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Maker Stories

Maker Stories

It’s a Date: Collaborating to Create an Uncommon Calendar

May 30, 2016

One of the joys of working at UncommonGoods is collaborating with talented and skillful artists to create original creative designs. Our Product Development team recently teamed up with longtime UncommonGoods artists Kathleen Plate and Margaret Taylor to invent a new and exclusive work of functional art: our new “It’s a Date” Wine Bottle Glass Calendar; a sculptural glass and wood calendar made from recycled materials.It's a Date - Wine Bottle Glass Calendar | UncommonGoods

“Kathleen had the idea to create a glass calendar that would be a piece of art,” says Assistant Production Manager Rebekah Krikke. “She originally saw it as wall art, but we thought it would be good to design it so that it could go on the wall or on a desk, shelf, or table. We worked through the design with her using insights that we have from other products to create something that we thought our customers would like–a beautiful and fun interactive art object-meets-home décor item.”

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Maker Stories

Inside the Artist’s Studio (& Classroom!) with Jim Loewer

April 9, 2016
Inside the Artist's Studio with Jim Loewer | UncommonGoods

Jim Loewer at work in his Philadelphia studio, photos by Emily Dryden and Rachel Orlow

Every time I visit an artist’s studio, I get a completely unique experience. That’s usually because each artist’s space is filled with decor that expresses their personality, pieces handmade in their own style, and the specific tools that help tell the story of how those pieces were made. In the case of our most recent Studio Tour, the experience was special in a new way. I, along with our tabletop buying team and two photographers, actually had a hands-on creative experience led by long-time UncommonGoods artist glassblower and teacher, Jim Loewer.

Jim welcomed us into his Philadelphia studio, offered us drinks and snacks, gave us the safety rundown, and then let us each get behind the flame and actually work with molten glass as he took us through his pendant making workshop. I left Jim’s studio feeling so inspired and accomplished, knowing that I had made something beautiful under the guidance of a talented professional artist, and the whole way back to Brooklyn, I had a feeling of awe that I think might only come from knowing I just changed the physical state of glass from a solid to a liquid and back again using a shooting 3,000 degree flame.

During the visit, Jim not only walked us through the glass making process and helped us avoid singeing our arm hairs with that 3,000 degree flame, he also told us about finding a great studio space, balancing teaching and creating new work, and choosing interacting with others over being a “troll.”

 

Jim Loewer working in the flames

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Maker Resources

How Our Makers Prepare for the Holidays

November 23, 2015

As purveyors of cool and unusual gifts for any occasion it is no surprise that the holiday season is UncommonGoods’ busiest time of the year. But, we’re not alone. Research firm eMarketer predicts holiday sales to grow 5.7% this year which will be the biggest jump in sales since 2011. This estimated jump in sales means that online retailers like us have to work even harder this year to make sure we are prepared for the influx of business the season will bring. A busy season for us also means a busy season for the artists and designers we work with. We talked to two of our makers to learn how they prepare their businesses for the holidays and deal with holiday stress.

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 Jill Henrietta Davis in her studio with units of her Birthstone Wishing Balls ready to send out this holiday season.

 

Jill Henrietta Davis, Owner & Designer, Henrietta Glass

In both business and life generally, I try to avoid stress by being prepared well in advance of deadlines. We were delighted to start making the Wishing Balls for our holiday purchase order (PO) in July, so that we’d be done early and have plenty time to fulfill additional orders. I deal with stress by making lists, counting things, and playing in whatever supplies might prove helpful in dealing with whatever’s causing the stress. The fourth quarter is a real love/hate time for us in the studio. The increased volume of sales is exciting and great for the ego, but when a new design turns out to be more successful than I could have even imagined and is selling faster than we can make them then the stress gets pretty intense.

We have tally-boards in the shop so everyone can see exactly where we are and what most needs to be done. You get to put a star down when a category is completed. It sounds silly, but that star feels just as good as an adult as it did as a little kid getting back a good paper at school.

I also makes lists…every day and sometimes more than one. My lists alleviate stress by reducing the worry that I’ll forget something, by making concrete the many things that need to be done and by providing tangible proof of progress.  I hardly ever “finish” a list because I typically transfer the last few things to a new list. Every time I cross something off I enjoy the illusion that it is possible to finish the list and that all these tasks are completely manageable.

