Text by Catherine Wagley
Images by Sam Muller
Master glassblower Joe Cariati, who has since 2011 made his elegant glass forms in a 4,500-square-foot building just south of Los Angeles in the beachside town of El Segundo, recalls looking around and realizing, “I’ve got way too much space.” So he asked his team of three skilled glassblowers and his glassblowing friends, “What do we do?” They decided to open a community center to reach the public and bolster the city’s local glass community, sharing a complex art form to which the general public rarely has access. “Because everybody’s got to help their buddy,” as Cariati put it, especially in a world as small as the glassblowing one.
The Los Angeles Glass Center hosted its first workshop on June 15, 2019, inviting neighbors to come craft glass cups. For about 10 months, the center was magical. They offered demonstrations, workshops for first-time glassblowers, and appointments for more skilled craftspeople. They hosted a showcase of Black makers and an intergenerational women’s symposium. They held workshops by visiting master glassblowers and classes for youth. “When you see people blow glass for the first time, they light up. It’s something they’ve never experienced,” says glass artist Austin Fields, Cariati’s life partner, who makes her sculptures out of the El Segundo studio. “Our collective goal was to bring glassblowing to everybody.”
Then in March 2020, as the Covid-19 virus began affecting cities worldwide, the center had to close its doors to the public. “Glass blowing is such a close proximity craft,” Cariati acknowledges with regret. “You have to blow on the flow pipe to teach, and hold people’s hands.”
But Cariati’s studio has, in many ways, always been driven by community and collaboration. He has an open-door policy, unusual for a studio producing work that requires such precision and skill. “There are studios, for example, that don’t allow any outsiders,” observes Fields, who moved to L.A. from Arlington, Texas two years ago. “They’ll say, ‘This is my studio. We’re only making my work.’ Joe has this harmonious balance of being a mentor and maker, and that vibe and attitude makes people feel welcome.” According to Fields, glassblowers from out of town email Cariati and say they’d love to make some work or come by and observe. This welcoming approach infects and inspires those who work in the space.
Cariati, who makes ethereal, strikingly minimal forms in the longstanding Venetian glassblowing tradition, is known for the precision of his process. No two vessels are the same, as each is made using an ancient free-blowing technique, but Cariati is able to replicate his personal process with such fidelity that his signature forms are nearly identical. His Angelic Vases and Venetian Decanters boast far fewer flourishes and none of the patterning that characterizes old-school Venetian pieces, and they are more delicate than the mid-century modern collections that inspire Cariati. Revered mid-20th century companies such as Blenko or Empoli used thicker glass, making their spire-topped decanters and vases from molds. “If you look at my work, it’s reduced from that stuff,” says Cariati, “but elevated and modernized to be something completely new.”
Since childhood, Cariati had enjoyed digging in the dirt, toying with motorcycles, and building things, but wasn’t sure he could make a career out of these inclinations. When he stumbled upon glassblowing in the early 1990s, Cariati was a student at San Francisco State University. He enrolled in SFSU’s storied glassblowing course, and thrived, though he didn’t realize there was a future in it for him until his professor, glass artist John Leighton, told him that he “would have no problem making it” in the intimate world of glassblowing. After graduating, he worked in a handful of glassblowers’ studios in the San Francisco Bay Area and continued to study. But he traces his expertise in the Venetian tradition to the Pilchuck Glass School, founded in 1971 by maverick glass artist Dale Chihuly.
While Cariati has both studied and taught at Pilchuck over the years, most of the glassblowers he worked with had been there—so the school began influencing him long before he arrived. Originally, Pilchuck was a place for experimentation, where artists spurned the traditions that had for so long made glass an inflexible medium—or, in Cariati’s words, “it was a bunch of hippies who got together, built a furnace out of bricks, smoked a bunch of weed, got drunk, and made things.” Then in 1979, Chihuly invited Italian maestro Lino Tagliapietra to Pilchuck, interrupting the hippie energy and shifting U.S. glassblowing. Tagliapietra used the same glass blowpipe techniques that Italian artisans had employed since the Renaissance, and his craft entranced Pilchuck artists. “When Lino came, the attitude of the glassblowers was, ‘Holy shit. We know nothing; Lino knows everything,’” recalls Cariati, who has studied with Tagliapietra himself but initially learned Venetian techniques from glassblowers who had been at Pilchuck during the 1970s and 1980s.
Cariati left the Bay Area for L.A. in 2003. A friend had opened a studio in El Segundo, just blocks from where Cariati now works, and Leighton had moved to University of California Fullerton and offered Cariati a teaching gig. It seemed an opportune time to work on what would become his self-titled line, which he officially launched in 2007. For it, he adjusted the techniques passed down by Tagliapietra, who was known for his painstakingly long process. “I didn’t care to make one thing that takes six to eighteen hours,” Cariati says. “I can’t do that in my personality, my lifestyle. What interests me is making a thousand things exactly the same in a repeated rapid-fire succession.” His studio can make, on average, 20 objects per day. Yet nothing about them looks mass produced. They appear to be more air than glass, so thin and light you could watch an entire sunset through them and not miss a detail.
“They’re free blown. They’re made in space; they’re made at the bench. They’re made by hand,” he says. But their repeatability serves his ultimate goals: “I wanted to be in every single modern home on the globe.” He has been making progress on that front, his forms featured consistently during Modernism Week in Palm Springs and celebrated by interior designers including Michael Walters and Tamara Eaton.
Still, the community-building side of Cariati’s work has remained as important as the glassblowing itself. He has cared about teaching and mentorship from the start—an increasingly crucial mission as glassblowing programs close across the country. SFSU’s glass course was dropped from the fine arts curriculum in 2002, and, in 2010, when Cariati’s adjunct position at Fullerton was cut for budget reasons, students raised funds to try to keep him on. There is a hunger for mentorship, especially in a field like this one, in which object-making requires equipment and multiple sets of hands.
So Cariati’s studio has become a launchpad for new projects. Fields is working on a collaboration with architect and designer Julia Koerner, in which Korner’s 3D-printed topographies become bases for abstracted glass forms. Artist Corey Pemberton, who helped set the L.A. Glass Center in motion and worked alongside Cariati, founded Crafting the Future, a nonprofit devoted to supporting makers of color and providing mentorship and education opportunities to young people, in 2019. Cedric Mitchell, who studied and then taught at the Tulsa Glassblowing School before joining Cariati’s studio in 2016, still works with Cariati three days a week and just launched his own line of glassware with Heath Ceramics. He also serves as the resources and opportunity manager for Crafting the Future. “The basis of it was to diversify the fields of craft art,” says Mitchell, whose role with the nonprofit involves seeking out mentorship and job opportunities for young makers. The first year, they raised over a quarter of a million dollars and were able to send 30 youth to school. During the pandemic, they’ve had to be more creative, pairing young people with master craftspeople for one-on-one mentorships.
Mitchell has found that teaching makes him a better artist. “If you can explain something to teach someone, it transmutes to your own working process,” he says. He adds that finding his voice as a glassblower will likely be a lifelong process. Cariati agrees, calling glassblowing “a practice akin to yoga,” he says. “You never reached the pinnacle.”