his equestrian wife. He worked on it covertly at his mother-in-law’s house, but he couldn’t keep the secret for long. When Rafael showed his work to Janet, she was enchanted. The day they took the unfinished project home, they ended up cutting glass for nearly 12 hours. “At midnight, we were thinking, we have to be up at 5:30 in the morning, but Janet kept saying, ‘Just one more!’” Rafael recalls. After that first, very personal design, commissions from impressed friends started coming in.

Next came the brainstorm for what would become one of their most popular items. “One Saturday morning, I woke up and told Janet I needed a couple of hours to work on something,” Rafael recalls. It was a functional glass pinwheel. “The very first one, which Janet affectionately named Old Clunker, wouldn’t turn in a hurricane,” he adds with a laugh, “but it evolved into this very elegant pinwheel that we started to market.” They make from 100 to 200 a month, usually sitting in front of the TV, and sell them for $40 to $55 at high-end garden centers throughout the country. “We do the pinwheels almost as therapy,” Rafael says. “It’s very relaxing.”

But Tico Tech — a term coined by Rafael’s Costa Rican father to indicate that he was going to come up with an answer to a problem, as in “We’re going to Tico Tech this” — is more than just a stained-glass business. It is, as its website suggests, “a place for creative solutions.” The company holds two patents — one in plastics and one in energy — with another waiting in the wings, and it was with Rafael’s small, plastic twist-on funnel, which minimizes the waste of liquids being transferred from one bottle to another, that the business began in November 1996. They’ve since sold the funnel to the health care, nutrition and horse-grooming industries. “It’s a simple little idea, but nobody’d thought of it,” says Rafael.

The Calvos’ innate creativity enabled them to grow their part-time venture into a full-time business nearly a decade ago, despite the fact that neither had any formal art education. Rafael is an Occidental College and Cal Poly Pomona graduate, and Janet is a Stanford alumna who’d worked for the Norton Simon Museum and Transamerica. “We consider ourselves artistic but not trained,”

Janet says. Now Rafael is the face of the company, going on sales calls and meeting clients. Janet is in charge of the administrative duties. Together they design, cut, assemble and install their glasswork, commissioned by customers from San Francisco to San Diego. And each piece is unique. “When we provide a client with a design, we don’t repeat it unless it’s a standard kind of an image like diamonds,” Rafael says. “A lot of what this is about is not being afraid to explore. It’s about not fearing the unknown.”