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‘Thinking Big’ with Glass artist Martin Donlin

For autumn/winter 2021/22 Design-Nation is exploring the theme of Thinking Big, looking at projects and design practices that work at significant scale. Our first pick is glass designer Martin Donlin, who unveiled a really amazing large scale Public Art piece in Oklahoma City, USA earlier in 2021.

Design-Nation asked Martin: Please briefly describe your practice and what it is that you design/make.

Martin Donlin replied: I am an Architectural Glass Artist, basically I design Stained Glass windows and screens for architectural situations, I have been working in this medium since leaving the Architectural Glass Art Collage Swansea in 1987.

D-N: Where do you work and what are your most essential/valued tools?

M.D: I live and work in Brighton on the south coast of England. I recently moved from a small house and studio overlooking the sea at Telscombe Cliffs to just along the road, but I prefer to be more central in the city where everything is more convenient. I have worked from a “home/studio” for over 30 years. I did have a separate studio and staff in the 1990’s but found managing a large studio difficult. I prefer to work on ideas by myself and I often work unconventional hours  – whenever I am inspired!

Sadly, one of my most essential tools these days is now a computer, but my most valued tool is still a pencil. I still sketch out ideas onto paper with watercolours just to capture the “spirit” of an idea then I can develop my thoughts through the computer.

I used to make all my work myself, however, as projects have become larger in scale it has been essential to work with large studios or industrial manufacturers that have very specialist disciplines.

D-N:Tell us about your most recent large project: how did it come about? What did you create and where/for who?

M.D: Although my main area of work is glass I recently entered a competition for a large scale “screen” to envelope a car park in Oklahoma City USA. The project was using small translucent polycarbonate tiles that I thought could transmit light just like glass.

I entered the competition and luckily won the project. The artwork covers almost a complete block adjacent to the new Convention Centre in the downtown area of Oklahoma City. At over 3,000 square metres it is the largest artwork in Oklahoma and certainly my largest project to date.

The artwork consists of a series of 40 ft high human figure forms created by 4 inch square tiles, that appear and disappear in a parade of colour. From inside the artwork becomes and abstracted field of coloured walls, but from outside it is a “Frieze” that wraps completely around the building.

D-N: If this is typical of your practice? Tell us about any other projects at this scale and how long have you worked this way.

M.D: I feel at home working on both large and small scale projects. As a student one of my dissertations was on Eric Gill, the sculptor and stone carver. I was fascinated by his ability to work on stone carvings the size of a wall, then create woodcuts the size of a postage stamp.

My first large scale project was at the Empire Theatre in Liverpool around 2002. At 15 by 6 metres it seemed enormous at the time, but most of the problems were logistical, simply working out how would we create and install the artwork. But it is always possible to employ outside help and this is what we did. The project had a tight budget and we decided to paint all the panels by hand and with screen printing. I recently revisited the site, which still looks great, but I did think we must have been crazy to undertake such a large project. I remember the sleepless nights wondering how we would get it finished on time.

The big break for me came around 2007 with a large scale project at Indianapolis Airport in Indiana, USA. The project was 14 windows on two concourses, all made of specially created mouth-blown antique glass. The project took two years to complete and has won numerous awards. I worked with local poets whose poetry inspired the designs – in some cases their text was acid-etched onto the glass.

D-N: Do you prefer projects like the Oklahoma and Indianapolis ones, or to work at smaller scale? Would you ‘think big’ again?

M.D: Thankfully, I manage to keep working on both large and small scale. Recent design schemes include a project for over 2,000 square metres of terrazzo flooring in the USA and, in contrast, a small Prayer Chapel stained glass window in London of just six square metres. Regardless of scale, for me all of the projects are equally as exciting and challenging.

D-N: What are the challenges and what gives you satisfaction, about working at large scale?

M.D:The challenges that I have found working on a large scale are usually logistical, moving substantial size objects safely and securely, organising equipment on time and on budget. But the results are incredibly rewarding and satisfying. Particularly when the artwork is public – it’s always interesting to hear the reaction from the public or visitors and staff from a building.

D-N: Does ‘thinking big’ require a different mind-set in the development phase? Is it more or less demanding than other work?

M.D: Personally I don’t think so, apart from trying to visualise how an artwork will be viewed from a variety of angles. There are often pleasant surprises particularly with glass materials as the artwork can be seen from both inside and outside. I often work with text and it is interesting to play with how this is seen and discovered by people. If viewers are moving through stairwells or in elevators, their perception is that the artwork changes throughout their journey.

D-N: Do you have a dream project, place, process or material that you’re long to try?

M.D: I would love to design glass for a complete church or even a cathedral! I recently completed a project in Seaford that was approximately half the windows in a small church. Chagall has a fantastic project in Tudeley in Kent where the entire church windows are designed by him and it looks and feels fantastic.

Mosaic is a material I would love to work with: I did a small project in London with the material about 30 years ago, but I know so much more about the techniques now and it would be great to have another go.

D-N: Any other comments about ‘thinking big’?

M.D: Never be afraid to ask for help – it’s out there, you just have to find it. Someone somewhere will “get” what you are trying to achieve and soon you will have a great team to realise your vision.

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Clare Edwards


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