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
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