Every year thousands of tourists visit Jennie Olofsson’s glass studio on the Swedish island of Gotland to buy a piece of handblown art – and to eat five-course dinners cooked on white-hot glass.
Winter on the East coast of Gotland is an altogether different proposition from summer, when this island in the middle of the Baltic Sea between Sweden and Finland is drenched in sunlight. It’s dark even though it’s lunchtime, the wind is howling and there’s driving horizontal rain. You can feel the snow in the air that will come any day now, covering the island in a huge white blanket. However, inside an old whitewashed barn in Norrlanda it’s dry and warm, with the shrieking wind replaced by the soothing whirr of the propeller fan gently spinning on the ceiling. Jennie Olofsson is walking around among rods and pipes, annealing in the orange glow of an enormous furnace. We’re inside her glass studio/cultural center/restaurant...
“That’s why I wear a hat! To keep all my ideas inside my head!�� she says laughing. The name of her studio is similarly loaded. Olofsson called it Big Pink because she wanted it to be a creative hub, just like the upstate New York house where Bob Dylan and the Band’s Basement Tapes sessions took place (apparently The Band’s music is perfect for blowing glass to); she chose an English name because it’s more international than Swedish; and because the colour pink can be associated with girl power.
Summer is when all the tourists come. Last summer, 3,000 visitors came to the studio over a period of five weeks. And Olofsson chatted to every single one of them. “I want people to come. When I set up here in 2015 people would say to me, ‘But Jennie are you going to sit in out-of-the-way Norrlanda and blow glass? How will anyone find you there?’ But I knew that if you had an open workshop that offered people a genuine and vibrant cultural experience, not only local farmers but representatives from fancy restaurants in New York would want to come here.”
Sweden has a proud tradition of handblown glass and now it is becoming trendy again, with a new generation of glassblowers breathing life into the industry. However, Olofsson originally wanted to be a photographer. She was working as an assistant at a successful agency in Stockholm at the time photography went digital, but when the darkroom became Photoshop the craft aspect of the job all but disappeared and she became disillusioned. So she decided to travel instead. She would go away for months on end, come back home to work and save money, and then take off again. And then, 10 years ago, she had an epiphany. “I was lying in a hammock in Laos and it suddenly came to me: ‘I’m going to be a glassblower!’ ”
The interesting thing about air is that once you have added it there’s no going back. You can’t suck it out again
Absolute Glass was manufactured in Sweden as early as the fifth century AD, but then it was in the form of pearls melted and recycled using crushed glass from imported Roman goblets. In the 1200s, glass was blown mainly for stained-glass windows. Large-scale manufacturing of glass started in the 1500's, when King Gustav Vasa ordered wine glasses for the royal court. Since then, Sweden has become world-famous for both its utility glassware and ornamental glass with internationally renowned brands like Kosta Boda, Orrefors, Rejmyre and Skruf. Founded in 1740, the glassworks in Limmared is the oldest in Sweden and where the bottles for Absolut Vodka are mad.
Olofsson’s face lights up like the furnace behind her. She describes her long apprenticeship: glass college in Sweden, university abroad, work placements, jobs and the blowing, blowing, blowing. She describes how her competitive nature drove her on to start her own glassworks. She even goes into the ins and outs of being self-employed, the bank loans and running costs. But above all she talks about her passion for glass. “For me, glass is so many things; it’s hard, dangerous, dirty, hot, sweaty work. And yet when it’s finished, you’re left with something delicate, fragile, nice to the touch, luxurious... I think that’s why I’m so fascinated by glass.”
It takes months if not years to study the manufacture and production of different types of glass and the history behind it. But at its most basic glass is made of sand, soda and lime. And air. “The interesting thing about air is that once you have added it there’s no going back. You can’t suck it out again. That’s why the blowing is the real art: it’s about seeing, understanding, judging, continuously watching and regulating the air you add. That’s the cool thing about air. When children come here on a study visit and they have a go at blowing a glass ball, I say to them, ‘Now we’re going to shut in your air! It will stay inside this ball forever. It’s inside here like a little piece of treasure.’”
Always open to new ideas, Olofsson’s passion for glass has taken her in unexpected directions. Last winter a friend of her husband, chef Luqaz Ottosson, came to visit. He had a go at blowing glass, they started to talk and then he asked her if glass could be used for cooking. “We had a go at frying eggs,” Olofsson laughs. “It wasn’t until the twelfth egg that we got the temperature right and the egg was perfect. So we kept going, learning how to cook more and more ingredients, and that’s how we ended up doing five-course dinners with all the food cooked on 750C glass. The evenings then turned into a mixture of dinner and performance where, among other things, I smashed glass with my bare feet. That’s what’s so special about glassblowing: you can never touch your material while you are working with it, only afterwards. ”Despite the heat from the glass furnaces which the propeller fan above our heads is pushing back down to floor level, now and again gusts of cold winter air burst into the room. Olofsson says it’s a never-ending job going around sealing the old walls. “Air is never-ending; it always finds its way in.”