Kenn Von Roenn designed a 550,000-pound glass sculpture that sits atop a skyscraper in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s a landmark every Charlotte resident knows, but Von Roenn is completely content that passers-by have no idea who made it.
“Architectural art is so different from gallery art, because it can’t be owned by an individual,” he said. “People gravitate to it because they like it, not because of who made it. That’s very pure.”
Focusing his artistic energies on architectural glass, Von Roenn’s Louisville, Kentucky, studio has designed over 1,000 projects integrating buildings and sculpture, with installations in churches, hospitals, museums and various public spaces.
“It’s not enough to keep the rain off and to stay dry. Architecture has to touch you psychically,” he said. “For it to be a moving experience in your life, it has to touch a part of you that goes beyond the logical world.”
After 45 years working toward his life ambitions, Von Roenn is ready to come back to the community where his formal art education began: Tallahassee. Trained as a high diver, Von Roenn had athletic rather than artistic ambitions his first go ‘round in Florida’s capital.
“My goal was to make the 1972 Olympics. Coming out of high school I would visit schools on recruiting weekends,” Von Roenn said. “I came to visit FSU in April and it was absolutely beautiful. Guys were training outside. Girls were lying outside in bikinis. I said ‘Where do I sign?’ ”
After graduating from Florida State with an arts degree, Von Roenn returned to Kentucky and continued his training, but a knee injury led to steep medical bills and an early retirement from competitive diving.
“I needed a job to pay for my surgery and I wanted to do something in the arts,” Von Roenn said. “I had an opportunity, at a very low level, to work at an old stained glass studio. I realized that it really fit my personality and my interests: Glass and architecture.”
Von Roenn went from sweeping the floors to president of the stained glass company in less than five years. Having started his career with hands-on apprenticeship, he then pursued an architectural degree from Yale.
“I decided to go to Yale, because they really encouraged artists. We shared a building with the art department. For me that was always home.”
Von Roenn maintained his connection between art and architecture, writing his graduate thesis on the relationship between the two mediums. Eventually Von Roenn formed his architectural glass studio in Louisville, where he could do the large-scale glass projects he envisioned.
“My primary objective in every project is to make the experience of everybody who comes to that building richer and more meaningful. I’ve always believed you have to have a sense that there’s a cohesive idea that brought all these design elements together.”
Von Roenn’s inspiration includes architectural visionaries like Mies Van der Rohe, British sculptor Anish Kapoor, who designed Chicago’s cultural landmark “Cloud Gate,” and famed public artist Cristo, with whom he has a personal connection.
“Cristo was my studio instructor at Yale who taught me one of the most important life lessons: The concept of creating doesn’t just begin and end with the creation of the art. It extends to whole process of getting art funded and the involvement of city officials, contractors and citizens,” Von Roenn said. “Everything has to be approached with the same degree of passion. Everybody learns to see what they do as a part of the creation of that art.”
Von Roenn is the new director of FSU’s Master Craftsman Studio, where students and faculty create commissioned artwork.
“Our objective is to transform the studio by expanding craft techniques and art processes. We will be taking on commissions beyond the university for other off-campus clients,” Von Roenn said. “When our students go into the real world they will be able to work on projects individually for the public in architecture.”
So like many people during the busy summer season, Von Roenn packed his things and headed toward campus. Although his move was more involved than most —it took five moving trucks to transport the works in-progress and special equipment he and his team will need.
An avid collector of art, Von Roenn’s personal art collection got its own moving truck.
“I have a lot of glass sculpture but very little of my own stuff. I collect the work of some of the people I have trained,” he said. “There’s a real joy for me to see where these people went beyond me. Kind of like a father looking at a child that’s grown up to be more than they are.”
The Master Craftsman Studio is set to unveil a public art installation on Jefferson Street honoring civil rights activists in Tallahassee, a series of terrazzo sidewalk panels depicting historical imagery and text about the Tallahassee Bus Boycott.
“I really like people and I like sharing. Coming back to FSU was a very easy decision because there was a need and it’s something that I have the ability to pass on,” said Von Roenn. “It feels like it’s the right thing to do.”