One last funny thing: Being an uber-recycler, I make many of my lists on the backs of envelopes. Being a little superstitious, I choose envelopes that held checks, or good news, or came from people I like. Probably doesn’t matter, but hey, it can’t hurt!

 

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Mary Kearns last year with the first round of holiday season shipping boxes ready to send off to UncommonGoods.

Mary Kearns, President & Founder, Herban Lifestyle, LLC 

Like many makers, the holiday season is by far my busiest time of year, a concentrated few weeks filled with deadlines for making products, vending at craft shows and fulfilling orders. As you know, making this all work smoothly can be incredibly fun but also incredibly stressful!

There are some things I’ve found help me get through those intense few weeks:

  1. I make sure that I have extra help available.
  2. I delegate as much as I can at home and at work.
  3. I try to get at least 6-7 hours of sleep each night so that my head is clear and I have the energy to plow through each day.
  4. I meditate regularly – just 5 to 20 minutes five days a week, but it’s enough to keep things in perspective for me.
  5. I try to get in some form of relaxing exercise a couple of days a week, like yoga or hiking.
  6. I try to carve out some time for fun and relaxation each week with friends and family, to take my mind off of the endless to-do lists running through my mind; and finally,
  7. Every year from December 25 to January 2, I take time off to spend with my family. Knowing that I will have that uninterrupted time to relax, unwind, and have fun keeps me going through the most intense days leading up to that time!

 

We want to hear from you! What are some things you do to combat holiday stress?

Maker Stories

Portable Art de Vivre: Shujan Bertrand’s Designs for Living

November 5, 2015

San Francisco-based Shujan Bertrand draws design inspiration from many quarters and cultures—from her Korean-American extended family, from her husband’s French heritage and her time in Provence, and from the sustainability-focused culture of the Bay area. But her innovative àplat collection of totes was born in an “a-ha” moment related to a gift of flowers, a universal gesture of kindness and expression of the simple, shared beauty of life. Recently, we asked Shujan to discuss her love of designing for the “art of living,” and found that she’s in good company—from the Nabis to Ani DiFranco.

Shujan Headshot

Shujan Bertrand

You’ve said that your àplat line is inspired by the French art de vivre. What do you think defines that movement or lifestyle?

The French notion of the “art of living” is truly a way of life in my family. My French husband and I lived and designed in Italy and France for several years before returning to San Francisco. I created àplat in memory and translation of my family lifestyle in France and the daily rituals of sharing good food, drink, and good company. I’m Korean-American, born and raised in Manhattan Beach, CA, and although my husband and I shared similar family values and daily rituals, they were of course completely different culturally. My life changed after meeting my husband and then living in Europe, where I started to experience l’art de vivre. Everyday routines took on new meaning, and the mundane things around me felt like art and poetry.

My in-laws home in Nice—which they built with their own hands—is perched on a small hill overlooking the Mediterranean. They have a small fruit and vegetable garden that they pick from seasonally. In the summers, the lavender is harvested to make sachet pouches and the home is always filled with friends and neighbors, coming over to eat and drink homemade wine.  Every member of the Bertrand family started their personal wine collection at an early age, and it’s stored in the basement cellar. Each bottle has a personal story of where it came from, and when you decide to share the bottle that story gets shared.  You might call this an old way of living, but it was new for me.  It was beautiful.

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Lavender Growing in Provence

How does l’art de vivre inform your designs for the àplat collection?

There are many types of tart or pie carriers out there, but the ones I admired in France were my mother-in-law’s made of old linens by her mother. I also admired the bread bags and pouches that hang in every French kitchen, and the crates and baskets used to carry wine. These are products that have been around for a very long time in Europe—I simply brought them together into one community, into the àplat collection of culinary totes. This is why I say that àplat originated in France, and is deeply rooted in a culture of friendship, where socializing is not a verb but a life philosophy, and where generosity is a daily ritual. Àplat reminds us to find joy and pleasure in making the everyday beautiful.

