As you enter Matthew Cummings’ rustic studio space at 133 S. Central in the Old City, your senses will come alive with the visual beauty of the multi-colored and sometimes strangely shaped glass sculptures. The sound of the furnace burning in background indicates the source of the heat you feel. The rough walls and smooth glass, the delicate dance of gaffer and assistant communicating without words mesmerizes.
The studio is now officially open. Mornings will find Matthew and Thoryn Ziemba gaffing, assisted by Sam Meketon and David Wiss working in pairs making beer glasses for Pretentious Beer Glass Company. Last December when I first wrote about the enterprise, Matthew had it all mapped out inside his head, but otherwise, the evidence that the various portions of the business would come together was pretty sparse. Eight months and a lot of twists and turns later, two portions of his vision have been realized.
The first portion of the business needed to be the glass studio and production facility. The fine art glass was ready to display, but shelves and tables had to be constructed and that was completed by Matthew and his crew. The biggest challenge, however, was preparing the production facility. Virtually everything in that portion of the business was also made by hand, saving many thousands of dollars.
The furnaces had to be a priority because Pretentious Glass company has struggled to keep up with demand and Matt had been the only person producing the glasses. The number two selling item by gross revenue on Etsy, wait times have been longer than anyone would have preferred, but they are now able to fill orders much more quickly. In fact, as of last week, they are caught up on orders for the first time in the company’s history. Additionally, while Matthew has held some glasses back for local purchase in the past, he now has an ample supply on hand – so you can start your Christmas shopping now.
Several developments since last winter have shifted the model a bit. Demand requires that studio time not be offered to outside artists as originally planned. Additionally, they are getting commissions from breweries and others for large orders of the glasses. A group from Austin came up recently, for example, with the idea of working with the studio for signature glasses. Some breweries and craft beer bars are beginning to use the glasses for “mug clubs,” in which patrons purchase the glass to use on each return visit.
The furnaces run each day until the heat requires the workers to stop. Temperatures quickly rise well above 100 degrees. As the days grow cooler, hours will be extended. Monday through Friday, 8:00 to 4:00, are the initial hours for the studio and Matthew hopes to soon hire a gallery attendant as word gets out they are open. Price point for items other than the glasses range from $100 to $10,000. They welcome people who want to stop by and watch and they are happy to answer questions about the process.
I enjoyed just that on my visit, learning the difference between blow pipes and punties (punties are solid rods) and the uses for each. It’s fascinating to watch the Gaffer, the person doing the most difficult moves and making certain the product is made to standards and the assistant who gathers the precise amount of glass needed for the object in question. A full twelve hour day once each week is devoted to filling the furnace (Greta) with the glass material. Greta weighs 5,000 pounds and holds 350 pounds of molten glass. The furnace will have to be filled twice each week once production ramps up for the winter.
Much has remained unchanged about the process for two thousand years. It’s an apprenticeship occupation and many of the same types of rods and molds are still used. Water cools the rods enough for them to be held, molds are made of wood and clamped around the soft glass to shape it. Instruments to do detailing remain much the same.
While Matt is still the only person capable of making three of the glasses, he hopes to have the others trained to do them all eventually. This will allow him to devote more energy and time to design and lighting and other projects. One recent project Matt mentioned was the construction of the tables, both metal working and wood working for the new tasting room at Alliance Brewing Company. For now, he’s very pleased with the studio, saying of the glass there, “It’s some of the finest glass that can be found anywhere in the region.” He’s also proud that anything ordered via Etsy world-wide is produced in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Next on the agenda is the build-out of the bar next door and that will be followed by a nano-brewery in the back. A small shop to purchase glasses will be added and the beer garden will come to life behind it all. The bar is some months away and the nano-brewery will be sometime in 2016. For now, he hopes more people will stop in to enjoy the ancient process happening right here in our downtown. He points out that Asheville and Louisville have developed glass tourism and he hopes the same will be true here.
To that end, for example, one beer glass – the original – can only be purchased at the studio. He also mentioned the Tailored Hoppy Glass which incorporates a patron’s personal prints and that’s something that can only happen with a visit to the studio and requires a scheduled session. Tours are offered by Knox Brew Tours and the space next door will be available for events until they are ready to begin construction of the bar.
When in full swing, it will be one of the only places on earth – if not the only place on earth – where you can drink beer made on site in glasses made on site and watch it all happen. It doesn’t really seem so pretentious to say that’s pretty amazing. Drop in. Take friends and out-of-town guests. This is pretty special.