I was selected amongst other european designers to participate in the BIO50 design biennial in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The biennial has a collaborative and participatory approach, and I am part of the group »Hidden Craft« that is mentored by Tulga Beyerle. The task was to make a design for a local producer. I collaborated with slovenian glass factory Steklarna Hrastnik.
In this Video Tulga Beyerle is explaining the concept of the hidden craft group, showing also the exhibition at BIO.
The company Steklarna Hrastnik lies in a valley in the northeast of Slovenia. It has 800 workers, they mostly live nearby. They get up very early to start working. They all know each other, it‘s not an extremely hierarchic organization, the different sections of the company rather coexist as small communities. The sections range from totally automatic glassblowing to mouth blowing processes which are very traditional. More precisely, there is a distinction between industrial, semi-industrial and handmade production. Each section has its own workers and its own location inside the building, the biggest part is the automatic production. The whole building has all (aesthetic) implications of traditional industrial production: noise, big machines, workers, dirt, a dark hall, huge storage shelves containing moulds. In some parts of the factory you can directly see the liquid lava-like glass flowing into a mould or flowing into a machine. In automatic production there are no people blowing the glass, but huge machines. The structure and the organization of the building, its machines and the working process of the people is in the beginning difficult to understand. Especially the automatic production which consists of a line of machines that are located in different parts of the factory and that are connected somehow. But it actually all starts with a big oven that keeps the glass liquid and that cannot be shut off. From there, the glass runs through the different stages of automatic shaping. This shaping process compromises several moulds, there is never only one mould per object, but many. The machine blows the glass into the mould, then into another mould etc. On the other hand, the semi-industrial production combines different stages of an automatic blowing process with actual workers blowing the glass. They are shaping it with different tools. In the end, there is also a part where everything is done by hand, by a group of workers who all have a specific task. After blowing the glass, it has to be »cooled« down slowly, otherwise the tension in the material makes it break. Cooling down the glass after moulding actually means that it has to be heated, but with less heat. This also costs a lot of energy. A lot of glass objects have to be thrown away since they don‘t reach the quality that has to be achieved. But the glass is re-used afterwards. The printing section of the company is another part where they print customized decoration onto the glass. Besides typical tableware products and customized bottles, glass bricks etc., Steklarna Hrastnik produces opal glass lampshades for the light industry. Steklarna is famous for its experience and quality in this area, they are producing for all european high-end lighting companies. Their lampshades look very industrial and simple, but they are mostly made by hand. Still, they don‘t produce their own designs, which they would like to. Which I found interesting were the moulds and tools the glassblowers had. They use graphite moulds, not wooden moulds, and the moulds are made of two parts with a hinge and handles. But there can also be one – part moulds. The hot glass is very elastic, thus it‘s ok to have small undercuts (Hinterschnitte) which in normal moulding processes would be impossible. They also have a lot of opal glass-moulds in the shelves that are not in use anymore and that belong to old designs. Most importantly, there were so-called pre-moulds made from sheet metal, that were looking improvised compared to the technically defined moulds. Finally, I decided to design not the final object but the mould. One of my first ideas was to re- use the moulds somehow. I wanted to change them just a little and put them into another context. A related Idea was to use the outside of the mould as mould (the moulds often had a more interesting shape than the actual glass objects). That meant to simply put the hot glass on it and see which shape it will take. I could not try that in the end. My other approach was to collect and make as many possible moulding objects for mouth-blowing for my next visit in Ljubljana so I could experience the process and understand its possibilities. The experiments I did were all related somehow to the »pre-mould« i saw during my first visit: – flexible wire mould which can be adjusted by the glassblowers - readymade wire basket which is structurally the same - expanded metal that later on will be folded to form a shape - folded sheet metal which creates a strange surface - a stamp - plaster as moulding material. My idea was to combine and layer the shape of the opal glass that Steklarna is already producing with the shapes I can make in my improvised moulds. The industrial opal shape works as a diffusor and the bigger, random shape as a shade. I designed a fixture that contains the technical components. The idea is to show the experience and craft that is already inherent in the industrial process, but I want to put it into a new context by using a more random, crafty process.