This month I’ve been talking to an interesting couple who set up a glass workshop in the North York Moors almost 20 years ago with a little backing from the Prince’s Youth Business Trust, a lot of true grit, commitment and ambition coupled with skills learnt from apprenticing with the best international makers.
Now, 20 years on they have developed a unique aesthetic and are one of the leading studio glassmakers in the UK.
Internationally renowned and highly skilled in producing beautiful glass inspired by the landscape around them in the pursuit of perfection in every piece.
Introducing Stephen Gillies & Kate Jones
Q. Who inspired you Stephen to make glass and who have you found to be inspirational on your journey within this field?
SG. I enjoy working with hot glass and my degree at Stourbridge college of Art was my first experience. After graduation I travelled and worked as a hot glass assistant and within the UK, Denmark & Switzerland. The biggest influence on my glassmaking and aesthetic was the incredible 2 years I spent in Switzerland with Philip Baldwin & Monica Guggisberg and during this time assisting Philip & Monica in their collaboration with Lino Tagliapietra.
Q. I know that your background was Fine Art Kate, how did the transition from Fine Art to glass occur and do you find that your skills were easily transferred and utilised fully now?
KJ: I met Mr Gillies after my Fine Art degree and was then introduced to glass. I spent a year at the International Glass Centre in Brierley Hill learning how to use tools and techniques to mark make on glass.
It took quite some time so change the way I worked, and more importantly thinking about working and making a piece. Making a mark on glass is the opposite of drawing and painting, though now, after almost 25 years it’s second nature.
Q. What did you originally set out to do, were you always interested in glass making? And where did you imagine your career would lead? For instance was having your own studio always a likelihood?
SG: Since working with glass I have never wanted to do anything else. The plan was always to have my own studio. At that time the studio glass movement was still in its infancy and very importantly, the Glass House London was proving that a successful studio was possible. There were excellent studios in Denmark, Europe and the USA too.
From the outset, having worked for outstanding makers at the top of their game, I saw at first hand the necessary commitment, focus and effort needed to make work and show internationally. This experience was invaluable and I never doubted I could do the same thing.
KG :I worked for years in youth arts and youth work running a large community centre, but always with the ambition to work creatively to make a living. We decided to open the studio together, so I took the risk, left work, retrained and travelled to and from Switzerland learning a great deal from Monica Guggisberg.
Q. Can you describe your working process? Are you directly inspired by the landscape around you; does this impact on the techniques and finish you use? Would you be making the same glass if you lived in London for instance?
All our work is about the glassmaking, making each piece as well as we can. The elemental beauty of our studio’s location unavoidably informs the design of each piece.
Stephen blows each piece, pretty much as it was pre industrial revolution, so no moulds, free blown and entirely hand finished. If you know your glassmaking you can appreciate the finesse of small bowls. We make everything this way for the love of the process. We then engrave the surfaces and let the light into each piece. It’s our use of colour, refinement in the making and the complex surface engraving that makes what we do unique.
Q. How would you describe your aesthetic?
Calm, soulful, pieces which demand time to look and consider; a classic and a considered use of colour with a generous nod in the direction of the Scandinavian aesthetic.
Q. What’s the glass world like in the UK? What’s happening in Stourbridge, for instance, with studio glass and factory glass? Is it thriving or struggling?
We would say the blown glass scene in the UK is relatively small compared to flat glass and kiln glass and it often feels like small studios are becoming like hens teeth.
Stourbridge has gone full circle from cottage industries, to large factories and again back to cottage industries with both cut crystal and contemporary studios. From afar it seems to be thriving.
Q. Is there a concern that traditional glassmaking skills in the UK will be lost?
I think it’s always a concern that skills will be lost for every craft discipline and it is a fact that some are. Glassmaking though is practiced worldwide, and continues to thrive in clusters in various cities.
Q. I know the costs are very debilitating, how will the studio industry adapt and progress? Are the problems the same in Europe and elsewhere?
The first Rosedale Glass makers were here in the early 1600’s they too suffered an energy crisis of their time. Oak was the furnace fuel and it was needed for ship building to sort out would-be invaders. The glass makers were forced off the land and from their furnaces by the Crown.
Increasing fuel and material costs mean a keen eye has to be kept on the numbers.
I think the high costs of making glass is the same everywhere. It is affecting many small scale makers and means other ways of finding customers must be explored and the received wisdom of getting work to the market place reconsidered.
21st century technology enables small studios like ourselves to survive.
We adopted a studio model based on our experience with Baldwin Guggisberg in Switzerland and have an open studio. It works well as we are reasonably isolated, and for 6 months of the year we see very few people which gives a good rhythm for making both production and one of a kind works. We often encounter a negative preconceived idea towards an open studio and ‘tourism’, however, in our 20 years the great British public have been nothing but supportive, interested and generous in their support of our work.
Q. Does low cost (affordable) glass impact on your business? Or, does it at least encourage an interest in glass?
We can’t compete with low cost and large numbers. Obviously there is a market for it, but we look for people with a different mindset to buy our glass. We make relatively small numbers of pieces each year and so far (almost 20 years) making a living exclusively selling our work has been achieved.
I think that anything that helps people connect with glass, it’s beauty, function and potential is positive, it’s always a good starting point for a conversation.
Q. Can you tap into this retail industry – do you also work as design consultants?
We have tapped into the retail industry, we have designed and made glass for Conran, Barneys, Gumps and Liberty amongst others and continue work with retailers on a very small scale. To date we have not worked as design consultants, though that does sound interesting.
Q. What does the future hold for glass courses and degree students?
Running a studio requires many skills outside the making, though good skills with the material are the foundation from which everything can be built.
I can only hope educators are preparing students well.
I really can’t comment on glass courses, as the majority of our assistants are from overseas just as Stephen travelled and learned we offer an apprenticeship for a hot glass assistant. The French schools are particularly pro active in placing students to encourage their understanding of the needs for professional studio practice.
Q. What’s next? Have you long term plans for your collections, or direction for your work? Is there a bucket list for a successful glass company like Gillies Jones?
We will keep on making a living, developing new designs, selling our work, and look for exhibition opportunities for our one of a kind works.
Yes there is a long term plan, never not had a plan!
A bucket list…Hmmm,
Get the basic skills in glassmaking.
Get an apprenticeship and travel
Work for the best most skilled studios you can find and admire.
Take your time in setting up and do your research.
Learn support skills for selling, marketing, PR and communications or find yourself a creative partner with them.
Borrow a truck load of money
And never loose sight of your love of material, process and ambition.
A film showing the working processes of Gillies Jones Glass can be downloaded by clicking here
Interviewed by our resident Designer on Design Sue Pryke.