The Magic of Glass
The owners and founders of Little River Hotglass Studio provide an inside look at the craft of handblown, artisan glass.
STORY BY BENJAMIN LERNER
PHOTOGRAPHY JIMMY iENNER, JR.
Standing next to a shelf of gorgeous vases in the Little River Hotglass Studio showroom in Stowe, Michael Trimpol holds a striking glass perfume bottle in his hands. As he waxes poetic about the complex subtleties of handblown glass, his eyes light up with a joyful glint. Tracing his fingers over the perfume bottle’s subtle contours, he points out the colorful details that lie underneath its finely-polished surface. It’s been 27 years since Trimpol and his wife and business partner, Monique LaJeunesse, opened Little River Hotglass Studio, but the two of them still find immense fulfillment in
continuing to perfect their craft and product offerings. Working together as a creative and entrepreneurial team, Trimpol and LaJeunesse have built Little River Hotglass into a thriving business.
Trimpol serves as the principal craftsman who handles the production of the handblown glass pieces. Before moving to Vermont, he worked as an artisan glassblower for renowned public and private craft studios in Toronto, including the celebrated Harbourfront Centre. Trimpol also ran his own studio in Canada for eight years. LaJeunesse manages the business and the logistical aspects of the operation. She honed her marketing skills and artistic eye during the time that she spent studying at the prestigious Christie’s auction house in London. She now channels her sharp color acuity and business savvy into her work at Little River Hotglass.
In addition to being sold online, Little River Hotglass’ finely-made, handblown glass ornaments, marbles, perfume bottles, bowls, vases, urns, tableware, and paperweights are currently sold in hundreds of stores across the country. Many of their products incorporate multiple layers of color and texture in unique and innovative ways. The results are truly spectacular to behold, and their pieces make fantastic holiday gifts that bring a tasteful touch of color and vibrancy to any home.
For curious Vermonters and vacationers looking to participate in a unique and compelling hands-on artistic experience, Little River Hotglass also offers in-person glassblowing classes every week at their studio, Thursday through Monday for $150. Classes should be booked at least a week in advance by phone, and participants can learn basic techniques and take their finished pieces home with them. “We teach our participants how to make solid glass pieces,” says Trimpol. “They work with tools, choose the colors they want to use, and they get to experience the viscosity and liquidity of glass firsthand.”
In the days leading up to the Holiday season, Trimpol and LaJeunesse sat down with VERMONT Magazine to provide a behind-the-scenes look at the craft of handblown glass. The high-quality functional art pieces made by Little River Hotglass are beautiful and timeless—and the process that goes into making them is every bit as intriguing as their appearance.
From Furnace to Finish
Each piece made by Little River Hotglass is crafted using specialized artisan techniques, which Trimpol has mastered over the four decades he has spent working as a glassblower. The process of making the glass pieces begins after the original designs and ideas have been brainstormed and finalized by Trimpol and LaJeunesse. “I have many designs that have evolved over time,” says Trimpol. “Monique has ideas for designs and opinions on how to push them in different directions. I will often talk to her about color, because she sees nuances that I don’t necessarily see.” LaJeunesse elaborates: “Someone might come in and say that they want a piece with a certain color combination. Michael might not know exactly what color it is that they are talking about, but I will glance at a piece and instantly know. Michael and I have a true partnership. We’re congruent, and we take advantage of it. Michael is the person who knows the process, and I have ideas that help to improve and elevate our designs.”
After Trimpol and LaJeunesse agree on the design for a piece, the work begins on Trimpol’s end. Every object made at Little River Hotglass begins its journey from furnace to finish in a molten state, where the glass is “gathered” on the end of a glassblowing rod from a crucible in the melting furnace. All of the furnaces at Little River Hot Glass were custom-built and designed by Charlie Correll, an accomplished furnace designer based in Conway, Massachusetts. Trimpol molds and shapes the hot glass gathered from the furnace into a number of different products, taking advantage of its malleable and dynamic properties. Little River Hotglass’ pieces are made using a variety of different methods, each of which is dependent on the nature of the piece. Their perfume bottles are made using many fascinating tools, which allow Trimpol to implement his craftsmanship in spellbinding and complex ways.
