Profile: Joe Cariati

Glass blowing really is one of the most thrilling endeavors to partake in or to behold. There’s heat, there’s fire, there’s fragility, there’s the perfect moment, there’s magic, there’s danger, there’s beauty.

It ain’t just art, baby, it’s life.

And like life, it’s also a dance. Watching the making of larger pieces–usually a team effort–is like watching a masterfully choreographed performance, except this choreography is born of the necessity that comes from working with all that heat, fire, and fragility. The sheer physicality is awesome to behold, as is the fierce intensity of focus. It’s the ultimate example of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi means when he talks about Flow.

Here’s the problem, though.

The process may be just a little too fabulous, and sometimes, the end result can leave you a little cold.

So we’ve been on a journey to find the output that’s as magical and sexy as the process. Would we ever find such a thing?

Well of course we did (it took a while). And we found it with a little help from the fabulous DesignCraft heroine, Heather Palmer.  Meet LA-based Joe Cariati, rock and roll master glass maker, painter, generous mentor and one helluva guy. His work? Elegantly refined functional vessels (decanters, cheese and pastry domes, bottles and flasks): sexy, chic but powerful, mind-bendingly light, pure, crisp, essential. The work instills such a feeling of delight and joy that you just have to smile (and pull out the credit card).

And people do pull out that plastic: the day we spoke, he was in the process of producing 750 pieces for Neiman Marcus’s Little Gems line. Awesome, all around.

Joe’s studio’s in El-Segundo. Like many glass blowing studios, it can be as hot as hell (literally), but then the sea breeze will waft in through an open garage door at back of studio. The sparseness of the space is a perfect backdrop to the non-stop motion, movement, and energy.

Tell me your story. I’m from the Bay Area originally, and fell in love with glass early on. So rather than going out on my own, I apprenticed at studios and became a gaffer, doing work for artists and producers. I got to see lots of different types of work and learn a lot of different skills.

But you DID go out on your own, eventually. The economy turned sour and the work dried up, so I decided I needed to have more of a hand in my own destiny. So I started going around to San Francisco stores like Zinc Details and (the dear departed and very missed) Fillamento, and seeing the gaps in the market (very smart). Then I made some pieces, literally put things in my truck, turned on the charisma (or at least as much as I could muster) and see if they’d buy. And amazingly, they did. I think an early sign was that there were more takers in LA than in San Francisco. So in 2003, I moved to LA.

Your look is so incredibly simple but also incredibly distinctive, which is an almost impossible balance. Thanks. I’ve just always been attracted to clear, essential forms. I don’t like frills and tricks.

And the colors, they seem to play with light differently, and they’re really sophisticated and modern but a little muted. Do you have a favorite? I’m loving the smoky blues and topazes and greys. I also like that they blend together so they become a sculptural installation that’s also 100% functional. Yeah, I think of them as cityscapes–I love to design those.

We love that you’re committed to doing actual glass production. It isn’t easy in this age of globalization, when designs can be ripped off and produced in China or wherever. But it’s why I think innovation is so important. When people complain about all this glass being made in China, and them not being able to compete, I want to say…do something that the Chinese can’t do. Do something different. You really have to up your game. For example, what’s distinctive about our work is its thin-ness. It’s a completely different experience when people pick up the work, and that’s a function of the fact that we really pay attention to production. You can only get the thin-ness through constant refinement.

You seem to really love the production end of what you do. Production is great. If you want to spend all day perfecting that single piece, that’s fantastic. But to me, that’s more in the vein of glass “art”.  I love the art of production…I love the focus on efficiency, economy of movement, and repetition. There’s a quote in Style Wars from a tagger who gets out there a lot: ”It’s not about perfect. It’s about more.” That’s what it is about. It’s about the refinement–constant refinement–through doing and making.

Where do you think this approach came from? You know, I had a chance to study with a man who became a mentor–Lino Tagliapietra, an Italian master glass blower–a maestro–who is really one of the most generous guys on earth. He always used to say that looks are important, but it’s more about the process. It’s really about understanding how you make something: the way you  move, how you relate to the glass. It’s a constant conversation, a dialog with the material.

How do you manage the balance between creating something new and the whole production process? You have to make time for it. You see new things all the time in how things are being formed. That whole issue of “new” is a hard one for me. I find it difficult when people ask me what’s new…I’m not in the fashion business. Through process comes the new ideas. But like anything in life, it’s about thinking about what you CANNOT do, to make more room for what you want.

One of the very cool things about glass blowing is that it’s not a solitary activity, whereas a lot of other “craft” is. It’s definitely NOT a solo activity. You have to have a dialog on the floor, all the time. You have to be open to other people being excited, depressed, learning, failing. I’m a lot about other people.

You have a big commitment to teaching. I think of it as giving and also a great way to generate ideas, to learn as you teach too.

What else would you like to do? I would love to start a larger studio, where I can open doors to other people. I’d love for it to have an open door policy, where we could share ideas, research. Oh, and party too. But you know, the deeper I’m getting into this company–because I kind of feel that we’re hitting our stride–I feel like there’s less time to think about ventures like that.

Speaking of which…do you have a team to manage the day-to-day? I have an assistant and a team of glass blowers, but I still pack, ship, invoice, blow, do cold work, sign things, order, etc. It’s all part of it.

OK, so who’d play you in the movie of your life? My best friend, who’s an actor, always says that Anthony Bourdain and I are cousins. Tall guys smoking, making shit happen. (Yup.)

And in what genre of movie would you be in? Oh yeah, let’s see. Action adventure, I think. But I don’t know….I don’t like to think there’s drama in my life. I’ve kind of slow-played my life. I mean, early on, I somehow had this understanding that things were going to take a long time to develop. I told myself, it’s going to take 15-20 years to get proficient in this career. You’re not going to be famous at 20…you’ve got to put in your time. Where’d that come from? My mom taught me that patience, and I’m glad. I feel that things are paying off. So to bring it around to your question…maybe it’s a self-discovery movie.

And what 5 things define you?

My tattoos. I chose to tattoo myself at the age of 30.

My sense of humor

My wedding ring….that’s huge for me.

Otherwise, the only thing I carry around…my hands. They’re what absolutely enable the things I create.

And what was a transcendent moment in your life? My wedding day. December 6, 2009. And that’s no BS. I just turned 39, so to have family, friends, support, maturity was just so great. It was the biggest moment of relief and satisfaction. Pure bliss.



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One Response to Profile: Joe Cariati

  1. antonia says:

    awesome article, i like the details and informality of the interview