Subtle, Contemporary and Extremely Hot

CHICAGO TRIBUNE

"Soft, pliable and light" may be an unusual way to describe rock-hard crystal. Yet, the slightly buckled, cylinder-shaped vase, "Squeeze," looks uncannily like flowing liquid. Taking a visitor through the Orrefors glassworks showroom, designer Lena Bergstrom explains that the fluid look that stamps her series--vases, glassware and a decanter--actually began with a mistake.

"The glassblower looked away for a moment when he was shaping the vase," she recalls, laughing. "Suddenly, it started to buckle. It looked beautiful, like it was moving, so I shouted: 'Stop right there, that's great."'

In collaboration with the glassblower, Bergstrom experimented further, devising a special tool made of cork for hand-squeezing the molten glass. The series, which won an Excellent Swedish Design award in 1997, remains in the company product line.

Swedish crystal--Orrefors and Kosta Boda brands in particular--has enjoyed global success since the early 20th century. Yet, it's particularly hot right now, says Kerstin Wickman, a design historian, author and senior lecturer at Konstfack, Sweden's National College of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm.

An increased interest in art glass--internationally and in Sweden--is one important reason for the current boom, says Wickman, editor of "Orrefors: A Century of Swedish Glassmaking" (University of Washington Press, $60 to $75) and the author of other books about Scandinavian design. The international careers of Bertil Vallien, as well as the work of Ulrika Hydman-Vallien and other Swedish glass artists during the '80s and '90s, have been crucial for putting Sweden back on the world map of art glass. Their successes, in turn, have inspired young artists, including Bergstrom, who was a successful textile designer when she was recruited by Orrefors in 1995.

Yet it's not just a matter of glass moving into art galleries. In fact, Vallien, who exhibits internationally, also produces functional glassware for Kosta Boda. This dual approach--of art and applied design--is common among glass designers in Smaland province, the country's glass district.

For American art historian Derek E. Ostergaard, Swedish crystal--whether art glass, stemware or candlesticks--has an enduring appeal. And although it's often difficult to distinguish a domestic design tradition from international influences, he finds Swedish glass instantly recognizable.

"You can just tell. It has to do with its subtle, contemporary look," says Ostergaard, associate director and dean of the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts in New York. "It's the same expression that comes through in other materials as well, such as Swedish furniture design."

Ostergaard, a contributor to "Orrefors: A Century of Swedish Glassmaking" and other books on European design, dates the international breakthrough of Swedish glass to the 1925 International Exposition of Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris. The modernist art glass and glassware of Orrefors and Kosta from that exhibit toured the United States the next year. Ostergaard explains that although the United States produced some of the best cut glass in the world at the time, the engraved art glass and crystal from Orrefors had a fresh, new look.

"It was both modern and luxurious, opulent yet simple," he says. "It broke with the traditional notion that luxury products had to look like you spent a lot of money on them."

Although the Scandinavian countries have a shared design history, Wickman emphasizes that in Sweden, it is glass that has been most successful in marrying the country's crafts tradition with innovative design.

"In Denmark, ceramics is central to the country's design history and an inspiring material for artists to work with. Finland has a strong glass tradition, but Finnish glass is more graphic and heavy than Swedish glass," she says. "Swedish glass has a lightness to it which I think is inspired by the quality of light here. It's a material that suits our designers."

Orrefors and Kosta Boda, with production at five glassworks in Smaland--located in the communities of Orrefors, Kosta, Boda, Efors and Sandvik--since 1997 have been owned by Royal Scandinavia, a Danish-Swedish company that, besides glass, produces porcelain (Royal Copenhagen), silverware and jewelry (Georg Jensen), and ceramics (Hogans Keramik).

Surrounded by dense pine forest and numerous lakes, the tranquil glass-producing communities seem unlikely settings for cutting-edge design. Yet, this remote location actually has made the glassworks into "a world of its own which breeds creativity," Ostergaard says.

Ann Wahlstrom, who joined Kosta in 1986, is one of the country's leading designers. Spending alternate weeks in Smaland and Stockholm, she describes her workdays at the glassworks as "intense, completely focused."