Nabie Bertrand with the Sac a Fleur

Nabie Bertrand carrying the Sac a Fleur

The first tote in the collection was the à fleur bouquet tote.  I was on the way to Renee Zellweger’s gallery opening at Summer School, and I wanted to give her a beautiful bouquet for her new launch. When I picked up the bouquet, I couldn’t see the flowers anymore because they were covered in paper and cellophane with a ribbon. It didn’t feel like a gift anymore. This was my moment of insight: that a bouquet should be quiet (not crinkly plastic), and you should be able to see the flowers and let them be seen. That evening I began to sew prototypes of what I thought a bouquet tote could be, and shared the design idea with my husband and his parents who were in town from France. The next day, we brainstormed the possibilities of something good, something new.  I was so excited about the flower design that I extended the line to carry wine, food, and bread. In less than a few days, the design of the entire collection was complete. I let the samples incubate for about a month, then decided to share it with someone I trusted to give me honest feedback.  I showed it to Cathy Bailey, owner and creative director of HEATH Ceramics, who loved the collection and wanted to help me test it.

 aplat sketchesShujan’s sketches for the àplat collection

How did the design challenge of the àplat line differ from some of the other product design work that you’ve done?

The design challenge was very different because I was responsible for everything—from the raw material I sourced to the lifespan of the product. I committed to achieving a “cradle to cradle” design, and the àplat design challenge was to leverage local manufacturing to create a global brand. I committed to sustainability and designing products that produce zero waste in production, and most importantly are designed to last for generations. Part of this design challenge was designing a collection that consists of squares and rectangles so that I use 100% of the yard and end with zero waste. Another part of the key to sustainability is to not over-produce and exhaust resources. Currently, àplat is made to order by seasonal projections. To make the designs last, the straps are double locked in two locations, and four bar tacks help to keep seams steady to hold 15-20 lbs.  These products are designed for my 9-year-old daughter’s and 5-year-old son’s generation, but made to be passed down to their children.

Sac a Plat

Sac a Plat

Are there certain artists, designers, or movements that have inspired your work?

I love and respect the Nabis so much that we named our daughter Nabie after them. Like other progressive artists at the turn of the century, they pursued the goal of integrating art with daily life. Also, Nabi means Butterfly in Korean, so the art movement and the beauty of nature brings a lot of meaning to me.

I like designer Eileen Fisher for her approach to design and manufacturing.  Her background and efforts to put herself through college and build a beautiful business inspires me to do the same with àplat. I also put myself through college, and thankfully was given a full scholarship to the ArtCenter College of Design (I would have never made it otherwise). I hope one day to give back to the community and maintain local, sustainable manufacturing like Eileen Fisher. On the food front, I strongly support the farm-to-table movement, buying local and eating from small local producers.

Sac a Pain

Sac a Pain

Do you have any favorite quotations that provide a philosophy to live and work by, or inspiration for your work?  

Many…but perhaps a few that come to mind:

“To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palms of your hand and eternity in an hour.” – William Blake

“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” – Mother Teresa

“I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort, where we overlap.” – Ani DiFranco

A Plat Making Details

Reinforced strap detail and tools

Can you describe your studio space? What are some of your favorite features and the inspiring qualities of where you work?

For a year, I worked out of my home/office while I still had my corporate job, and inventory was in my garage and a local factory in San Francisco’s Mission Bay.  For three months now, I’ve been working out of a shared space, thankfully across the street from my factory. The studio’s most inspiring aspects are the people I share it with!  From Stanford tech engineers to MBA folks and amazing accessory and apparel designers. Visually, the studio is a melting pot—a representation of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, from hardware to software. We share a fully equipped prototyping lab and machine shop with 3D printers and several industrial sewing machines—perfect for making anything. It’s a great reflection of my past in tech and my future in soft goods.

A Plat Farmer's Market

Sac a Plat at the farmer’s market

Can you give us a peek at your working on now or what’s next for you?

Yes—very happy to share!  I’m collaborating with Top Chef Melissa King to create a limited edition àplat tote. We will feature it this holiday and extend the line in Spring 2016. Also, I’m eager to collaborate with the Museum of Food and Drink. I don’t know anyone there yet, but I’m hoping they’ll be interested!

