A glass apart

From nip­ple glasses and av­o­cado dishes to flutes fit for a queen, Julie Harding dis­cov­ers what makes Dart­ing­ton Crys­tal con­tinue to sparkle

Country Life Every Week - - Interiors Made In Britain - Dart­ing­ton Crys­tal (01805 626262; www. dart­ing­ton.co.uk)

Chink: two glasses make con­tact in a toast. Flaw­lessly trans­par­ent, lu­mi­nous and weighty, they be­gan their ex­is­tence as fiery or­ange orbs in a sleepy Devon town. Their maker, Dart­ing­ton Crys­tal, has been ex­pert in the art of turn­ing molten sil­ica sand, lead ox­ide and cul­let into beau­ti­ful, solid, trans­par­ent ob­jects for half a cen­tury.

Orig­i­nally a tiny shard of an arts-and-coun­try crafts move­ment cre­ated in the 1920s at Dart­ing­ton hall in Totnes by Amer­i­can heiress Dorothy Elmhirst and her hus­band, Leonard, Dart­ing­ton’s golden ju­bilee, on June 12, marked the mo­ment the fac­tory, set up 65 miles away in Tor­ring­ton, be­gan fash­ion­ing breath­tak­ingly sim­ple, time­less and use­able glass pieces on an in­dus­trial scale.

Akin to a sec­ond com­ing of the Vik­ings, the mainly Swedish work­force con­verged on tiny Tor­ring­ton in the late 1960s. The multi-man Euro­pean man­u­fac­tur­ing process they brought with them proved as rev­o­lu­tion­ary in Bri­tain as the clean-lined glass­ware they crafted.

To­day, in a swel­ter­ing work­shop with flam­ing fur­naces radiating in­tense heat and a con­stant roar, lit­tle has changed. Groups of work­ers per­form a well-re­hearsed ‘dance’ as they turn, bend, stride for­ward, re­treat, side step and con­stantly pass the baton that is the blow­ing iron, at the end of which the red-hot spheres change shape con­tin­u­ally un­til they ap­pear in their fi­nal con­fig­u­ra­tions.

This morn­ing, three teams of blowers are fash­ion­ing Cham­pagne flutes, square Fin­barr bot­tles in deep amethyst and tall, ink-blue tum­blers.

‘Ev­ery time i walk into the hot shop, it ex­cites me,’ says head of de­sign hi­lary (‘Billy’) Green, who dreamt up these pieces and many more be­sides. ‘it’s won­der­fully fre­netic.’

Next year, Mrs Green cel­e­brates three decades of cre­ation, her skill set hav­ing helped to en­sure that this sole sur­viv­ing Bri­tish glass man­u­fac­turer has con­tin­ued to sparkle when oth­ers have shat­tered un­der eco­nomic and brand-im­age pres­sures.

‘In some re­spects, there’s noth­ing new left in glass and it’s a com­pet­i­tive mar­ket, but we’ve kept our de­sign edge and innovation,’ notes com­mer­cial di­rec­tor Richard Hal­l­i­day back in the board­room. Here, on the dis­play stand, is a snapshot of Dart­ing­ton’s di­ver­sity, some prod­ucts made un­der its own em­blem, oth­ers by firms it has pur­chased down the years, in­clud­ing Caith­ness Glass, John Beswick and Royal Bri­er­ley Crys­tal.

The coun­try- and sports-themed han­den-graved tum­blers sold un­der the Royal Bri­er­ley la­bel sit on the top shelf. At eye level, three diminu­tive glasses with thick, con­densed stems be­long to the Royal House col­lec­tion. That they’re fit for a queen is con­firmed by a sil­ver-framed pho­to­graph de­pict­ing Amer­i­can Pres­i­dent Barack Obama at the 2011 state ban­quet, his hand ob­scur­ing the petal-like flute pat­tern at the base of the bowl as he raises the tiny gob­let in a toast to the Bri­tish Monarch.

An eye-catch­ing, royal-blue whisky bot­tle, made ex­clu­sively for Chivas Re­gal, sits on the cen­tre shelf, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the nu­mer­ous be­spoke pieces that find their way to ad­dresses such as 10, Down­ing Street and the Royal Hospi­tal Chelsea for the Flower Show.

Cur­rently, 40% of Dart­ing­ton’s pro­duc­tion is be­spoke and 15% of its to­tal out­put is sold over­seas. How­ever, Mr Hal­l­i­day and Dart­ing­ton’s highly re­garded man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Neil Hughes have other ideas.

‘We’re now driv­ing ex­ports, al­though Dart­ing­ton is a Uk-dom­i­nant brand,’ says Mr Hal­l­i­day, not­ing that, apart from home­grown sales via its own web­site and shops, in­clud­ing the spa­cious unit ad­join­ing the fac­tory, John Lewis is the com­pany’s largest re­tail cus­tomer.

Cer­tain pieces from the 1960s, such as the nip­ple vase, are rare and sought after, ‘but they fetch hun­dreds rather than thou­sands. We’re not Clarice Cliff,’ Mr Hal­l­i­day jokes.

Dart­ing­ton’s de­signer and driv­ing force in those for­ma­tive years was Frank Thrower, the first to spot that Swedish-style glass might catch on. He went on to cre­ate many clas­sic pieces—some of their time, such as av­o­cado dishes, and oth­ers an em­blem of his he­do­nis­tic life­style, in­clud­ing those nip­ple vases. The re­cently re­vived flag­ship Sharon range was sketched by his hand and, in 1985, the V&A se­lected the Sharon flute as one of its 100 Best Ever Prod­ucts.

After more than two decades of ge­nius cre­ations, Mr Thrower was left star­ing through a glass darkly. ‘Hi­lary over­lapped with Frank. She went into his of­fice once at mid­day and found him drink­ing Cham­pagne through a straw. He was ill and called it his med­i­ca­tion,’ re­calls Mr Hal­l­i­day.

At Dart­ing­ton’s 50th birth­day party, past and present staff were served Prosecco in—what else?—dart­ing­ton glasses. They may even have been ma­chine-cut, as this com­pany un­der­stands that it has to cater for all tastes and pock­ets. ‘Mak­ing glass is what we live and die by,’ Mr Hal­l­i­day ex­plains. ‘To­day, we also sell nice, mass-pro­duced items that we de­sign for the ma­chine. As long as they’re sym­pa­thetic to the ma­te­rial and made well, they have their place.’

‘Ev­ery time I walk into the hot shop, it ex­cites me. It’s won­der­fully fre­netic’

It’s crys­tal clear: a glass ice­berg en­graved with the Houses of Par­lia­ment

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