A New Age of Glass

September 2, 2013

Traditional glass blowing regions in Europe developed where there was an availability of Silica sand (the main constituent of glass) and access to fuel to run large-scale furnaces. A proliferation of traditional factories can be found in Eastern Europe, in an area formerly known as Bohemia (now mainly the Czech Republic, but including parts of bordering Hungary, Poland, and Germany), where wood was plentiful to fuel the furnaces. These factories were known for their clear crystal and faceted cutting patterns, which refracts light. Opulent pieces in intense colours with gold decorative details are also characteristic of these regions. Contemporary production is now centred around Novy Bor in central Czech Republic.

Italian blown glass from Murano near Venice is characterised by colourful, highly textured and patterned work, with baroque forms and rich use of colour. This island was a sanctuary for the production of glass and containment of industrial secrets. A rich patrimony of skill was handed down from one generation to the next ensuring a solid cultural identity on which it still trades.

The Alsace area of North Eastern France was home to Emille Gallé and René Lalique who drew on local resources to create iconic glass objects in the art nouveau style. Lalique is one of the only remaining large factories still in production in this area, employing local, skilled workers.

Traditionally, Scandinavian factories also supported particular designers, including Nuutajärvi and Hämeenlinna in southern Finland, Homlegard in Denmark, and Orrefors in Smaaland in Southern Sweden. Across Scandinavia, simple lines, sparse use of colour and an exploration of the liquidity of the material prevailed.

Crystal manufacturers in Ireland and Britain were heavily influenced by the Bohemian tradition, maximising the optical quality of clear lead crystal that produces a highly reflective and refractive surface.

Today the majority of traditional glass factories are struggling to survive. The production of hot glass is expensive due to high energy costs and because making glass by hand is so labour intensive. It is also physically demanding work undertaken in extreme heat and requiring intense concentration. Glass making is a community activity. It requires a team to work in synchronicity to bring each individual piece to fruition. The savoir-faire of each glassmaker is something that can be taught but takes many years of practice to perfect. Traditionally this was done through the apprenticeship system and most young men started at age sixteen, many of them following their fathers into the local factory. Creating a team that works seamlessly and without incident, where coordinated movements of hand and eye control the molten liquid sufficiently and expertly to produce similar results of high quality, takes years of training.

Many factories are still trading on the legacy of their history, and producing traditional products that increasingly have little context for contemporary living. Many of these products are connected to regional rituals, patterns of behaviour and symbols of wealth. High costs of research and development, means that struggling factories are not investing in developing new ideas that are connected to current rituals and changing cultural values. This is stunting the growth of new markets and new products including lighting. With a more open access to communication, inspiration is constantly moving across national borders, resulting in less diversity in cultures and ideas. This pattern of patrimony and tacit knowledge of this process-led community is coming to an end. The existence of large glass producing factories is in decline. With its end, intangible qualities of a community’s capabilities, potentialities, and social relationships, will disappear.

Despite this trend, the exceptional qualities of glass hold enormous potential as a modern, relevant design material. Glass records a memory of its journey, from its molten state to its cooled solid form. The blowing process is a series of steps that stretch, contain and restrain the fluid material. The innate qualities of glass are liquidity, refraction, reflection, magnification, distortion, and absorption of light. It can also contain air, which can be controlled and used to create remarkable patterns that refract light, such as the Reticello technique popular in Italian styles. Glass can be opaque transparent or translucent. It can contain texture and colour within the body of the material or on its surfaces. A spectrum of colour can be controlled to create patterns, resulting in the bending, containing or directing of light. Much of this work can only be achieved by hand and possibilities for exploiting these characteristics are infinite. By collaborating with field experts, creating exciting lighting solutions, which avail of these qualities, is possible. The essential ingredients for collaborative success, are communication, patience, time and financial investment. Product designers can hold the key to advancing ideas on new products that are relevant to contemporary living. Finding suitable affordable solutions to product development and exploration with field experts remains a difficult stumbling block. All too often, a misunderstanding of the material, and a limited knowledge of production methods and timescale needed to evolve new ideas, prevents designers from attempting innovative ideas with skilled glassblowing teams. A lack of financial investment mean that many projects never evolve beyond initial drawings.

A number of glass centres have evolved where residencies and research projects are supported and investigated. CIAVmeisenthal in France, for example, has supported a number of recent lighting projects. Residencies in places such as Pilchuck glass school, USA, Canberra glassworks arts centre in Australia and Nuutajaravi glass centre in Finland are offered each year. However many of these residencies are availed of by artists wishing to pursue creative exploration of personal work rather than items for commercial production. Glass departments of art and design schools encourage collaboration with established designers and emerging designers. Prototyping can often evolve more easily in these environments. Specific initiatives such as the recent European network ‘Glass is Tomorrow’ can also contribute to be a catalyst in this regard, bringing together designers and makers in traditional glass centres to explore and share ideas on evolving new products.

Significant financial investment, which allows creative exploration for the production of glass objects including lighting, can lead to developing successful commercial answers to a contemporary lifestyle and ensure the future of traditional glass manufacturing.

Róisín de Buitléar is an artist and educator, based in Dublin, Ireland. 

CAUTION! Fragile, a collaborative exhibition of glass by de Buitléar with master craftsmen from Waterford, will be shown at the Museum Of Glass in Tacoma, USA, from 9th November 2013 to 30th September 2014.