GLASS IN ARCHITECTURE

An interview with Dale Chihuly and James Carpenter

Seaver W. Leslie

Dale Chihuly has an undergraduate degree from the University of Washington and graduate degrees from the University of Wisconsin and Rhode Island School of Design, where he is presently head of the glass program. Chihuly has taught also at the University of California at Berkeley. For his work in glass he has received the Louis Comfort Tiffany Scholarship and a Fulbright award.

James Carpenter has a BFA in illustration from Rhode Island School of Design, where now he is in charge of the nature laboratory. Previously he had taught at the California College of Arts and Crafts, the Gerrit Rieveld Akademie, and at Ohio University, where he supervised the glass department. Carpenter has also worked throughout South America and in Labrador as a botanical illustrator.

During 1971 the Chihuly-Carpenter collaboration resulted in the founding, just north of Seattle, of the Pilchuck Glass Center (see Glass Art Magazine, Volume 1, Number 2, April 1973), which continued operation under their leadership for four years and was chosen Workshop of the year in 1974 by Craft Horizons magazine. Last year they completed commissions for the Corning Glass Museum, the Australian Arts council, the Pacific Northwest Arts Center, and the Pfannebecker Collection. Currently they are designing for Venini of Venice, Steuben Glass, and others. Their collaboration has also included a year of working together with glass in Italy, and numerous two-man shows throughout the United States and Europe.

Seaver W. Leslie, the interviewer, received his BFA in painting from Rhode Island School of Design during 1969, and his MAT a year later. He taught drawing and art history at Newton South High School in Massachusetts during the three years following. Last year he studied with Peter Blake in London. Presently he resides and paints in New York City.

The all-white studio with its high ceilings and wooden floor is stacked with stained glass windows. High above the railroad years in one of the old brick buildings facing west, Dale Chihuly, James Carpenter and I discuss their work. The sun's last rays illuminate Providence, Rhode Island, in a dusty, golden haze. The view is framed with Union Station down to the left and the Stanford White State House to the right. The far away horizon is silhouetted by a band of roofs, church steeples, and smoke stacks. The Merchant's Limited has just pulled out, and the Flying Yankee is arriving from New York. Barbara, a pretty glass artist from Holland, enters with a "Starry Gazey Pie," its fish heads and fins poking through the crust, as if to punctuate the original recipe from Cornwall's famous Ship Inn. Dale has blended a pitcher of Papa Dobles, a Hemingway favorite, and Jamie's getting the truffle pasta and white asparagus salad ready.

The interview begins.

LESLIE
You've been making all sorts of innovative glass objects for a number of years. Where did your involvement with architecture come about?

CHIHULY
People and spaces—that's what interests me in architecture. At this time my concern is not with a limited audience, especially the gallery audience, which is too specialized for my present interests. I like to deal with the crowds off the streets who enter public buildings. It's a tremendous challenge and joy to get them involved in looking—to hold their attention. Also, when you're working on a building it's permanent. It forces you to make something in design terms that will withstand the test of time.

CARPENTER
Most artists do not think of their work as going before the general public for approval. When you're working with architecture this is the major consideration. The problem of trying to put something up that pleases me as well as the majority of the people that experience it, is what is exciting. The more people that see it and like it and rave about it, the better.

LESLIE
At present, do you have a public, or an outlet for your work?

CARPENTER
Although we are considering putting together a series of about twenty sample pieces that would travel around the country to galleries and museums, our primary concern is definitely in contacting and working with architects who are involved in designing fresh and interesting spaces.

CHIHULY
We've spent the last two or three years experimenting with both new and traditional approaches to using glass with architecture. Now that we're ready to work with actual commissions we have begun to make contact with architects, and the response has been positive. Architects seem to be ready to work with artists—probably always have been. It's really the artists that have shied away from architectural art. Also technology and everyone's interest in prefabrication, pushed the artists deeper into the studios. It's really time that artists and architects started working together again. I think a lot of people are once again ready for refinement of Wright, McIntosh and Billy Baldwin, and their obsession for perfection of details and interior spaces.

LESLIE
You two as a team—does this twosome alleviate the pressures that an individual might have about making it?

CHIHULY
Yes, but it also eliminates some of the ego, which I guess works to our advantage because we support each other and can accomplish more. I'm always surprised that more artists don't collaborate. It's really more fun and often the exchange of ideas produced a better piece. When we're finished with something we don't remember whose idea it was to start with—we're more interested in the end product. We have been working together with glass for such a long time that our ideas seem to complement each other anyway.

