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Interview with Michael Ruh

What attracted you to glass blowing?

I think it looked completely magical and mysterious and really enticing.

And how did you get into glass blowing?

I was in my early-to-mid 30s then, so I call myself a late bloomer! I was living near a school that had an open day and showed up in the afternoon and was offered the chance to have a go at glass making. I gathered a small bit of glass from the furnace, probably about the size of a golf ball and blew a very, very small bubble with a great deal of effort and I was completely hooked.

What were the early days of your glass blowing career like?

Natascha and I met each other at that same school where I first tried glass making. It was a few years later and Natascha was attending a summer workshop. I just dropped in to see who was there. She had just finished college at Farnham, I think we were both completely taken with glass making. We didn’t have any experience really and so each of us got jobs as assistants at different glass blowing studios. The earliest years of glass making were spent apart, just gaining experience. And after three years we set up on our own. Natascha had been making fashion glass rings for a client in Japan in her spare time. She had so much work on that she could quit her job and I started assisting her full time to make these rings. Slowly, I started making blown glass objects as well.

How did you come to have your own studio?

For a very long time, we hired studio time at a number of different studios in and around London. We would work three or four days a week, very often out in Billericay. We wanted to be glass makers but we didn’t have a clientele. I applied for a couple of different art festivals in the US, over the summer. We just thought, well let’s just try one. We went over to the US and hired studio time to make work for this particular festival. At the end of three days, we had had a great show and we thought, gosh we can make money doing this!

Later that year I participated in the Chelsea Crafts Fair, as it was known then. I was then offered a place to exhibit at a commercial trade fair in the US – our very first trade fair. We had one of the best commercial shows we have ever had. We got an order a few weeks after the show from a retailer in Manhattan that has some shops here in London. It took Natascha and I three months to complete the order. That was the start of our serious endeavour together at creating a studio. Slowly, slowly we built our clientele, and reached the point where hiring studio time at other studios was too difficult so we opened our own glass blowing studio in early 2000.

What inspires your work?

The main thing that inspires my work is marks made in snow. I grew up in Minnesota – very cold in the winter – and in my memory I have windswept leafless shrubs, the light striations across wind-blown snow and also the marks that shrubs scratch into the snow. Also the marks left by flood waters on sand bars are the inspiration behind a lot of the textures I use in my work. In terms of the colour palette I find arid landscapes really, really exciting and also times of the year – early September – or times of the day – early morning or late afternoon when the light is very full.

So are you drawing on memories when you make your work? Because you are living and working in south London where it’s grey for a lot of the year…

It’s not just about arid landscapes. There is an urban palette, which inspires me too. I have favourite views in London. At the end of the day when the sun is going down, just to look out over the cityscape from the top deck of the 68 bus going over Waterloo bridge, the light and the colour palette of the urban landscape is really amazing. My favourite light is a fluorescent light attached vertically to a cast cement wall at the exit of an underground car-park near Russell Square. I enjoy walking around and seeing different car-parks, for example, with garish neon lights and the light that they cast, or the way coloured objects react or appear under the light of a harsh urban neon light.

Can you describe the process of creating coloured glass?

The colour comes in right at the very beginning of the process. Inside our furnace, we melt only clear glass. We purchase the coloured glass from specialist manufacturers in the shape of what looks like icicles – intensely coloured glass icicles. We just take a small chip of that icicle shape and heat it to about 500 degrees in a separate oven. At that temperature we can stick it onto the end of a blow pipe and then we heat it further until it’s molten. Then we are able to blow a very small bubble of coloured glass. We let it cool down briefly and then we go to the furnace and we coat the coloured glass with the clear glass, so as the bubble inflates it’s a very fine inlay of coloured glass on the interior of the vessel. Looking around the studio, you can see the lovely browns and greys and blue colours. All those different colours are very fine inlays of coloured glass on the inside of each of those vessels.

What do you like about working with glass as a material?

The thing that attracts me to glass as a material is its ability to take up a line and to freeze a shape. Looking at my work, people may say that it looks organic. But the strange contradiction is that it requires a lot of physical exertion to make glass look organic. Molten glass is perceived as this gloopy, nebulous object, but the thing that affects glass the most is gravity. If you blow a bubble and let gravity do its thing to it, it will naturally create a straight-sided object. Glass doesn’t want to be organic and gloopy: it wants to be geometric and have straight sides. I love the idea that a lot of the objects I make look like I was just accompanying them along the way to being natural. But I think the physical exertion required to make a natural looking object is greater than a geometric object or a straight-sided object. That’s funny and appealing to me.

All of the marks you see on your vessels, are they planned?

The lines are intentional but I don’t know exactly where that line is going within that piece. I set out to make marks but the heat of each piece and the force that I use to make those lines will affect how those lines appear. I never quite know exactly what I’m going to get with those lines.

You are making things that are designed to have a function. Do you have to compromise aesthetics in order for the function to work?

There’s will and desire and ability and skill. I set out with a vision in my mind of what I want to create. But I may be limited physically to create that, or there are physical limitations of the glass as a material itself. I think nearly every piece that I make is a compromise in some way, either a physical compromise determined by my skills, or my lack of skills, or physical limitations due to the physical limits of the glass as a material.

It reminds you to be humble. Very rarely do I look at a piece of mine and think “wow, that’s a great piece”. I often look at pieces and think, “gosh, I nearly made it there, that’s nearly what I wanted”, or “what was I thinking when I did that?” With glass blowing you have opportunities to do actions at certain moments, and if you miss that moment you can’t go back. The next chance you’re going to get is the next piece you make. You have to live with what you’ve got or destroy the object.

They are such beautiful objects. Do you want people to use them in their daily lives?

Yes absolutely! I was in the Mid-West selling very small bowls, and a visitor to the stand asked me what I would use that vessel for. And I told her it was a little pinch pot for salt or something. I asked her what she would use it for and she said, “I would use it for pretty”. That’s a really great expression, “using it for pretty”. I don’t want my objects to be used for pretty, I don’t want them just to be looked at. I really want beautiful objects, exquisite objects to be used every day. You might only have one drinking glass of mine but if you use that drinking glass every day, for everything you drink, you’ve got that beautiful object that you’re actually using in your life. I like the idea of that, of using something of exquisite beauty as an everyday object.

When I finished art college I was very into concepts and non-utilitarian objects but the longer I’ve been a glass maker, the more important it has become for me to have utilitarian objects, functional objects that are maybe a little bit more on the ephemeral side of things but still serve a function, a definite function.

What does craftsmanship mean to you and how important is it to you?

I once heard a poet say that when he reads his own poems publicly, he considers every single poem a failure. For me, each piece is an endeavour and it’s about pursuing and pushing myself to be a competent maker of glass. It’s about having an idea, an aesthetic idea, and trying to competently realise that idea. One needs to acquire the technical skills to give voice to one’s aesthetic and design through those skills. I think the skill of making is about capability and ability and the exercise of those skills. It’s not leaving stuff to happenstance or serendipity. It’s about intention. Skill is about intention and competency and rigour.

What do you enjoy about taking part in the Artists’ Open House?

It’s always great to see who comes in. We have regular visitors who have come to see us every year and we also have people who have lived here for years and years and have come to see us for the very first time, so it’s great to see old friends and to make new friends. I’m very curious, so I like to learn who our neighbours are. It’s also a pleasure for me to see that moment when people are really excited by the idea that there is a glassmaker, somebody doing this sort of thing in their neighbourhood, because I think it’s quite unusual and quite special.

Parade Mews where your studio is in Tulse Hill is a hub of creativity…

This lovely little mews where we are, it’s a pretty amazing world of people making some really cool stuff. I think I’m very fortunate being in that world because we know lots of different people, in different parts of London, who are making really cool stuff. I feel privileged already to know those kinds of people and it’s exciting for me to go down an unknown mews and meet new makers. If we can perhaps introduce ourselves to more people, to a broader public who would enjoy that, I think that’s also really great. That’s part of the excitement for us to be taking part in the Dulwich Festival.

Photography by Dirk Bleicker

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