STYLE: STYLEMAKER : PLAYING WITH FIRE : A Craftsman Shatters Traditional Ideas of What Glassmaking Is All About
For Philip Vourvoulis, it was love at first sight. The minute he saw the glasswork from the Art Deco lobby of Santa Monica’s Shangri-La Hotel on that day in the late 1970s, he was smitten by its grace and luminosity. “How is this amazing stuff done?” he wondered.
A decade and a half later, the potter-turned-self-taught-glassmaker is still asking questions. Only now Vourvoulis oversees Glass Tech, a design firm that creates architectural glasswork for a roster of clients from Tokyo to New York. In his Culver City workshop, glass is shaped, sand-etched, carved, fused, melted, bonded and “slumped"--a process of laying molten glass over a mold to create a three-dimensional design up to 12 feet long. “I’m fascinated by the plasticity of the material,” Vourvoulis says. “You can take a blank sheet or a melted lump and out of it conjure magic.”
Glass Tech’s commissions include a 104-foot glass dragon snaking across the ceiling of Shun Lee Palace, a Chinese restaurant in New York City, and a $40,000 glass-walled bathroom for a private house in Utah. Most of all, Vourvoulis likes to work with top architects such as Frank Gehry and Steven Ehrlich. “I enjoy the challenges they hand me,” the 46-year-old glassmaker says. One, for a house Ehrlich recently completed for musician Perry Farrell in Mar Vista, was a 4-by-12-foot aquatic-themed sculpture Vourvoulis designed out of frameless, fused safety-laminated glass. Resembling a cloud floating just outside a front window, it has the effect of stained glass when viewed from indoors. “Here in Los Angeles, earthquakes and other natural disasters are an issue, so we had to take that into consideration on a project of this size and purpose. We did quite a few samples of layouts to get it right.”
Producing each custom piece is an elaborate and often difficult process. But Vourvoulis, who is assisted by his wife, Ursula--an artist who helps design and draw every project--and a staff of 10, sees no limit to the possibilities inherent in the material. Once he and the client have agreed upon the design, Ursula Vourvoulis draws it full scale in her studio behind the front office. If the glass is to be etched or carved, the pattern is then traced onto the glass sheets and readied for sandblasting in the workshop. If the glass is molded, it is set on wide ceramic beds that are then rolled into one of the huge electric furnaces that fill the shed at the back of the property. More modest pieces, such as art glass bowls, light fixtures, architectural moldings, signs and decorative objects, are fired in smaller ovens. In all cases, the cooling of the glass after firing is critical; that’s when cracking can occur, ruining the whole enterprise.
But Vourvoulis is seldom daunted. One project for which he has already built a prototype is a conceptual landscape created by designer Maggie Jencks of West Los Angeles for a Gehry house in Cleveland: a 4,000-foot-long red and blue glass “artery” that will be set in the ground and wind its way through the garden. The artery will be lighted at night to simulate bloodpulsing to and from the heart of the house. “I’m excited by such imagination,” Vourvoulis declares. “It gets my own blood going.”