Blown up in style

Catherine Hough makes glass bottles - but don't worry about filling them; they are a triumph of art over function. Claire Gervat considers the ultimate Mother's Day present

There is a good chance that many of this weekend's most harried shoppers will be those searching for the perfect Mother's Day present, and high on their list will be that perennial favourite, perfume.

But for the more imaginative giver, and lucky recipient, there is an exclusive alternative. For, no matter how much time the designers at Dior, Chanel et al dedicate to creating the perfect container for their product, there is nothing to beat the luxury of a custom-made perfume bottle.

Whether any of Catherine Hough's customers at her south London studio would really commission one of her sensuous hand-made glass bottles for keeping scent in is a moot point, however. After all, they cost more than their contents are likely to - around pounds 200 or so for an individual design - though she has a standard range that retails for about pounds 75 in such places as the Crafts Council shop in north London.

Catherine herself believes that "when somebody commissions a bottle, they're usually looking beyond the function of it, towards having something that is a true one-off, a special piece. I suspect they're not used very often, though I take great pains to make sure the stopper fits perfectly. More often than not they are ornaments. There are, after all, lots of people who collect bottles."

Commissioning an individual piece is not a speedy process. "A special design takes quite a bit of time. There are the meetings with the client to work out what they want, then you have to do a prototype. That's what raises the cost."

Although some customers have strong ideas as to what they want, anyone who is less than certain need not feel daunted. To provide inspiration, there are plenty of examples of Catherine's bottles, with their sinuous stoppers, textured surfaces and jewel-bright bubbles of colour, on display in the office at her shared studio.

Catherine's love of glass dates from an early age. But at the time she left school, in 1967, it was difficult for creative glassblowers to find somewhere to train and work, so she went into teaching.

"It's only really in the past 20 or 25 years that studios with small furnaces have existed," she points out. The first one was The Glasshouse in Covent Garden, and having attended one of their evening classes she decided to go back to college to do a specialist glass course. Three years later she left Stourbridge College of Art with a degree and a job at the crystal specialists Royal Brierley, making ornate, one-off pieces.

Her reputation for making exquisite perfume bottles started to develop after she left Royal Brierley. She was offered a place at The Glasshouse's workshop, where she was able to rethink and simplify her style.

"That's when I started using natural objects as sources for my designs: pebbles, rock strata, ripples in the sand. The perfume bottles were just something I enjoyed making. It was an interesting challenge to relate the bottle and stopper into one shape. And having started making them, I've made more. It was something I became known for."

Since then, Catherine's work has featured widely in shows, and there are examples in permanent collections in Sweden, the US and Germany, as well as in Britain.

One of the identifying marks of her style is the large amount of work that is done after the basic shape has been created. But first a tiny amount of coloured glass is wrapped in clear glass over the end of a rod, to be blown out as the colour lines the inside of the bubble.

"I don't blow it out very thin, so you can always see the shape of the bubble suspended in the clear glass," Catherine remarks. After that, the bottle is polished, textured and decorated in the cold workshop.

What this means is that Catherine needs only one or two days a week at the furnace. Yet furnaces have to be kept running constantly, gobbling up fuel and money, so it's often not viable for glass makers to work on their own. Catherine has always shared studios with other craftspeople. Since early last year, she has had a large space in a workshop in Clapham, south London, owned by Simon Moore. It suits her perfectly, she says.

And should you find that one of her perfume bottles would suit you perfectly, too, clear a space on the dressing-table and leave this page in a prominent position. Your family may well be grateful for the inspiration.

Catherine Hough Glass is at Unit Two, Union Court, Union Road, London SW4 6JH (0171-498 6453; fax 0171-720 1046; e-mail houghglass@aol.com).

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