Man of Glass
If you find yourself in Seattle with a spare $25,000 in your
pocketif you have, say, just sold out back-to-back
concerts at the Key Arena, or just taken your software
company publicyou might give Dale Chihuly a call.
If he isn't in Venice or Australia or the Bahamas or
Kansas City, he'll probably invite you to drop by to
see what's new. You'll go to the address he gives you
on the north side of Lake Union, just under the I-5 highway
bridge. When you arrive, you'll wonder if you're in the
right place: The ragged shoreline strip of weedy lots
and nondescript industrial buildings hardly looks like
the place where you'd find the first American to be designatedas
Chihuly was in 1992a National Living Treasure.
Then you'll notice that one building is slightly different
from the others. It's the only one whose parking lot
is ankle-deep in bits of colored glass.
Seattle ranks second only to Venice in the number and quality
of glassblowers that crowd within its city limits. That
surprising statistic is due almost entirely to the presence
of 57-year-old Chihuly, a barrel-shaped man with wildly
tendriling hair and a black eye patch, whom Newsweek
once called "the glass leprechaun."
Obsessively inventive, tirelessly self-promotional, constantly
challenging himself and the medium, Chihuly has stretched
and pummeled and twisted art glass out of its museum case
and turned it into the visual equivalent of rock and roll.
"Glass is fast," he says. "You make your decision
and you stick with it. There's no in between."
It's easy to recognize a Chihuly piece. He works in several
distinct stylespale as smoke nesting bowls called
Basket Sets; brightly spotted Macchia; fanned and folded
Seaforms and Persians; robust Floats; ornate Venetians;
and even more florid Ikebana. But all of Chihuly's works
share an exuberance and a sure sense of color that is
hard to counterfeit. Each new invention spawns a flurry
of Chihuly-esque work from other glass artists, but Chihuly's
worka single piece can cost well into five figures,
and full installation can run to a million dollarsremains
in a class by itself.
Most important art museums own at least one Chihuly: the
Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Louvre (where Chihuly
is one of only four Americans to have had a one-man show);
the National Gallery of Australia; London's Victoria
and Albert Museum; and the National Museum of Modern
Art in Tokyo, to name just a few on a long list. Chihuly's
giant chandeliers and jellyfish-like wall pieces decorate
places as different as Rockefeller Center's Rainbow Room,
GTE world headquarters in Dallas, and the set of "Frasier," where
a Chihuly Macchia sits next to the living room fireplace.
Chihuly, who grew up in blue-collar Tacoma, Washington, came
to glass almost by accident. In the mid-1960s, when he
was a student at the University of Washington, glassblowing
was in eclipse. Technology has virtually done away with
the commercial need for handblown glass, and decorative
glass had drifted into a kind of craft-show backwater.
Still, he was fascinated by the medium. As an art student
Chihuly wove bits of glass into tapestries and blew glass
bubbles in a makeshift basement workshop. He then spent
a summer working as a commercial fisherman in Alaska
to raise tuition for graduate school at the University
of Wisconsin, the only school in America at the time
where glassblowing was taught as a serious art.
From Wisconsin Chihuly went to the prestigious Rhode Island
School of Design, first to study, then to teach. In 1970,
while the school was shut down during antiwar protests,
he and some friends dreamed up another kind of school,
a half commune, half summer institute for glassblowers.
Within a year, on a remote hilltop 50 miles north of
Seattle, the school was a reality. Twenty-seven years
later a visit to the Pilchuck School, now a world-famous
glass center, has become an obligatory pilgrimage for
anyone with a serious interest in art glass.
In 1976, while traveling in England, Chihuly was severely
injured in a car accident that left him sightless in
his left eye. Ironically, that same year the Metropolitan
Museum of Art bought three of his pieces for its permanent
collection, and suddenly Chihuly was on the art map.
The Renwick Gallery in Washington mounted a solo exhibit;
galleries in Austria and Brazil gave him one-man shows.
In 1980, when his income from the sale of his work$18,000matched
his salary as head of the sculpture department at the
Rhode Island School of Design, he quit teaching and began
devoting all his time to his work.
Since the car accident, Chihuly has not done his own glassblowing,
since his lack of depth perception makes working with
hot glass too dangerous. He has developed a team method
of glassblowing, with himself as conductor, and the blowersthemselves
talented artisansas the orchestra. Using squeeze
bottles of acrylic paint, Chihuly translates his ideas
onto paper in wildly colorful paintings that now themselves
sell for as much as $5,000 apiece.
