Nikolas Weinstein epitomizes the DesignCraft Hero. He’s a man with an intense relationship with process, craft, and materiality; a man committed to making and artisanal manufacturing in urban environments. Bold. Relentlessly curious. Inordinately, exuberantly talented. An old soul.
His work: audacious glass sculptures that seem to billow and move, like silk in a breeze, catching the light and throwing it back to you in endless variation.
They form breathtaking focal points in the lobbies of hotels and starchitect-designed “it” buildings, and more intimate settings like high-end homes (for very, very lucky homeowners) and restaurants (more recently, Bar Agricole in San Francisco). The work soars and undulates through space, almost alive, kind of like glass itself (and we’ll get to that point later).
The man and his team of ten are in demand. There are projects in Kuala Lumpur, New Delhi, Los Angeles, and Tokyo, just to name a few. The day we met, he’d just come off a trip to KL, popped down to LA for the day, and was back in his studio, head spinning, though only slightly. You get the sense that this isn’t really unusual.
A tour of the studio reveals the incredible foundation of the recent sculptures: thousands of individual borosilicate glass tubes attached to each other with wire. (Nik refers to it as “fabric” and likens it to a “giant sushi mat”.) The sculptures gain their shape both through their assembly and through the shape of each glass tube.
When you see the process of putting up one of these pieces (the pieces for each sculpture are built in his studio, but then assembled onsite by him and his team), the work itself becomes even more miraculous.
And ballsy. (Check out this video to see what it takes to install one of these creations.)
That’s got to be one of the scariest things: you freight a crate full of glass halfway across the world, and your team flies out there to put it up. True. The engineering is terrifically complex and there are limits to the material. (He’s dealing with issues of space and structure, seismic conditions, room temperature, etc. It’s not for the faint-hearted.) But we do a lot of planning in the design and making: the flexible forms in the joints can release energy. And we build them with a lot of redundant connections: if one of the weaves fails, there are secondary and tertiary weaves. And in terms of breakage, when we shipped a 15,000 tube system to Shanghai, only 3 broke in shipping. Then, once we get the piece onsite and into place, we can trim it like a sail. The ability to change things on site–the ability to change the shape live–becomes super important.
And the team is great: they know what they’re doing.
OK, let’s go back to the (almost) beginning. How did you conceive of this system, this look? Well, most blown glass is limited in scale: I mean there’s just a physical limit to how big something can be even if you’re working with a big team. So big installations are just a series of aggregated forms. But I wanted to create something big enough to have a conversation with a building. You can aggregate smaller pieces, but then you have things that look like lots of little things together. It just looks a little rinky dink. My MO is to try to have something look like a giant aggregate form, and then two or three thoughts later, you realize it’s a lot of little pieces.
Really, the whole idea was to recreate the effect of sculpting glass at room temperature. We were trying to get back to glass as it is when you’re actually working with it: stretchy and hot and gooey.
Where’d you develop this technology, this fabric? Here. The glass fabric was born out of frustration…We threw out lots of work in the early days…in terms of economies it was very inefficient. And in terms of artistic vision, it started feeling limited. The fabrics started with flexible elements and straight tubes….then we thought, what would happen if you unfurl it, what if you started putting the fabric back in the kiln combining fused and flexible forms. And we started running with it.
Most of the stuff we do is driven by design, not the other way around. That’s part of our approach: people in most situations look in their toolbag and think about what they can do with what they have. More often than not, we figure out what we want to do and then figure out how to do it. A lot of time on projects is spent developing new glass and new ways to do what we’re trying to achieve. There’s lots of failure, troubleshooting, experimentation, mistakes. (Wonderful.)
The people here, that’s why they work here, to be able to try new things, have the freedom to make mistakes.
So talk about your team. They’re hybrid creatures. The studio constellated a whole bunch of professions. Arlen, for example, has a background as a food chemist, and came here instead of going to the Sierra Nevada brewery. People like the diversity of what they do: they can spend a few hours in the morning geeking on CAD, and then can stack tubes.
