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21 September 2017

Art of Glass

In this age of Ali Express and mass-produced rip-offs from Asia, it’s heartening to see a local business thriving by producing individual pieces that put authentic craftsmanship first.


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Glassblowers Stephen Bradbourne and Isaac Katzoff have been working out of their Monmouth Street studio, tucked away behind the glitzy European car showrooms on Great North Road, for close to four years.

Originally set up by two artisans back in 1997, the space was taken over in 2000 by one of New Zealand’s best-known hot glass artists, Peter Viesnik, before Stephen and Isaac recently stepped in. “Peter’s amazing,” says Stephen. “He’s 76 years old and still comes here one day a week and blows glass.”

Experienced glassblowers in their own right, Stephen met Isaac when he was working at Gaffer Glass in Morningside – interestingly, one of the world’s leading suppliers of coloured glass. From there, they started assisting each other with their work, and the partnership was formed.

Both Stephen and Isaac are eager to point out that the objects they produce are not just decorative items to be hidden away in glass cabinets, or high up on shelves, out of reach of children. The essence of their business is ‘handmade for everyday use’.

“When we began Monmouth, it started out as a few jobs making lighting for cafés and restaurants. And we started with the intention of using our experience and our techniques to make things that people needed,” says Isaac.

“We didn’t want to make art objects that gather dust on a shelf somewhere".

“Individually, we have art practices where we make own things, but Monmouth is about a collaboration to make things that people actually use – to talk people into not being scared of using a hand-blown piece of glass, but to value using it.”

Monmouth’s range of products includes lights and homewares, but it’s their delicately coloured pendants that are by far the most popular items in their collection. They don’t carry stock, so make every piece to order. “The website shows our range,” says Isaac. “And you can say, ‘I want this design and that colour and that size’, but we do encourage anyone who wants any of our products to come in and physically see them and watch them being made.”

“We try to have an open studio policy, so people feel welcome,” says Stephen. So can anyone just come in and watch them blow glass? “Sure,” says Stephen. “But it’s better if they buy something, though.” Everyone laughs.

“There’s also a sustainable aspect to what we are doing in that it’s happening right here, and we’re keeping the knowledge of how to make the things that we need and use as a community, and we’re not buying products in from overseas,” says Isaac. “Hopefully we’re teaching and encouraging a younger generation, too.” He makes a good point.

From a customer’s point of view, there’s also the fact that you know the provenance of each piece you buy – where and how it was made. And you’re supporting local artisans who live and work in your neighbourhood.

The techniques associated with glassblowing call upon a variety of abilities – from physical strength through to fine motor skills.

“When you have a few kilos of molten glass on the end of a long pipe that you have to constantly rotate to stop it flopping around, you need quite a bit of physical strength to keep it under control,” says Isaac.

“It’s a combination of a whole lot of things,” chips in Stephen. “You’ve got to be dextrous, you’ve got to have a good eye, and you’ve got to know the material and anticipate how it’s going to react – being able to manipulate it and control it when it’s molten is really tricky.”

Surprisingly, an exceptional set of lungs is not high up on the must-have list. “If you’re struggling to blow a bubble, then the glass is too cold,” says Stephen. “But, a lot of the time, you’ll have someone else blowing while you’re working the glass, just so you can see what’s going on.”

When you’re working with a molten material that is constantly being pulled in and out of a raging furnace, there’s always the danger of getting burnt but, as with most things, if you know what you’re doing, it’s relatively safe. “You figure out where the hot parts are fairly quickly,” laughs Stephen. “It’s a steep learning curve for the first few years, but then it plateaus off. For us, it’s about constantly refining our technique,” he says.

“Glass is basically about process,” says Isaac. “It’s a molten material, and there are an infinite number of ways of making that material turn into what you want it to be. It’s about using the right tools to make it into that form.”

Talking of tools, just behind where Stephen and Isaac are sitting is a tool board containing a dozen or more instruments that wouldn’t look out of place in a medieval torture museum.

“It’s very easy to really munt the glass if don’t know how to use the tools, or don’t have the right touch. And we’re doing this with archaic tools that haven’t changed their design much since Roman times,” says Stephen. “Things really haven’t changed much since back then,” adds Isaac. “We have electricity and gas, and the modern torch, and we use a wet newspaper, so that’s fairly modern.”

Watching the boys at Monmouth create a hand-blown pendant light from a small blob of glass is a very satisfying experience, and I’d highly recommend it. For a customer, it’s part of the story, and it’s the reason why you buy from these guys, rather than settling for a homogenised piece of mass-produced glass from a high-street retailer. Yes, you’ll pay more, but some things are worth the price.

Monmouth Glass Giveaway

Here’s your chance to win a beautiful pair of hand-blown glass tumblers from Monmouth Glass Studio, valued at $120.00. As an added bonus, the prize also includes a visit to its Arch Hill studio, to watch Isaac and Stephen in action, making their glassware using the ancient method of glass blowing.

Simply like our page on Facebook and tag a friend in the competition post to be automatically entered into the draw. Entries close Friday 29th September, 2017.

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