A touch of glass

Cast, blown, etched, engraved, slumped, fused – glass offers designers huge scope for decorative and functional forms, and that excludes its architectural potential. With several recent exhibitions and innovative, eye-catching graduate work, Hannah Booth wonders if this area is fast becoming the hottest creative discipline

Blame Swarovski if you like, but years after the trend for maximalism first took hold, demand for one of its biggest hits, the decorative chandelier, shows no sign of waning. In fact, it is one of the reasons why glass design is currently such a creative discipline – chandeliers are becoming more experimental, from Stuart Haygarth’s reclaimed glass creations to Annie Cattrell’s exquisite sculptures.

Chandeliers aside, glass design is a shifting practice, somewhere between product design, conceptual art and sculpture. And, as new techniques develop, designers are becoming even more imaginative.

Glass is chosen as a material by around a third of students on the Royal College of Art’s Ceramics and Glass MA, says course professor Martin Smith. This reflects the limited number of undergraduate courses where glass design is offered, he says, rather than its unpopularity as a material.

Students graduating in glass this year include Pernille Braun and Marie Retpen, both Danish. Braun’s graduation piece is an abstract, sculptural design that involved ‘an extraordinary amount of research’, says Smith. ‘She has essentially created a new technique, involving heat and gravity.’ Retpen’s work is more functional product design: her surreal, warped vases and vessels use flexible moulds made from material such as wet newspaper. ‘It’s a balance between sculpture and design,’ she says.

Retpen is launching her full range of products – including tumblers, vases and lighting – at Origin this October at Somerset House, and she will also be represented at the British Glass Biennale in August, and Tent London during September’s London Design Festival.

Graduates working with glass are being encouraged to look beyond the UK for commissions, says Smith, because of the decline in British glass manufacturing. ‘With the exception of Dartington Glass, there is very little industry on our doorstep any more, even in the Stourbridge area,’ he says. Instead, a cottage industry of small-scale production is developing – with glass designers renting independent production facilities on an ad-hoc basis.

One UK-based success story, however, is Simon Moore, former head of design at both Dartington and Italian glass manufacturer Salviati. He now has his own production facility in Devon. He originally focused on ceramics, but due to ‘high demand’ for glass, he set up a glass-making facility two years ago. Work is busy: his latest collection features three designs – Spoke, Groove and Hammer – the first of which is about to go on sale at Selfridges. And he is working on an as-yet unnamed glass project for Bacardi Martini. He has even done something he vowed he never would – taken on employees, four of them – but he bemoans the lack of originality in commercial glass design. ‘There’s no real ambition in design, because larger stores are buying cheap overseas products designed to sell in volume,’ he says.

Glass design is becoming increasingly innovative, breaking new technical and conceptual ground, says Blanche Craig, author of Contemporary Glass, published in July by Black Dog Publishing. It profiles 60 of the ‘most influential and exciting’ glass designers and artists, all of whom are ‘challenging definitions of the medium and how it can be used’. Glass is harder to categorise today, says Craig, as it can take so many forms – from sculpture to product. Among those featured are London-based Yorgos Studio, run by George Papadopoulos and designer Haygarth.

Haygarth is well known for his appropriation of ‘found’ materials – bottles and jars from flea markets and jumble sales, say – for new designs. ‘I guess I’m tapping into the current [eco-friendly] trend for using second-hand, salvaged materials,’ he says. His latest glass piece is a chandelier made from 4500 prescription spectacle lenses, called Optical, for which he created a limited edition of ten. ‘I’m interested in how glass, particularly coloured glass, reacts when light is shone through it,’ says Haygarth. His glass designs are becoming collectable. One piece recently sold at Phillips de Pury auction house for ‘three times the estimate’.

Papadopoulos, by contrast, works with shattered glass panels, a technique he developed while studying ceramics and glass at the Royal College of Art. The glass is laminated so it does not fall apart when ‘shattered’ and creates highly patterned fissures. He designs one-off commissions for mainly corporate and private clients, including British Airways. After an absence of many years, he will be exhibiting at 100% Design again this year. ‘I’m becoming more interested in the concepts behind my work now,’ says Papadopoulos.

Craig’s assessment of current trends in glass design is borne out by the winners of this year’s Bombay Sapphire Prize, one of the world’s biggest glass design awards. This year’s prize, awarded in Milan in April, went to two designers, both of whom created astonishingly complex, sculptural forms – neither strictly design, sculpture or art, but a mix of all three.

Yuichi Higashionna designed a chandelier made from circular fluorescent lamps — a tribute to Japanese ‘fluorescent culture’. British designer Cattrell, meanwhile, recreated a pair of human lungs in intricate glass, made by blowing glass.

‘New technologies emerging in glass design are extraordinary,’ says Cattrell, a visiting lecturer on ceramics and glass at the RCA. ‘Cutting techniques, for example, are becoming extremely sophisticated – this will spawn a new generation of designs.’ The advantage of glass, she says, is its stability: pieces have a long lifespan, which makes them highly collectable, as Haygarth has discovered.

Competitions such as Bombay Sapphire are invaluable in raising awareness of glass design beyond the confines of the industry, says Smith. ‘The Bombay Sapphire prize has a great, well-known brand – that’s essential if glass design is going to look beyond its own, slightly inward-looking, world.’ •

Daniela Schönbächler: The Silent Art of Secrecy is at the Riflemaker Gallery, 79 Beak Street, London W1, until 13 September
Scottish Glass Society Annual Exhibition is at the Peter Potter Gallery, Edinburgh, from 18 August to 11 September
The British Glass Biennale takes place in Stourbridge, West Midlands, from 22 August to 28 September

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