How does the process work? How do you design? It’s mix of high tech and art and design. It usually starts with me modeling in paper (crepe paper), but the question quickly becomes how do you make it out of glass. We use CAD a lot to model the physics: we’ve developed some custom software. Do you spend most of your time in front of a screen? No, the team does more of the CAD work. The guys do the tricked out work. I mean, I know the basics, but…
Let’s have some background. Did you come from a creative family? My mother was a sculptor before she had kids. Dad was an architect and urban planner. I’m the hybrid of my parents. I build sculpture for architectural spaces.
Art major? No. I went to Brown (degree in Comp Lit). Whence glass, then? Before Brown I was looking for a weird (by this we assume he means less conventional) job. I found a job as a worker in a stained glass shop in Brooklyn. That lasted 2-3 months (not really a stained glass guy). But I took some glass classes at what has become Urban Glass in NY, in Little Italy. Then, while I was at Brown, I took a class at RISD in glass blowing. And this is the extent of my formal training: Glass 1. I was pretty good at glass blowing…but glass blowing is like violin playing, you have to do it 10 hours a day for 10 years before you’re good, before you have those chops. So I started working with people who had the chops, and I started working with molds, and this is the genesis of a lot of what you see.
I came out here, working with graphic designer and worked for Michael Cronin, (great guy) and continued to blow glass on weekends. Eventually, I left and started my shop. How long had you been out of school? A year.
But your career took off when….I got a commission from Frank Gehry. He’d seen a blown piece of mine at someone’s house. It was a giant leap of faith on his part. I was 26.
What was it like to work with someone like Frank Gehry? He was very hands off. It took us about 4 years to finish. But I was completely overwhelmed. At some point, we were completely flailing, so we called in some scientists from Corning Glass. The engineer we called in did all the annealing for the Palomar telescope lens, and we thought that was the coolest thing we’d ever heard of. He helped us figure out why everything we made was cracking when we put it in the kiln. He thought we were crazy…but there was a freedom in the process that he found invigorating. We also got to work with the scientist who did the windows on the space shuttle. Awesome. Yeah, we were pretty excited.
That’s great that you call in experts. Is that also a key part of the process? Yes, a lot of what we’re building hasn’t been built before, so you have to really appreciate the materiality. We also work with a structural engineer named Graham Dodd out of Arup. We’ve worked with him for a long time and he consults on most of our projects.
What gets you most excited about what you do? Trying things that I don’t know how to do. I talk about the tech stuff because I geek out on that. But it’s all in the service of the impulse that requires it: the gesture, the aesthetic.
What fascinates you now? Well, glass is about light. Bar Agricole is the first piece where we tunneled light into the space. I’m interested in being more integrated with the building, become part of the facade…that would be so cool. I want to use the sculpture as a dynamic light filter. That’s where my head’s at. It’s not just about the space but it grows out of the building, hopefully in a spot where there’s natural light. There are a few projects that are about that. Still using your fabric technique? Fabric is where we are now, but we evolve on every project. I have some ideas on what’s next.
What’s on the bedside table? I don’t really read books. Honestly, I read the newspaper a lot. I’m not into reading treatises on the greening of buildings or anything like that.
What do you do for fun? I don’t relax a lot. There’s no downtime. I’m not completely manic but…I cook a lot. I’ll go home after work and cook. I also restore things. (There’s a meat slicer sitting in office. And he makes salami.) I’m slowly re-building an old slicer from the 30s.
Who plays you in the movie of your life, and what genre would it be? Oh, I have no idea. (He later surveyed his team. The results were:)
- Gregory Peck (we’re both scratching our heads on that one)
- Mark Ruffalo, if he’s not available, Julian Schnabel.
- Billy Bob Thornton
I wanted a mix of Woody Allen and Steven Wright. But if I had to settle on one person I think you can’t go wrong with Alfred Molina.
In terms of genres, put me in a cross between Jean de Florette and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. I’m a total sucker for that whole vibe: the machines I restore are 1890 – 1925 machines. Why? I like that time when you could still intuit a machine’s function by looking at it: early mechanica.
What things define you?
What’s the first thing you reach for in the morning? My glasses.
Nikolas Weinstein Studios