CARPENTER
On the other hand, there are complications in working as a team. We are both also involved in individual projects and sometimes there are difficulties in priorities and organization.

LESLIE
Is making it important to you?

CHIHULY
Of course it is.

CARPENTER
Certainly, we're ambitious.

LESLIE
Since the war there has been an involvement/obligation to technology and low budget building. Have the architect's priorities changed? I know the economics at present aren't any better.

CARPENTER
I believe out times are beginning to define some limits and ends physically to either the obligation to low budget construction or technologically-tied building, and as a result of this awareness, a more socially adept attitude will prevail. An attitude as endorsed by William Morris, for example.

CHIHULY
People are getting bored with technology and plastics.

LESLIE
How do you feel about the future of the decorative arts or their contribution to society?

CHIHULY
I'm sure we're going to see more and more artists turning towards the decorative arts—particularly architectural arts. People are involved in making their own indigenous and personal places to live-they're all sick of ready-made suburbia. And, not that cities are making it compulsory that one percent of a public building's cost go towards art, I think we'll soon see some fresh approaches to architectural and decorative arts.

CARPENTER
I definitely feel a strong obligation as a designer to utilize my material to bring a beauty or attitude of excitement to others. A Morris phrase runs something like, "It should be a good thing to be useful, a happy thing to be good, and not only a beautiful thing but a useful thing, again, to be happy." I think this line of social thought is pervading all the arts and will promote a Renaissance amongst numerous materials, glass in particular.

LESLIE
Do you have any notions as to the psychological impact of handcraftsmanship in public places?

CARPENTER
First of all we're not essentially interested in handcraftsmanship. We're interested in the impact of the design and the presence of the piece. Most of out work has to be fabricated by hand because there are no mechanized processes that can achieve the results we want. Machines really aren't that flexible.

CHIHULY
Handmade things can be just as boring as machine-made things. We're involved in processes that have never been see before. We're interested in making fresh, unusual windows and walls. We're not interested in doing something that's been done before, unless we can improve upon it.

LESLIE
Obviously, people associate handcrafted work and carefully executed details to a higher quality of life. When we were students at the School of Design in the 60's, it seemed there was an elitist segment who felt that the crafts were a safety valve for the people who couldn't make it in the fine arts. Does this attitude exist today?

CHIHULY
My glass is empty…

CARPENTER
I couldn't have said it better myself.

LESLIE
Your windows and walls to date have been non-figurative, non-literal. How do people responds to this?

CHIHULY
We are less concerned with being narrative or figurative, but we are involved with the glass and the light that passes through it—the phenomenon of light being transmitted through colored glass. The designs are to bring out the light and the quality of the glass—if the piece gets too complex or narrative, you begin to compete with this.

LESLIE
Would your work be accepted more readily if the windows were narrative in the sense that the Gothic windows were?

CHIHULY
We really don't know.

LESLIE
Are there advantages for architecture that your work might offer that are not found in the mural, fountain or sculpture?

CARPENTER
Of course the glass offers an innate quality of allowing light in and keeping the weather out. Beyond that I think we offer the architect an unprecedented access to freedom with glass.

CHIHULY
Fountains are nice. Water is to fountains as light is to our pieces.

LESLIE
How can you convince the architect that what you're doing with glass is better than what the plate glass experience presents?

CHIHULY
We can rely only on getting our work as much exposure as possible, and on the intelligence of the architects. I think architects are ready for it—buildings are so much more interesting today that they were ten years ago. We're very excited about the prospects for collaborating with architects.

LESLIE
Do you always make your pieces with a particular space in mind?

CARPENTER
To date, our opportunities at collaboration with architects have been somewhat limited. We have designed for particular spaces after the fact of construction and have found those completed projects to be much more satisfying in controlling the scale, quality and proportions of an interior than our other work which is simply purchased and placed in some arbitrary space. Working with an architect from the point of inception of an interior or exterior would be an ideal.

LESLIE
If you're so interested in architecture, why do you limit yourself to glass?

CHIHULY
After experiencing places like Matisse's Chapel and Chartres, it's very simple to realize the importance of glass. We specialize in glass I guess, and that's not much of a limitation when you're familiar with its potential…

 

Published in Glass Art Magazine, August 1978.
First published in Bulletin of Rhode Island School of Design, March 1975.