The projects have become bigger and more spectacular. Single
pieces of his art have given way to installationsassemblages
of dozens of pieces massed on floors, walls, and windows.
In one of his popular installations hundreds of pieces
of glass rest on a dropped glass ceiling, illuminated
from above. In another, a lap poolhe has one himselfhas
an oblong well in the middle filled with 500 pieces of
glass under plexiglas.
In September 1996 Chihuly mounted his most ambitious installation
yet: 14 enormous chandeliers installed temporarily over
the canals and in the palazzos of Venice. The chandeliers
had been created over the preceding 18 months in a series
of blows in Finland, Ireland, and Mexico that themselves
became well-documented events (a PBS special, "Chihuly
Over Venice" will be aired November 9).
As Chihuly has been transformed into Chihuly, Inc., his staff
has grown to 90; he now operates four studios, including
one warehouse in Tacoma that is devoted largely to housing
his bizarre collections. His headquarters, however, remains
in the 25,000-square-foot Lake Union studio, known appropriately
as the Boathouse, once a factory for racing shells.
From 6:45 in the morning to 2:15 in the afternoon, seven
days a week, glassblowers work in the Boathouse's hot
shop making Chihuly glass. The hours were established
to avoid the afternoon heat, which even in temperate
Seattle can grow intense when the kilns are fired to
2,400 degrees Fahrenheit. Despite the fragility of the
product, glassblowing is a macho art, involving heat,
muscle, bravado, and a certain amount of risk. Like moviemaking
or architecture, it is also collaborative. A single glassblower
working alone might be able to make a wine bottle or
a paper weight, but the large-scale twists and bubbles
and folded discs that come out of Chihuly's studio require
a team of a half dozen workers, each with his or her
own closely choreographed task.
The day I visit the hot shop, reggae music is blasting out
of the speakers over the roar of the gas kilns and the
clank of metal pipes. Along one wall, bins of stubby
glass rods the size of sidewalk chalk glisten in the
light of the open flames; beside them jars of colored
glass gravel and powdered glass sit in neat rows. The
entry corridor to the hot shop, illuminated from overhead
with the even light of an overcast sky, is lined with
hundreds of squirming, writhing pieces of blown glass,
hung in color groups on wire grids that must be 12 feet
The workers, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, wear sunglasses
against the glare of the kiln. A glassblower reaches
a long metal blowpipe into the hot heart of the oven
and gathers a lump of molten glass the color of pale
root beer. He twirls and blows the glass while a gaffer
deftly drips a long thread of colored glass in a spiral
pattern down its side. The decorated bubble goes back
into the kiln and then is pulled out again to be plunged
into a bucket-shaped mold that presses ridges into its
Today they are making a type of flared platter that Chihuly
has dubbed "Persians." As the process of twirl,
blow, and heat continues, the lump of molten glass balloons
into a large bubble. Suddenly the bubble spins wide into
a wheel of glass. The blower deftly turns it floorward,
and gravity tugs it out of shape. An assistant in a fireproof
suit and hood stretches out his enormous insulated gloves
and the newly made Persian looking like a jellyfish arrested
in mid-flutter, is gently clipped free into his arms.
Turning, the runner hurries it to an annealing oven where
it will cool overnight.
Upstairs another group of assistants is fielding a constant
stream of phone calls and faxes. I wait to talk to Chihuly
in the living quarters that lie behind an unmarked door.
The sitting room is furnished with sagging pieces of
rattan furniture covered in Pendleton blankets (Chihuly
has one of the biggest Pendleton blanket collections
in the world). An orange life ring leans against a stack
of accordions; two dozen more accordions hang from the
ceiling in the next room.
On this particular dayas on most daysChihuly
is running late. He's meeting with staff members and his
friend Barry Rosen, a New York art dealer, to discuss a new
edition of a book of his work, but he's supposed to be in
Tacoma at another meeting. UPS has just delivered several
boxes of figurines representing characters from Tintin, the
popular Belgian comic books, and one of Chihuly's recent
collecting passions. The book meeting continues as Chihuly
slices open the cartons and begins wrestling the little statuettes
free of their bubble wrap.
"I'll tell you what," he says to me as Rosen disengages
from him and heads him for the door, "I'll call you
from the car, and you can ask me whatever you want. I promise."
While I wait, I take inventory of the collections that fill
the long kitchen table: stacks to Tintin books, a sheet
of slides of Chihuly floats marked "Elton John" (John
visited the studio between concerts earlier in the month),
envelopes of snapshots, a half dozen eye patches in plastic
storage bag, and a four-inch stack of telephone messages
with a note that says,
"Dale, what do you want me to do with these?"
