Chris Fordham goes in search of an inspirational designer determined to single-handedly re-ignite the historic British glassmaking industry.
When you think of glass products and product design, what immediately springs to mind? For me, I associate it with three things – IKEA, that behemoth that manages to suck us into its stores, dragging us to its products like moths to the flame and offering us shiny sparkly things. Some good design, but much that we don’t care about enough to keep until the next trip to the store; George Ravenscroft – the British importer / exporter responsible for crystal glass on an industrial scale back in the 1600’s; and, of course, Venice and Murano, the centre for luxury Italian glass-making from the 14th century that held a monopoly on high-quality glass-making for hundreds of years .
I think it’s fair to say that in terms of contemporary glass and lighting products, the UK market has gone through a bit of a barren patch, so I was happy to discover an inspirational designer determined to change all that, and who importantly has the skills and style to do so.
Nicola’s interest in glass started after being blown away whilst visiting a national glass exhibition at the Arts Council. Having studied 3D design and then product design, her first jobs found her working in the glass-blowing studios of crystal and glass factories , but as she mentions –
“I struggled to be confined to something that was on the end of the iron, something that was always round. Everything that glass makers made seemed to be limited, I suppose. What you see in shops is either a bit gaudy maybe, fussy or old-fashioned, but if you really start delving into the world of sculptures, the people who maybe are casting in glass, artists in America and Scandinavia for example, they are really inspiring. It was their work that made me look at glass as a material, and not just a hollow shape.”
I asked Nicola – ‘why do you think we lost our love for glass products, was it because of mass-produced products in China?’
Nicola: “I think it was two things Chris. Mainly, our tastes changed, and the crystal and glass industry didn’t really keep up with people’s changing lifestyles. I think at the same time, companies like Ikea came along and all of a sudden you had a young generation who wanted more ‘disposable products’; you could buy 6 glasses for £2.50. So the one set of glasses our grandparents would have had for a wedding present that would have had to last a lifetime became less important. I think the industry didn’t really keep up.”
Chris: Ikea has everything you want, and they have some great designs, but you can go anywhere in the world and find Ikea glasses, tea light holders; it’s just become so ubiquitous, it would be nice if everyone had just one piece where they could say that’s me forever, I love that product so much I will never throw it away. I would put your products in that category, so just where is it that you get your inspiration to create these products?
Nicola: “I get of my inspiration from what’s around me, actually, in factories and studios. I love digging into the dusty corners where all the moulds are, going into the engineers’ shops, finding things that are stacked in corners, machines and tools that make glass. I used to love all the lathes and turning machines. I work with a small team of glassblowers, about three of us in the team. Everything shown on the website is bespoke, so all are made to order.
The other thing that inspires me is really exploring the fluidity of the glass, because it goes from being a molten substance – a fluid, to a solid. I really get inspiration in trying to retain that. A lot of the time, if you pick up, say, a vase it feels very cold and hard, you don’t feel any remanence of the process, of it cooling down, melting. I love being able to try and capture that flow of the material in my pieces.“
Chris: the story behind how you make these products is fascinating. Clearly, they aren’t ‘off the shelf’ and seem to have a quirkiness to them. Are people interested in the process?
Nicola: “One thing I try to describe to people is how the process comes about from the furnace, the tooling and what is involved. When I explain this, people see that its quite an interesting material that you can do a lot to. The piece that is quite jagged (Molten Pendant) is cut with scissors then formed and re-heated, When you show people the scissors – pardon the pun – but it’s like a light bulb moment , and they start to see it as a living material.”
For me you could describe Nicola as the ‘designers’ designer’. Early in the interview she described her love for sketching multiple concepts, and then going on to convert those to actual objects.
Glassware design is not for the faint-hearted; harmful fumes and equipment surface temperatures of several hundred degrees are common, meaning a glass blower must use proper protective gear, and exercise extreme caution all the time.
When you consider the amount of work that goes into each of these products, it only makes you admire the product more, along with giving you a huge amount of respect for those manufacturing with this process so steeped in history.
News just in:
Nicola has just been nominated for the following 5 awards:
- A finalist for the [Made in North Devon Award] at the Business Action Awards.
- A finalist in the [Creative Business Award award] category at the
Woman’s Business Conference Awards.
- A finalist for the Innovation Award with the SWIB Successful Women Awards.
- A finalist for the Woman’s Reinvention Award with the SWIB Successful Women Awards.
- A finalist for the New Business Award with the SWIB Successful Women Awards.