Working on glass

Simon Moore and Ben Dunnington insist that glassmaking is an awful job - and they love it.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It is one of the hottest days this year, and Simon Moore's small glass-blowing workshop in Stockwell is arguably the hottest place in London, if not the country. In one corner a furnace is ticking over at a steady 1080 degrees, and although the double doors are thrown open and fans are whirring, the heat is stifling. Simon is making glass table legs and each one is taking ten minutes. Slow going, apparently. Could it be the heat? "God no - this is nothing. The only thing which really affects my glass making is how hungover I am when I get in."

Watching Simon blowing glass is like witnessing a cross between a religious ceremony and a magic show. One minute there is nothing but an iron wand and a crucible of liquid glass, and the next a treacly bubble is being caressed into shape with the aid of a wooden palate and a scorched wad of The Sunday Times: "I don't know why, but I find it's the best newspaper for the job". Assistants shuttle between the furnace and Simon's creation, anointing it with decorative blobs of coloured glass which are then massaged into place.

Simon has been making glass for seventeen years and says he's "reasonably proficient" at it, though his ambition - to take his company, Simon Moore London Ltd, to the point where it is regarded as the best in the country - suggests he's a little better than that. In the last five years alone he has steered his business from a small operation, dependent on restoration work for over 50 per cent of its income, to an international business with a weekly output of over 800 items, and an annual turnover in excess of pounds 250,000. The company is already renowned in America for the classic and decorative tableware designed by Simon and his co-director Ben Dunnington. A similar following in the UK is not far off thanks to Liberty, the Conran Shop and Contemporary Applied Arts (CAA).

The time has come for them to move to a larger workshop. The new set- up will allow Simon and Ben to take on more assistants, creating more time for new designs and one-off commissions, such as the recent collaboration with architect Nigel Coates: "He faxed us a whole lot of rough shapes for some decorative vases for a shop he was working on in Tokyo." The results - large organic vessels in citrus-coloured frosted glass - pleased both architect and glass makers so much that more projects are in the pipeline.

The new workshop is dominated by two furnaces which Simon has just built himself. Each one represents two tons of refractory concrete and will take at least 10 days to heat up. They cost pounds 9,200, but Simon knows they will earn their keep with reduced gas bills over the coming years. Overhead there is a huge extractor fan to keep the workers cool. "I don't like the thought of my staff slowing down because they are too warm," he explains, only half joking. "We cost everything by the minute," he says explaining several times that his is a business done for money not love. During the course of the afternoon it becomes clear that this is not strictly true: only a masochist would make glass purely for the money.

For a start there is the failure rate. Even skilled glassworkers have accidents, and Simon reckons they lose about two pieces a day. Not much, you might think, but at two jugs a day worth pounds 23 they've said goodbye to a considerable wad of cash within a couple of months. Also, imperfections in the glass often conceal themselves until it's too late. Clear glass can be melted down and used again - but not coloured. "I did try to recycle it, but it ended up looking like the very worst kind of 'art' glass," explains Simon. This is his pet hate, glass that claims to be "art" or "quirky".

"It's the sort of glass which comes from the point in glassmaker's training when he or she realises that they're crap, so they become glass 'artists'." Luckily for Ben and Simon, in America - their biggest market - the glass scene is full of art glass. At trade shows in the States buyers frequently tell them that nothing like their work exists in north America.

Their success lies in their complementary approaches to glassmaking. For Ben the creative process starts with the product. "I am thinking about designs before addressing technicalities such as 'how will we make this?'" Simon's approach, however is rooted firmly in the training he received after art school. "I worked in a factory where basic skills and an obsession with quality were driven in to me," He explains. Simon's projects invariably grow from the technical or practical. For example, his snail-stemmed candlesticks and bowls come from restoring candelabras. He opens a cupboard filled with shattered sugar bowls and glass lamps, and hauls out a salmon pink lampshade. "You see the wavy bits on this hideous thing? Well learning how to do them might trigger an idea for something we could work from."

Having joined the company only recently Ben enjoys filling gaps in the current range. "I'm interested in cheaper items - things which can be easily produced without diminishing the quality." His hugely popular "peanut" vases, are a good example. They are fun, unusual and affordable (from pounds 44). "I get real satisfaction from seeing our designs on shelves in shops, as opposed to galleries."

They both insist that glassmaking is an awful profession. The early stages of training are unrewarding because it takes years to get to the stage where you can make something. Why did they persist? The attraction for Ben was the challenge of a new material. "As a kid I used to make things out of all sorts of bits and pieces" he says. "So at art school it was just an extension of that." Simon's route to the workshop remains unclear, but when he talks about their work, it's obvious that he is passionate about his profession. Finally he caves in. "I love it. And I make money out of it." But neither is particularly interested in glass once out of the workshop. "I don't have glass in my home. In fact I collect ceramics." Says Simon. "You don't want to look at it all the time or you'll become a glass anorak."

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