By Regina Connell.
There’s only one word for glass from Vetro Vero: intense. Exquisitely crafted, yes. But essentially, it’s intense: passionate, strong, focused. Whether it’s one of their more carafes in glorious colors, or the baroquely minimalist (or is that minimalist baroque) goblets, these pieces have conviction, they have power. They pulse with it. They will not slink into the background. They do not whisper.
No surprise: the Pennsylvania-based duo behind the glass, Josie Gluck (JG) and Michael Schunke (MS), are a pretty intense pair too. And yet they’re balanced: they’re philosophers and makers; they’re in the moment, but they also know how not to push that moment too far; they love both process and outcome. Their passion for their work, their ideas and their collaborative synergy is so deeply felt that it can’t help but come out in every piece that comes out of their studio.
Try saying that about mass-produced glass.
How’d you come to work in glass? (JG): After college, I went back to school, started to learn more about glass and then found jobs in the industry with Seattle studios and artists Dale Chihuly, and Lino Tagliapietra. (Josie also has an MFA in Studio / Designed Objects from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.)
(MS): I thought I was going to be doing a degree in graphic design and illustration. But before I was allowed to declare a major I had to take a 3D art course, and my choices were glass and ceramics. Glass just made sense to me. The whole process made sense to me. And from there on in it became my life’s work. I had a great teacher Jack Wax, who’s now the head of glass at VCU. I was drawn to Italian style of glass making. I took a semester up at RISD with a teacher, and then I went to Haystack, where I met Lino Tagliapiettra. That was the incredible sequence of events that happened in the first 18 to 24 months of my life with glass. I met the right guys at the right time.
Then I taught in Japan, at the Toyama Institute of Glass Art. How was that? I didn’t speak Japanese before I went. But it was a wonderful experience: I had a job and I was teaching glass making and working with these students who were respectful of teachers. That freed up some time: I just made the things I wanted to make and worked on everything from goblets and sculpture. It wasn’t so much about making finished things. It was all about the doing and not the done, recognizing that it would feed my work for a long time. And it has.
Did Japan have an impact on you aesthetically? (MS): Well it has to have, because it was an experience in my life. When you’re making something it’s not what you put in; it’s what you leave out. That’s the approach to form and color and line that Josie and I both take. We know when things are superfluous.
People get seduced by glass, they don’t know where to stop. The hardest thing to make is the simplest thing because there’s no where to hide your mistakes.
(JG): Aesthetically I’ve always been drawn to modern styles and Scandinavian and Finnish glass. I’ve always liked Tapio Wirkkala’s work and that of Kaj Franck. They designed simple, pure functional objects. I think that translates to our work as well.
How’d you come to work together? (MS): I met Josie 5 years ago, where she was a teaching assistant at Haystack. I hadn’t worked with her before, but I took a leap and trusted my friend who’d recommended her. And it was great.
What does it take to be a great team in glass? (MS): Basically it’s personality, and then an understanding of how to work together.There has to be an understanding of how I’m working the glass, and a sense of anticipation about what’s happening next from both of our perspectives.
We all have to find the place in our heads where we can stay out of our own way and not think about what we SHOULD be doing and just DO. So many students have a death grip on the tools, so their arms have to loosen up. If you have an assistant worrying about breaking something, that thing is going to break. The detachment from the result is so important. Then we can start getting somewhere.
I’m generally the main maker, and Josie’s assisting me. The thing is when we’re trying to figure something out, we throw ideas out there and see what sticks. We’re not worried about the authorship of any particular idea. We just want the look to come through. We both know when it’s wrong. We’re both looking out for the work, never want to settle and we know when it’s time to move on to the next thing. We almost always agree.
And she works a lot with the colors. I’m color blind to reds and greens, and you can imagine the problems that could cause.
To be a great team, you kind of have to be a mind-reader. You know what’s coming next because you’re both consistent and familiar with the process, and you always have to be ready for that next move. Timing is everything.
(JG) I sometimes defer to Michael at the bench, especially because I was his assistant when we met. But when we’re designing new work or testing new colors, we really both respect the other’s ideas and are very comfortable throwing around suggestions and letting go of expectations. That’s the only way to find the new.