See Shujan's Collection | UncommonGoods

Maker Stories

Going with the Flow: Brian Kunkelman’s Handmade Pottery

October 14, 2015

Brian Kunkelman's Studio | UncommonGoods

Brian’s home and studio near Lancaster, PA, Photos by Emily Dryden

Brian Kunkelman is a potter who seems to go with the flow, a metaphor that runs through his studio and craft—from the water that flows through the cultivated pond outside his studio window, to the variety of music that flows through his speakers (equidistant from his potter’s wheel), and the meditative motion of working with stoneware clay to throw his Soup and Crackers and Berry Buddy bowls. “There’s a fine line between a rut and a groove,” Brian likes to say, paraphrasing singer-songwriter Christine Lavin and underscoring the delicate balance required to hand-throw his designs with the right mix of consistency and hand-crafted variation that makes each piece one-of-a-kind.

Brian Kunkelman & Mungho | UncommonGoods

 Brian with his faithful friend, Mungho

Brian starts with stoneware clay and wedges the required amount with his pugmill to remove air bubbles, then cuts it into cylindrical chunks that are the right amount for either soup or berry bowls. Each prepared chunk goes on a bat—not a flying mammal or baseball equipment, but a wood disc that locks onto the potter’s wheel so the thrown pot can be removed easily once complete.

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Prepared portions of clay

Brian’s wheel turns through a hybrid of foot and electrical power. An electrical motor sets it in motion, but its heavy flywheel provides the majority of spin through centrifugal force. “The action is really smooth with the flywheel,” Brian comments as he deftly coaxes the desired forms from the clay, slip splattering the wheel’s alcove in an ever-changing, Pollock-like clay painting. He uses little more than his hands through the whole throwing process, gauging the height and diameter of the emerging forms with the span of his fingers and length of his thumbs. The beauty of such human scale applied directly to these vessels instills an unmistakable handmade appeal that runs deep.

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As one of his most essential tools, Brian’s wheel has had quite a workout. At one point, he had to replace an inner rubber wheel that had worn out. “We’ve never sold that part before,” said the perplexed manufacturer. Brian seems proud to have put the device through its paces, a reminder of the years and rigorous work they’ve been through together. And when it’s time to stop, the wheel’s braking mechanism is pretty simple: Brian’s shoe. “My right shoe always wears out faster than my left,” he quips.

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Both Berry Buddy and Soup and Crackers bowls start their lives as similar double-bowl forms, like large cups with attached saucers. But in the next steps, they take on their distinct shapes and functions. Using handy turntables, Brian quickly cuts away 180 degrees of the lower saucer and attaches the cut walls to the main form to create the Soup and Cracker bowls. The excess clay will go back in the pugmill; “that’ll be a pot in another day,” Brian says, summarizing the recycling process inherent to his craft. For the Berry Buddy, he keeps the lower saucer intact, but pulls a spout on one side, and adds a series of colander-like drainage holes to the main bowl. Then, for both designs, strips of striated clay extruded from the pugmill are added in graceful curves to become handles.

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Building the form of a Soup & Crackers bowl

At this point, the vessels are called “greenware,” and go to hang out on ware trucks for a few days to dry. Bisque firing adds additional stability to the forms, which are then dipped in a series of contrasting glazes that will play diagonally across the finished bowls in warm zones of blue, green, and cream. Brian adds a final, decorative stripe of glaze to the bowls with a gestural flourish evocative of Japanese brush painting.

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Adding a decorative accent

They’re ready to be loaded into his kiln, a hand-built brick and steel structure that he calls his “controlled volcano.” The propane-fired inferno slowly heats up to 2400 degrees, vitrifying the glazes to their final colors and finishes that will seal and protect the pottery for years of use. Although Brian is constantly “tuning” the kiln—refining it with baffles to improve its performance—he embraces the inevitable variations in every load, another dimension of the process that makes each piece a unique variation on the theme of his designs.