But, says Ostergaard, the unique thing about the Swedish glassworks is their large number of in-house designers, currently nine at Orrefors and eight at Kosta. "I don't know of other places in the world where you have this kind of promotion of many talents in one place," Ostergaard says. "Glass producers in other countries have perhaps one or two designers who shape the company's image."

From a designer's perspective, Wahlstrom refers to this shared responsibility and sense of community among artisans and designers as "the secret with Swedish glass." Trained as a glassblower, she studied with premiere glass artist Dale Chihuly at the Rhode Island School of Design, and Bertil Vallien at Konstfack. Wahlstrom also designs ceramics and silverware. Her pieces range from one-of-a-kind art glass to glassware and stemware in exclusive editions of up to 15, or in editions of a few hundred.

Although Wahlstrom considers her training as a glassblower important because it has given her an understanding of the material, and although it is her name that ultimately will be associated with her pieces, she stresses that her work is an ongoing dialogue. "I collaborate with the glassblowers throughout the whole process," she says. "It's a real team effort."

The next morning, Wahlstrom is in the hot shop, working on new projects with a master glassblower. It's noisy and hot inside the cavernous workshop, where "chairs," that is teams of glassblowers, produce stemware, vases and other glassware. All glass is still produced manually at the Smaland glassworks.

This commitment to the craft is an important part of the expression and quality of Swedish glass, Wickman says. Visitors may walk freely among the glassblowers, as long as they stay out of the way of molten, hot glass and gathering irons.

One group of tourists has gathered to watch the production of wineglasses. There is one woman in this chair, a rarity. Although women are well represented among the designers, glassblowing remains a man's job. They work fast and in silence.

The gatherer, the first person in the production process, sticks an iron into the oven. He gathers a gob of molten glass, the color of amber, which he shapes against a steel plate. Next in turn is the glassblower, who swiftly takes over the iron and blows air into it while constantly pushing the mass of glass into a mold. After a few seconds, the mass, still attached to the blowing iron, begins to look like a soap bubble. The gaffer, who does the next step, cuts into the mass and draws out a stem.

Without stopping the twirling motion of the iron, the stem-maker is waiting to do his part, attaching more glass to create a flat foot. A moment later, the assistant cuts off the glass from the iron and gingerly places it in a fork-shaped metal holder.

Meanwhile, at Orrefors, Bergstrom is drawing proposals for next year's collection. She adds her own touch by focusing on an arresting detail that she accentuates, such as the candle-ring on her tall, slender candlestick Cyrano. The outsize ring has a purpose. "It always bothered me that candles drip down the side and stain the tablecloth. And if you want to move them while the candles are lit, there is not enough protection for your hand."

Among the youngest designers at the glassworks, Bergstrom and Wahlstrom have contributed a contemporary and playful look. "Hot Pink," a vase designed by Wahlstrom, has a candy-colored inlay and a skirt-like, florid shape that resembles a flower in bloom.

Another that echoes the shape of a fat cigar is Bergstrom's sandblasted vase "Havanna." An Excellent Swedish Design winner in 1995, the vase was inspired by three smoking robbers in a Donald Duck cartoon; the pattern of buttonlike circles on the surface is a nod to Bergstrom's work in textile.

Although Bergstrom, who is relatively new to the medium, is excited about discovering the potential of glass, colleague Ingegerd Raman, a glass designer for more than 20 years, spends a long time drawing and coming up with workable concepts.

But design should appear effortless, Raman says. "You should not be able to tell that the design is deliberate. It's supposed to look natural," she says. Raman's sandblasted, cylindrical vase, "Slowfox," is in Orrefors' 2001 spring collection. It comes in four discrete painted patterns that create a three-dimensional effect.

A ceramist for 10 years before she turned to glass, Raman has received an honorary professor title from the Swedish government in recognition of her contributions to contemporary design. Asked what distinguishes the Swedish approach to design, she mentions the hands-on education at schools such as Konstfack.

Raman, who joined Orrefors last year, considers design and the material itself a language you have to learn. "It's a matter of interpreting the glass, not forcing it to do things," she explains. "The glass is part of the expression."

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