Earlier this summer I went to the Rothschild & Bickers studio to learn about glass blowing. I have admired their gorgeous glass pendants for many years and, ever since I read a Donna Leon thriller set in a glass factory in Venice, have been keen to learn more about this ancient art.
The Romans used glass and there is evidence of glass-blowing in Syria that dates back to the 1st century so when Mark Bickers invited me over to have a go myself, I was really excited to find out more about the process. I had visions of creating my own bespoke light to hang in The Mad House.
After all, I reasoned, that’s what they’re doing. And a handmade light will be charming won’t it? I mean I wasn’t expecting it to be perfect (well not quite anyway). Then back came the email: “If you can stay for 10 years, you will be able to make a light. Alternatively, in a single day, you can make a wobbly jug. With a lot of help.”
“Humph,” I thought. It can’t be that hard surely. I bet I can make the best jug ever. I will be so good at this I will make a jug and a set of wine glasses. Well two maybe. And I will be back in time for tea.
OK, so it’s really hard and it’s really hot and I did make a wobbly jug, which I love dearly and I did need masses of help. But I came out of that studio wiping sweat from my brow and with a real appreciation of the craftsmen and women who work there.
It takes seven years to become a master glass maker and it’s a dying art. Rothschild & Bickers, who have one of the last glass making studios in the UK, run an apprentice scheme to ensure the next generation of glass blowers will continue to exist. It also seems to be a vocation. Everyone I met told me that once they had discovered the possibility of working with glass there was nothing else they wanted to do.
You might think their lights are expensive, but every single one is made by someone who has years and years (and years) of experience and by someone who has a real passion for their work. And add to that the working conditions – you can only imagine how hot it is in there and I wasn’t even there on a particularly summery day – I think yesterday was supposed to be the hottest September day for about 50 years and I am so thankful that I am sitting in my north-facing kitchen with the door open, while they are standing in front of an open furnace and moulding molten glass. For about eight hours at a stretch.
The other thing about these lights is that because they are all handmade you can choose the colour you want. They can pretty much match the glass to your paint chart. You can also choose the colour of the flex and the fitting – brass, chrome or copper. It’s a completely bespoke work of art that happens to be functional as well.
Both Mark and his co-founder Vicki Rothschild love to experiment with the possibilities of glass. I saw some amazing pendant lights in the shape of stetsons while I was there which they had created for a fashion store in the US. And I love the ones with tassels attached – the marriage of soft textiles and hard glass is both unexpected and ultra-modern.
“We blow something we like the shape of,” says Vicki. “And then we re-make it and change it a bit – we edit as we go along.”
The company will be opening a pop up show room during London Design Festival next week and launching a new range of lights so you will be able to see the whole collection in real life. It will be at Old Street Station from 20 – 24 September. You should definitely go along. Once you see something made by glassblowing, everything else can look a little, well, lifeless.
You can find out more about the glassblowing procedure and look out for their new products too – the pop light (pictured below) and the pick and mix flask. The Rothschild & Bickers stand is part of the Icon Design Trail and the Shoreditch Triangle.
Here are a few images of a slightly sweaty Mad having a go at glass-blowing with Mark giving me a helping hand. In hindsight wearing leather trousers may not have been my cleverest sartorial decision. My right arm is covered in a gigantic fireproof sleeve just in case I wasn’t warm enough as well.