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Berry Buddies on kiln shelves

Trial and error is an organic part of Brian’s work, and he emphasizes the patient perseverance required to “dial in” and find your groove (avoiding the ruts): “…you get in the zone. It’s like one long thought…you’re thinking but you’re not thinking. Sometimes when it’s late at night and you don’t want to do it, five to ten pots into it, you’re like ‘this is exactly what I should be doing now.’ Once you get started it starts to become really comfortable.” And in that zone, he celebrates the unique nature of every piece he throws: “Each pot is still its own pot, requiring the same care and attention, whether you’re making one of them or a hundred of them…and I try to be conscious that this pot’s going to be part of someone’s life…”

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Finished Berry Buddies

Brian Kunkelman's Stoneware Designs | UncommonGoods

Maker Stories

Quirky Birds and Tin Can Telephones: The Work of Spring Hofeldt

September 25, 2015

When asked to define the type of work she does, Spring Hofeldt usually responds by saying “realism.” But she’s quick to add that the term fits the look of her paintings, but not the messages that they convey. Still, there’s a wealth of common ground to be found in her quirky portraits of ostriches, fostered fish, and romantic vegetable duos. She observes that her paintings “immerse the viewer in a metaphor of day-to-day life. Whether you’re a cynic of a sunshine, we can all relate to making light of such trials and tribulations.”

Our recent conversation with Spring sheds some more light on her spunky slices of life, the inspiration that can be found in excavators, and her love of words that include “oo.”

Spring Hofeldt

 Untitled (Self Portrait) by Spring Hofeldt

 What artists have influenced your work?

I went to school for illustration, so naturally I’ve been captivated by the work of C.F. Payne and Norman Rockwell. They made me realize how important it is to me that I capture a humorous or quirky moment. These artists illustrate the true character and essence of a person/object in such a light and wonderful way.

And more specifically, Edward Ruscha‘s large-scale painting of the word “OOF” get’s me every time.

What are other personal influences on your work?

There are so many human experiences that can be annoying, awkward, or awful. Retelling the story to others and seeing the humor in it is a great way to cope.

Your work is characterized by a certain naturalism or realism. How do you define realism?

I don’t think of myself as someone who is chasing photorealism, but rather the character of the feeling I’m after. To those few who ask me, “why put all the effort into painting a photograph you took? Why not just print the photo and call it a day?” Paint has a way of making the image extra yummy. I like being able to alter the colors or patterns with paint rather than a computer saturation. And simply, I like the challenge of painting something so real.

Squawk |UncommonGoodsSquawk

What’s your favorite thing about your studio—how does the space or its contents inspire you?

My corner studio overlooks Brooklyn’s BQE and the F/G subway lines, which provide a constant sense of movement and an overall positive hum. The best aspect of the movement outside is the large, mustard yellow, claw excavators tossing metal from one pile to another at the scrap yard. It’s like a dance of mechanical dinosaurs all day long.

I also share the studio with two other artists, and although their art is very different than mine, just seeing how productive they are encourages me to get to work.

When did you first know you wanted to be an artist?

I had a good hunch when asked at age 6 or 7, but never really took it too seriously until I took an art class my last year of high school, only because I had an extra spot to fill. With spit wads flying over my head, my nose deep in graphite and colored pencils, I realized by the end of school that it was a true passion I wanted to pursue.

How do you balance creativity—painting for it’s own sake—with the business side of being a professional artist?

At this point, I’d say that I only create paintings I’m truly inspired to produce and am confident about the subject matter. Even if I take on commissions, I make sure they’re filled with character that I would normally add. This is initially why they are coming to me.

What inspired you to create your ostrich paintings?

I’m drawn to bizarre and quirky animals. Ostriches have a very powerful presence… From their towering size and quick step, to their large, bold, deep black eyes that have a lock on your every move.

Francine | Spring Hofeldt | UncommonGoodsFrancine

What was your favorite part of that process?

Adding the fine details that really capture the animal’s character and seeing them come to life.

How do you hope people react when they receive your creation?

I hope it makes them chuckle, giggle, snort, laugh out loud, or smile on the inside.

Do you have any memorable customer feedback you’d like to share?

I have this one repeat customer that visits during every annual open studio. I love hearing her boisterous laugh filling the hallway, announcing her presence in the building. The first time I heard it was when I had hung up the set of four ostriches outside my door and she just couldn’t stop laughing. I, along with the visitors in the room at that time, couldn’t help but start laughing with her because the sound coming from the hall was so contagious. We had absolutely no idea what she was laughing at, but it didn’t matter. Moments like those are too great.