The phone rings. Through the static I hear Chihuly say, "Barry,
look in the glove compartment and see if there are any sunglasses."
His voice becomes more distinct. "Did you know that
Seattle has the largest number of sunglasses sold per capita
in the United States? It's because people keep losing them.
Did you know that we also have the largest number of members
of the National Geographic Society? It's truealso the
largest number of college graduates per capita. What did
you want to ask me?"
"I was wondering about . . ."
"Also the most people who know CPR. And the fastest
response to 911 callsthree and a half minutes! Barry,
did you find those sunglasses?" Silence, then the roar
of static cuts back in.
"Tell me about the Float Project," I say. At any
given moment Chihuly and his staff are working on perhaps
20 or 30 big projects around the world. ("I only do
one thing at a time,"
he says, "I just change very rapidly from one thing
to another.") Current projects include a ceiling installation
for the new Disney cruise ship; several installations in
a new resort in the Bahamas; a big ceiling installation in
a Las Vegas hotel; plans for a 600-foot-long pedestrian bridge
in his hometown of Tacoma that will lead to a yet-to-be-built
international glass museum; a Sicilian restaurant/bookstore
specializing in art books; and a commission to create an
installation for the Citadel in Jerusalem to mark the millennium.
Chihuly came up with the Float Project last year when he
was in Japan. "When I was growing up in Tacoma you
could find Japanese fishing floats on the beach after
every big storm,"
he explains. Most Japanese fishermen have switched to plastic,
but Chihuly found the last remaining traditional float maker
on the island of Hakkaido in northern Japan. The float maker,
Mr. Kanamori, joined Chihuly and his team in Niijima, a glass
center south of Tokyo for a frenzied eight days of glassblowing.
Some of the floats they made were tossed into the Pacific;
future floats might be launched with labels inviting people
to add their messages to a Web site.
Chihuly returned to Seattle from Japan with 1,200 of Mr.
Kanamori's floats. "What will you do with them?" I
He sounds puzzled by the question. "I don't know, I
might hang them from a bridge. Or string them together with
stainless steel wire and put them out on Lake Union. It's
one of those projects that . . ." the cell phone transmission
erupts in static
" . . . or maybe we'll . . ." his patchy, distant
voice breaks up and the phone goes dead.
Later that day I visit his second Seattle studio, a 40,000-square-foot
cinderblock building on a street of modest houses. A
team there is experimenting with blowing and molding
Chihuly works in plastic. If they succeed, the lightweight
plastic will allow Chihuly to work on an even grander
scale. He has reached the physical limit on glass floats
at three feet across, but polymer floats could be much
larger. There are many problems still to be overcome,
including the fact that polymer can't be blown like glass,
so many of the components must be molded, leaving an
obvious seam. Nonetheless, enormous plastic pods like
upended barracudas fill a gallery at the new studio;
overhead, wide plastic Persians float against the ceiling,
each one secured with a single Philips-head screw. It's
an intriguing sight, but clearly no match yet for Chihuly's
glass work. "It's early," he says. "We'll
The next day I drive south to Tacoma to Chihuly's third studio.
Nearby is Union Station, a restored former railroad station
whose vast waiting room is dominated by a 20-foot-long
blue chandelier; the station will anchor one end of the "Bridge
a proposed steel-and-copper pedestrian bridge punctuated
with miniature pavilions showcasing Chihuly glass.
The three-story warehouse building is filled with Chihuly's
collection: walls of suitcases, shelves of vintage television
sets, baseball gloves, 15 cartons of Frisbee disks, a
1962 Chevy Impala, a 1910 Old Town canoe, a 1998 Harley
Heritage Springer. ("Does he ride it?" I ask
Tom McHugh, the registrar, who is showing me around. "No," he
says. "He just has it.") We climb a set of
stairs lined with tennis rackets; jackknives hang from
the banister like a heavy fringe. On the top floor, rows
of folding tables are laid out with several hundred copies
of Chihuly's recent book on his Venice project.
This is where serious collectors come to see Chihuly's finest
work. Broad industrial shelves hold nested clusters of
Baskets, Persians, and Seaforms in wild and brilliant
colors. Tom throws a switch, and hidden lights illuminate
their translucent depths. Each piece comes startingly
to life, unique but part of an unforgettable tableau,
and I suddenly wish that I had $25,000 for a Chihuly
of my own.
In a rare understatement, Tom offers his comment. "Nice,