Now let’s talk about those goblets. Those blow me away: they’re ornate and baroque but in a completely modern, contemporary way. A lot of people doing baroque go for irony. I don’t feel that here. (MS) The goblets are the core of who I am as a glassmaker, what I was drawn to when I started. It’s been an interesting ride to find the balance between the way I see them in my mind and the way I saw them in the pages of my Venetian catalogs. Now, doing it for 23 years, I feel clear about how I want them to look and why. Part of it has been working with Josie, which has been great. They’re beyond important to me. Why goblets? Why are you so drawn to them? I don’t know why I’m so drawn to them. There’s a place inside of you that goes beyond words and I don’t want to question it. I don’t want to think about it, it’s such a great place in your head.
(JG): Those goblets are a religion in the studio. They’re sacred and they’re the strongest, deepest foundation for what it means to be a maker. There’s a pace and an energy that’s palpable when we’re making them. We hardly talk when we’re making them. Michael gets into a rhythm that’s just…sacred. It’s not that different than a yoga practice or a prayer. He’s focused but his hands are doing the work and his mind is clear.
(MS): I’ll never ever stop making them, ever. We’re just getting ready to make a set of black ones for a customer in Philadelphia.
Do you think there’s a tension between designing and making? (MS): Oh I might have to punt to Josie. But I will say that before design became the new craft, even when I was a student, I always thought the whole discussion of art vs. design vs. craft was a stupid one.
(JG): I try to give both design and craft space to be flexible in meaning. For me, design includes understanding the material. Without having that information about the material it’s that much more difficult to create an effective design in that material. Maybe I’m kind of old school. I believe that there is something such as good craft that its well made, that it’s about planning what you make and making what you planned.
(MS): America loves to pigeonhole and the craft/design area is just one example. It’s also in terms of style: I’ve been at shows where we’ve exhibited sculptures and goblets and have people say that we haven’t decided who we want to be yet..that’s horrible, and so wrong.
(JG): My degree is in design but my background is in factory and production work and that’s always been my interest. I love making the Oro glasses and functional work that people can use every day. I think they’re great design. And they bring people joy. That brings it together for me. When we have time to do one of a kind things, I am super happy but it’s not the every day experience.
Why do people love your work? (JG): They’re initially drawn to the purity of color in the work. It’s free of distractive elements. Even when we use patterns, the pattern is not a distraction from the form and vice-versa. A lot of other glass I’ve seen is less exact or controlled.
People are drawn to the flexibility of being able to use or display their piece. There’s also an interactive quality to our work. Where people can play around and move things around and put the X vase in front of the Y pitcher, they get involved in the new color that’s emerging in the interplay between the two, there’s a sense of ownership.
(MS) The people who value our work the most are the ones who come and see our work and how it’s made. You need that good old fashioned word of mouth.
You need people to understand how an object can enhance your life. That system of value is something a lot of people have, but they don’t access it on a daily basis. They’re too busy. More than anything else, that’s been a headwind for us.
Who are your collectors? It’s a pretty wide mix of people. It’s a wide swath of professions and backgrounds. Most are over the age of 45. One of the things is that the biggest challenge is getting a new demographic to think about our work. One of the nice things about Dwell was that we saw people who were younger. That was good.
How do you find your inspiration? (MS) I don’t spend my time looking at one particular thing. I wait for one particular thing to look at me. I wait for something to speak loudly to me. Every day stuff. Bubbles in a Windex bottle, stuff like that. It’s not like looking at Ming Dynasty pottery. That’s never really driven me.
JG: I watch and I listen… I try to get a sense of how people function in the world, and what the world shows us naturally. And I try to be open to random inspiration. I get a lot of thinking done in the garden.
Are you two equally obsessive? (MS) Yes to a point. Maybe Josie gets a little more obsessive than I do. But I’m plenty obsessive. We pull each other out of the closeness from time to time. But she pulls me out of it far more than I pull her out of it.
What’s your favorite movie visually? MS I really like movies and one of the reasons is that I go braindead. I love the deer hunter but that’s not visual. And Glengarry Glen Ross but that’s more about dialogue. (JG) The Way Things Go by Fischli and Weiss. It’s s short film.
And who plays you in the movie of your life? (MS) I think the person who plays Josie is Anne Hathaway, because she’s really beautiful without being too beautiful. Josie: Oh that’s nice. Josie, who plays Michael? Everytime I think of a movie star trying to blow glass, I totally crack up. There’s just no way! But in the other scenes, it would be Robert DeNiro with curly hair.
What defines you? (MS): A hammer, a No. 2 pencil, razor blade, bottle of wine, my cook ware (All Clad), and the wine goblets. (JG): scissors, egg beaters (the crank ones), a scarf, boots, and a sharpie (super fine in black, please).
All images courtesy of Michael Schunke and Josie Gluck