Tell us three uncommon facts about yourself.

I love to meticulously peel pomegranates by hand in my lap, sometimes taking over an hour.

I’m tickled by double o words: oof (as previously mentioned), bazooka, cooties, doozie, floozie, goober, vamoose, etc.

I chose to be married in a rowboat.

Let Me Tell You | Spring Hofeldt

 Let Me Tell You 

In the copy for the Contact section of her website and in a few of her paintings, Spring employs the DIY telephone metaphor of two tin cans and a length of string. That feels like an apt metaphor for painting: communicating through imperfect means and media, but celebrating their alluring, endearing quirks in the process.

See the Collection | UncommonGoods

Maker Stories

Centuries of Beauty and Tradition: The History of Czech Glassware

June 24, 2015

Prague and Czech Glassware

Prague Castle over the Charles Bridge (left) and a Prague Bohemian Glass Shop (right)

I’ve always found shopping for my Mother to be a challenge–it’s easy enough, but I try to score as many points with her as possible. Books run the risk of failing to meet her elevated standards, chocolate melts (or is eaten too quickly), and flowers inevitably wilt. I want something that lasts, something that I can reference in passing years after the fact if I’m trying to weasel my way out of something. Jewelry is a safe and durable choice, but as a mama’s boy with decidedly underdeveloped taste in bijoux, that too can get tricky.

We sell plenty of jewelry at UncommonGoods–more than I can process, in fact: a seemingly endless treasure trove of baubles fit to adorn any fine Mother. Yet variety in itself complicated my Mother’s Day shopping this year–how to pick? How to best maximize motherly approval?

Fortunately, a bit of context caught my eye. While eyeing a pair of Mosaic Earrings by Stefanie Wolf–elegant in their simplicity–I was reminded of a recent family trip to the Czech Republic and the amount of time we spent perusing Bohemian glass vendors in the heart of old Prague. Mom didn’t make off with any of the jewels then, but Stefanie’s artisanship evokes the centuries-old tradition of glass artistry in the Czech region of Bohemia, a perfect pick for a woman with a taste for la vie boheme.

Mosaic Earrings and Mosaic Necklace by Stefanie Wolf

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Stefanie working in her Martha’s Vineyard studio

The Mosaic earrings use distinctively painted and chiseled beads called “Picasso Windows,” handcrafted in the land of Pilsner with the precise grace of Mucha, and only a dash of  Kafka’s brooding damper. Stefanie began using Czech beads after admiring their distinctive quality:

“Whenever I was bead shopping I noticed that the richest colors and most luscious finishes in glass beads always seemed to hail from the Czech Rebublic. Often imitated, never duplicated!”

Bohemian crystal is renowned for its vibrant colors and intricate designs.

 Glassmaking itself dates back as far as Ancient Egypt, where crude technology available to artisans led them to wind thin threads of glass over clay objects. Early Egyptian glassware was likewise crude due to imperfect and porous glass, but as glassmaking spread throughout the Mediterranean by the 3rd or 2nd century BCE, processes and materials were gradually perfected.

Ancient Egyptian glass and clay sculptures depicting the enemies of Egypt, on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Some of the oldest glass findings in Czech countries date back to around this time, when intraeuropean trade was richly facilitated by the consolidation of Roman road networks. Beads were likely imported from Celtic regions across the Danube, though some may have been of local Bohemian or Moravian origin. Glassmaking itself likely didn’t surface in the Bohemian basin until the early Middle Ages, but has since become a centerpiece of the region’s cultural expression.

The Kingdom of Bohemia, 1367–1635

The glassmaking bubble began to swell in heavily forested Czech regions around the 13th century – medieval glassworks required copious amounts of wood to heat ovens and produce potassium, a key component needed to melt glass. Whole villages would pop up around isolated forest glassworks – and would subsequently disappear or relocate once the area was deforested. Eventually, some Bohemian nobles actually banned deforestation for the purposes of glass production, hoping to preserve sections of woodland for forestry.