Some perfume bottles are made using the “optic mold” technique, which creates special textures in the surface of the glass, such as ribs, that cannot be made using manual tools. “An optic mold is different from what is known as a ‘blowing mold’,” notes Trimpol. “Blowing molds are used by glassblowers who blow their glass into a predetermined shape. Optic molds do not create the final shape of our pieces. We ‘free blow’ our pieces and shape them by hand here. The optic molds only help to create texture during the shaping process and change the appearance of certain pieces.”
Trimpol also uses the optic ribbing technique on several other types of pieces, including bowls, urns, and vases. Additional highlights from Little River Hotglass’ vast collection of visually- arresting pieces include their flattened banded vases, which are made using an Italian glassblowing technique known as “incalmo.” Using the “incalmo” technique, multiple open-ended bubbles of blown glass are fused together to form a single unit. In the case of Trimpol’s flattened banded vases, the technique creates lovely color juxtaposition between the color bands, which can be made with differing opacities and textures, as well.
To make one of Little River Hotglass’ standard handblown perfume bottles, Trimpol begins shaping the glass by rolling it and smoothing it into a slightly flatter and more uniform shape after the first “gather” from the melting furnace. He then re-heats the glass in his re-heating furnace. He always spins his glassblowing rod at a steady, measured clip while it is inside the furnaces. By doing so, he ensures that the heat will be evenly distributed and that the glass will not fall out of alignment with the rod.
After re-heating the glass, Trimpol brings the rod and hot glass over to a table with an evenly-layered pile of small, richly-colored glass chips, otherwise known as “frit.” This frit is specifically made for artisan glassblowers, who use it to decorate their pieces and add color to them. After arriving at the table, Trimpol dips the glass down into the chips, pressing down once on the bottom of the glass before turning it over and pressing down on the other side. The heat allows the chips to bond to the hot glass, which is then placed back inside of the re-heating furnace. Inside the furnace, the chips fully melt into the glass. Once the glass is removed from the furnace, Trimpol begins smoothing the chips down and “twisting” them into the surface by rolling the glass on a flat steel table called a “marver.” In the process, the individual chips begin to spread out and merge with the surface of the glass, forming a spotted, spiral pattern. Trimpol repeats the process of re-heating and smoothing several times, paying careful attention and making sure that the shape and texture of the glass maintains its symmetry.
At the end of the initial smoothing and twisting stage, the chips will have blended together into a solid spiral pattern on the surface of the glass. Trimpol then shapes the edge of the glass to a sharp point, and snips off the end with pliers. Afterwards, he uses specialized tongs known as “jacks” to further mold the glass, ensuring that it remains centered and symmetrical. When the glass is satisfactorily shaped, Trimpol takes it back to the melting furnace, where he gathers an additional layer of glass on top of the original layer. It is this process of continual gathering and shaping that allows him to create pieces with multiple layers of different colors. This technique is used in many of the other pieces made at Little River Hotglass, including their mesmerizing “Vortex” urns and bowls.
Following the second gather, Trimpol smooths the glass and brings it to the re-heating furnace. Upon removing the glass from the re-heating furnace, he cools it down and begins the blowing process before placing it back in the melting furnace for one final gather. According to Trimpol, it is important to blow gently into the rod when working with handblown glass, because a little bit of air goes a long way. “You have to almost whisper,” he adds.
After the third gather is complete, the layer of colored glass rests between two different layers of clear glass, adding depth and dimension to the piece.
Trimpol then repeats the smoothing process to make sure that the outer layer is evenly distributed around the inner layer. He uses a wad of bunched, wet newspaper to gently smooth its edges, holding his hand underneath the folded edge of the paper while gingerly shaping the surface of the glass. While doing so, he routinely douses the surface of the newspaper with water to make sure that its singed edges do not fully combust from the heat. Ideally, the glass will be thicker around the bottom of the piece where it meets the glassblowing rod, yet smooth and even everywhere else.
When the glass is sufficiently smooth, Trimpol takes it back to the re-heating furnace, raising the temperature of the interior layers. He then removes the glass from the furnace, smooths it out, and begins blowing the glass again. After blowing into the rod, he traps the air with his thumb, forcing it to expand the glass at the end of the rod. If the glass is hot enough, the pressure from the trapped air will expand the glass bubble from its interior. Trimpol can then properly shape it and create the final piece. Trimpol then re-heats the glass after blowing into it, brings it back out of the furnace, and smooths it with wet newspaper and jacks.
