The open mouth of the oven burns at 2,200 degrees. Men in goggles are moving back and forth holding rods stuck with red-hot glass. Their syncopated rhythm suggests that some ancient rite is at hand.
Carrie Gustafson and Peter Houk stand off to the side, observing. Neither one blows glass, but they are both glass artists with studios in this former factory in Cambridge, MA. Houk is the Director of the MIT Glass Lab, and Gustafson who once worked briefly for Houk is building a reputation as one of the leading studio glass makers in New England. Both go to work after the glass from the “hot shop” has cooled, not before.
Their tools are for making images, patterns and silhouettes: Exacto knives, adhesive stencils, and cutting, sanding and sandblasting equipment. Unlike the fast teamwork required around the furnaces, cool work like Gustafson’s and Houk’s involves a long and solitary process.
“It can take ten years just to develop your own glazes, your own symbols and vocabulary,” says Gustafson now in her sixteenth year as a glass artist. “Now I find that as I get older and more stable, I am feeling more open. I feel we arrive at a time for letting more light in our lives — and glass is the perfect medium to express that arrival, the way it holds light and reflects it.”
The Director of MIT’s Glass Lab, Houk is best known for large architectural works in clear glass. Gustafson, who worked for Houk for a time, creates objects of desire that are at once smaller in scale but often with big color blocking like a Marimekko fabric. Many are in the form of household objects, vessels and vases, dishes and bottles. “I am not sure why that is,” says Gustafson. “I just find myself drawn to household things.”
An African currency bracelet inspired, a “7 x 9” piece on Gustafson’s studio shelf. It holds your attention like a Grecian Urn or a Ming Vase: a timeless tension between the ethereal and earthy, between rough and smooth, between the volcanic lava that gave it birth and the purely and translucent. Holding it to the window, it is a marvel how the work’s patterns and silhouettes shift with the slightest tilt.
Natural light and shade reveal the most beautiful primary forms in design: the play of cylinders, pyramids, spheres and cones, as Corbusier famously observed. It is something every designer and architect knows instinctually. Gustafson’s glowing object puts this play of forms in your own two hands. The play — the animation — is mesmerizing. Later in the spring, Gustafson will one of the African inspired pieces for about $10,000 — at the Smithsonian’s Craft Show, or at the Lori Warner Gallery in Chester, CT. (Both Gustafson and her friend Warner graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1994.)
Gustafson was not always so good at animating glass or anything else — at least in her opinion. As the granddaughter of Paul Gustafson (1916-1977) she grew up surrounded by the drawings of one of the pioneers of action comics: The Arrow, The Jester, The Spider and other classics. “I kept trying to draw the way he did, but it was very frustrating,” she says. “I couldn’t get those animated gestures — only today I feel I am finally getting it with glass.”
Equally challenging was RISD’s legendary drawing teacher, Victor Lara. “I would work incredibly hard on some drawing and he would just stand behind me for a while and then he’d just flip the sheet over to a blank one. It was exasperating, but I stuck it out.” If there is one lesson Gustafson learned that she will never forget whenever she is drawing anything, it’s the importance of paying attention to what’s happening outside the line, as well as what’s inside it. Or, translated to 3-D, what does the silhouette of her glass bowl do to the space around it? Again, this is something designers and architects think about all the time — it is not just about the walls or the furniture but the negative space between them.
Leading New England firms such as Flavin Architects and Meyer & Meyer have commissioned Gustafson for custom pieces, mainly for lighting. For Flavin it was 10” glass globes inserted within 26” globes — sixteen in all suspended at different heights in a dining room that can hold thirty-two.
Though the effect was gorgeous, Gustafson still prefers natural light. “Sandblasting gives depth, and a light bulb takes it away,” she says. One could say the same about the photos that accompany this article — they are better than nothing, but to truly appreciate what Gustafson does you would have to hold her pieces up to natural light and experience them in all their glorious animation.