Deserted medieval village of Svídna, Czech Republic

Trouble in Christendom was actually a major impetus for the escalation of art glass production in Europe. Cultural exchange brought about by the Crusades in the 13th century stimulated the use of glass for decorative purposes, and methods were further perfected. Bohemian craftsmen became some of the first to use different metal oxides to inject vibrant colors into their glasswork, secrets to which were passed from generation to generation. Ornate colored glass beads produced in the Czech Šumava region were likewise exported throughout Europe as Rosary beads, or ‘paters’ for the first words of the Lord’s Prayer.

Medieval uses for both decorative and utility-oriented glassware sounds like the set up to a bad joke – clergy, doctors, alchemists, and charlatans came to demand glassware heavily, valuing that of Bohemian make most of all for its uniquely fine properties. (left) ‘Paters,’ Medieval Doctor and Patient (right).

By the Renaissance, artistic expression saw newfound emphasis as style and splendor trumped all. Bohemian craftsmen may have actually stolen Venetian state secrets in order to assume the position of premier crystal purveyor of the European Renaissance; a loose tongue regarding Venetian enamel painting techniques was punishable by death, yet somehow Bohemian craftsman were able to emulate and improve Venetian methods. Unique color variations, cuttings, and dynamic designs quickly characterized Czech glass as a priceless symbol of the region’s artisanry.

Baroque Coat of Arms Cup Motif (left), Hunt Motif (right)

Emperor Rudolph II, Habsburg ruler of Bohemia during the late 16th century, was perhaps the most lavish of Bohemian glassware patrons – his extensive commissions helped to distinguish a Baroque style of glass craftsmanship. With the new Baroque wave came important advances in glass engraving; Rudolph’s gem cutter, Caspar Lehmann, pioneered new cutting methods that permitted the depiction of rich and detailed scenes in the Baroque tradition.

Emperor Rudolph II

Emperor Rudolph II, painted by Joseph Heintz the Elder

Considered just about as precious as jems and jewelry, Bohemian glass finery was sought after by monarchs and regents from France to India – today, Czech chandeliers hang in palaces from Versailles to Riyadh.

The World’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier hangs in the Ceremonial Hall of Dolmabahçe Palace: a gift from Queen Victoria.

Bohemian glass craftsmanship has since retained its status as a highly skilled and esteemed profession, though the Baroque gradually made way for new styles. Professional glassmaking schools in Kamenický Šenov and Novy Bor (1856), still active today, are largely responsible for the modern retention of this esteem, as was Bohemian glassworks Klostermühle, which received the Grand Prix at the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris.

Renowned for its stability, Czech glassworks even held up under the weight of the Iron Curtain! Notorious for their destructive and repressive actions towards local cultures and traditions, Soviet communists ironically sought to promote Czech glass artisanry during their decades -long stay in Czechoslovakia, seeing it as a relatively inexpressive art form that supported the economy and character of the region. Though the craft form itself was relatively unchecked, some artisans were monitored, though a resistant spirit is evident in their work. 

Somewhat more naturally abstract than other art forms, glass provided a unique opportunity to defy the strictly narrative conventions of Socialist Realism. Left: “Object” by Rene Roubicek (1961), gift of the Steinberg Foundation. Center: “Single Bloom Vase” by Plavel Hava (1958). Right: “Plate with Abstract Decoration” by Vladimir Jelinek (1957). All images used with permission from the Corning Museum of Glass.

Today, the bulk of the Czech glassware and crystal industry is dedicated to the automated production of tableware, but handmade traditions still thrive as an important vein of cultural identity. Consistent with tradition, many glassmakers still work their craft in small, family-owned businesses; Stefanie is able to work directly with a Czech glassmaker for a personal touch to her materials.

Czech Glassworker

A Czech glass artisan working his craft

My glass maker runs family-owned and operated glass bead production facility that has been in operation for generations. His father shapes the iron molds that dictate the shapes and details of the beads. He travels to Prague weekly to scan the available colors of glass rods, selecting his colors and bringing those rods back home.”

“Because we work directly together, I get to custom design the shapes and colors of my beads. Many of the beads I use can’t be found anywhere else but in my jewelry.”

 

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