When the shape is suitably refined and symmetrical, Trimpol lets the glass bubble cool on the glassblowing rod, then grabs a second glassblowing rod and gathers a small amount of glass. After smoothing out the glass on a steel table and molding it into a pointed, conical shape, he
places the glassblowing rod that holds the cooled, multilayered bubble in a horizontal position. He then approaches the back end of the cooled bubble from the other side with the second rod and touches the end of the glass hanging off of the hot rod to the edge of the cooled bubble. The glass on the end of the hot rod is hot enough that it melts the edge of the cooled bubble, joining the two separate bodies of glass on the two different rods together. Once the two different glass pieces are fused, Trimpol hits the end of the glass rod that is holding the cooled bubble with a small hammer. If done correctly, the front edge of the bubble will break off from the rod in a nearly seamless fashion. This will create a hole where the short glass stem that linked the bubble to the rod was once attached, which can eventually be manipulated into the neck and lip of the perfume bottle.
When the cooled bubble is broken off of its original rod, Trimpol reheats the newly-merged, two-part piece of glass in the reheating furnace on the second rod. Once the glass is hot, he opens the newly-formed hole and forms the neck of the perfume bottle by using jacks. At this point in the process, he repeatedly re-heats the piece from time to time, holding it in the re-heating furnace in a manner that refocuses the heat on the neck section instead of the bubble section. In between re-heating, he alternates between streamlining the shape of the bubble with wet newspaper, forming the neck of the bottle, and making sure that the neck is straight and even. While forming the neck, he twists it to ensure that the spiral shape is continued from the bubble to the neck. When the neck increases in length to the point that it is ready to be cut down to form the final shape of the perfume bottle, he trims it down with a pair of shears. He then re-heats the piece once more, and flares the lip of the perfume bottle open with jacks. After that, he narrows the neck so that it can properly fit the custom-made glass bottle stopper. Each stopper is handmade on-site to fit the specifications of the bottle. Once the lip is flat and perpendicular to the body and the opening is centered, the perfume bottle is completely formed and ready to be set aside and cooled.
When pieces are set to cool, they are typically placed in a specialized cooling furnace known as an annealer, or “lehr,” which gradually lowers their temperature. Trimpol says that given the dynamic properties of glass, the rate at which it cools has a significant effect on its structural stability. “When we work with the annealers, we turn them to 850° Fahrenheit. 850° is a temperature that is hot enough that the molecules can readjust and all of the stress can be relieved. From there, we cool them down to what is known as the “strain point,” which is about 220 degrees below that. Once the glass hits the strain point, you can drop the temperature down to room temperature fairly quickly—as long as the drop isn’t so quick that it causes the glass to break from stress caused by rapid cooling.”
After a finished piece has cooled, it is taken to an adjacent room, where it is ground, polished, and finished. The room is equipped with a sandblaster, a wet belt sander, and a lapping wheel that uses diamond discs to grind down surfaces. All pieces made at Little River Hotglass are fully ground and polished before they are packaged for shipping and sale. “The grinding process removes excess material and makes the surface nice and flat,” says Trimpol. “After the surfaces are flat, we move on to a finer and finer grit and bring them to a full polish.” When polishing curved surfaces, Trimpol uses the belt sander. “It has a certain amount of give, and the belts just work differently. Also, if I wanted to chamfer the edge of a piece and give it a symmetrical slope, I would use the belt sander, as well.
For certain pieces, Trimpol makes use of the sandblasting machine to change the opacity of the glass that he is working with. This technique is put to excellent use in a specific variation of their bubble paperweights, which feature layered colored glass, clear glass, and trapped air bubbles that form a beautiful pattern. In the sandblasted version of the bubble paperweight, the majority of the piece is sandblasted, save for a small ovoid window in the bottom center of the piece. The non-opaque window creates a viewing portal into the paperweight, highlighting the colored glass bubble and air bubble pattern within its interior layers.
“The bubble paperweights combine a number of the techniques that Michael uses in an incredible way,” says LaJeunesse. “You get to see the true magic and potential of glass.”
ALL THE DETAILS: