Q&A with Eric Meek on the 2011 National Design Awards

This week I sat down with Eric Meek, a glass artist and the Hot Glass Show Supervisor here at The Corning Museum of Glass, who recently worked with Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum to design this year’s National Design Award.

National Design Award 2011

The 2011 National Design Award trophy

This isn’t the first time that you’ve worked with Cooper-Hewitt. What other projects have you partnered on?

The Corning Museum of Glass brought GlassLab to Cooper-Hewitt in 2008, and it was actually the first deployment of the GlassLab container.

What was it like working with designers?

It was great at Cooper-Hewitt because they have their finger on the pulse of design.  They had fantastic people for us to work with there, some well-known designers like Francisco Costa, who is the lead designer for Calvin Klein’s women’s fashion.  We worked with a woman named Sigi Moeslinger, an Austrian designer who is one of my favorites that I’ve ever worked with just because she had such interesting designs and a fresh approach towards glass.

What do you know about the National Design Awards?

Cooper-Hewitt awards them to industrial designers, graphic designers, and architects and such every year.  As the National Design Museum, a Smithsonian museum, they have a lot of gravity because they are the nation’s voice on contemporary design.

Tell me about the award, the actual object itself. What was your design process?

Cooper-Hewitt specified that they wanted the award to represent an asterisk.  So, we started to think of ways that we could produce something based on that.  The first thing that you have to do in glass to make it take an unusual shape is to make a mold.  Peter Drobny, a local glassmaker who worked with Steuben for years, fabricated the mold for us.  Peter put together basically a hand-made prototype just in his basement.  It was a graphite cylinder and it had the ribs in it so when you pull the form out it was an asterisk.  We never wound up making a real mold because the prototype held up very well.  The idea originally was to make the plug of glass in the mold, bring it out of the mold and elongate it, stretch it, and make it taller.  In the beginning I had this idea about the surface of the glass. I didn’t want it to be glossy; I wanted it to be matte.  So I was sandblasting them, and doing a lot of work on them.  Cooper-Hewitt loved the variations we showed them, but the one that they reacted to the most strongly was actually simply the plug taken out of the mold – not stretched, not twisted. They liked the basic shape.

We involved the people at Cooper-Hewitt and so we can’t really say that there is a singular designer of the award.  It’s been a collaboration with input from a lot of different people.  We gave them different variations of the award, and (Cooper-Hewitt’s) Museum Director Bill Moggridge decided the direction.  He liked the glass when it looked raw, when you could tell it was glass and wasn’t too pristine.  We wanted to make the award out of very high quality glass that was optically pure and clear with zero bubbles and a perfect finish and everything like you always want to do as a glassmaker.  You want to make something the best you can, and they wanted it to look sort of hand-hewn and raw.  They liked something in the glass called cord, which are striations in glass caused by different compositions within the glass that can occur when it sits in the pot for too long or when it’s exposed to air.

So, we wound up with glass that was, from a glassmakers point of view, less than perfect.  But looking at the finished awards now, it really is nice that they are not perfect, and the fact that they aren’t trying to be perfect is a great thing.  We made them with as much craftsmanship as we can, but there are inconsistencies in the material that are inherent to the process, that are expressed in the award.

So how did you decide on the cut of the award?

We thought, of course, of just doing it flat on the top and the bottom, but I started cutting some at more of an angle, and then more and more of an angle.  It was nice because when it got to a certain degree, the angle winds up being about fifty degrees, it really allows you to peer into the glass and you see the reflection of the glass.  There is a lot of optical interest and distortion that goes on within the award that isn’t noticeable if you don’t cut the top.  And the other nice thing about the way that the bias cut on the top works is that when you flip it over you have the asterisk in cross-section, you can set it on that top side.

And it stands up?

It will stand like that, so the designers who receive it can kind of play with it and decide how they want to display it.

Fun! What was it like working on this project?

For the 12 awards, I made 30 blanks.  Just in case some of them cracked, or I dropped one.  I cut about 18 of them, and I polished 14 to get the 12 awards.  Probably in each award there’s, I would guess, 6-8 hours of work because they’re all hand-polished.  I spent a lot of weekends listening to music and grinding glass.  One of the fun things for me was that even when I was more active in making glass, I haven’t had such an intensive project that involved so much cold-working in a long time.  It took me back to understanding how much work goes into it, because I had forgotten.  When you look at a piece of glass like this, and some of the glass in the Museum, it’s really easy to be completely unaware of the intense, incredible amount of work that goes into making it.  I lost sight of that, and I’ve been a glassmaker for 20 years!  Sometimes as a glassmaker, you’re frustrated with others because you don’t think that they appreciate it. But then how can they when you don’t even appreciate it?  It was a great project, and I’m glad that I was able to do it.

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For more information on the National Design Awards, visit http://cooperhewitt.org/nda.

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