Interview · Mark Douglass
Mark Douglass in his Richmond showroom. Photo - Eve Wilson.
In editing the pics for today’s post I must admit I experienced vague sense of deja vu, before realising how frequently we seem to photograph someone in a glass studio! What can I say, Melbourne really does have the most incredible community of glass artists, working on various scales, and today we meet one of the very best.
A respected veteran of the glass making community, Mark Douglass first launched his practice in 1992 in Prahran, and now runs a prolific glass studio and showroom in Richmond, which he established in 2011. In 2012, he was awarded a prestigious Churchill Trust Fellowship in recognition of his body of work and contribution to the Australian glass design industry. Somewhere amongst his impressive 20 years in the industry, Mark has also taken on various entrepreneurial creative side projects, from fine art, to fashion and hospitality, but in recent years he has come full circle, returning to his roots, and focussing exclusively on the design and manufacture of bespoke lighting and glass pieces. His stunning work can be seen in many high profile homes and establishments across Melbourne (and further afield) – Cumulus, Cutler and Co, Silo by Joost and Vue de Monde to name a few.
Mark’s practice is extremely varied – a big part of his studio output is consumed with large scale architectural / design commissions, he also designs his own range of lighting and interior products available ‘off the shelf’, and he still creates one off glass artworks for exhibition both locally and abroad. His large scale commissions in recent years have also found their way into some of Australia’s leading corporate collections, including BHP, Cadbury Schweppes, BP and Rio Tinto. These varied projects are juggled with enthusiasm, propelled by Mark’s uncanny knack for balancing his tireless creative spirit with the necessary business acumen required to keep everything afloat!
Based in an impressive showroom space on the ground floor of an art deco building in Richmond, Mark is also one of the founding partners of Burnley Street Studios, which he runs with Ushi Swartz and Fiona Larwil, and which houses 10 other creative studios, and a shared workspace downstairs. This collaborative studio set up feeds into Mark’s own practice to some extent, incorporating other designers, writers and photographers all under one roof. The collective also runs events and functions in the downstairs gallery space, such as exhibitions, artist dinners and parties.
Mark’s work can be viewed by appointment at his showroom in Burnley St, Richmond, and a selected range is also available through his online store.
Tell us a little bit about yourself – what did you study and what path led you to what you’re doing today?
I have always loved making objects. I studied ceramic design/hot glass at Chisholm, now known as Monash Uni. Straight after university I set up a collaborative studio in Footscray called Whitehall Enterprises, where we practiced blacksmithing, hot glass and glass forming.
My first big break was when I was asked to do some interior commercial work for Grossi Florentino on Bourke Street, where I was commissioned to design and make the light fitting for the cellar bar and bistro. From this original project I then worked for a decade on various projects encompassing my glasswork including the Dog’s Bar and George Hotel for Donlevy Fitzpatrick, a penthouse in New York, resorts in Queensland and retails stores across Australia.
In 2000 I took up painting and focused on a career in fine art, where I was fortunate to exhibit with Gould Galleries in Melbourne and Sydney. I also worked with Osage Art Consultancy in Hong Kong and China with commission work. After a brief hiatus, it was eventually in 2009 when I decided to revisit my passion for lighting. Glass and lighting work so well together. I felt there was a gap in the market for colourful hand made blown lights. To me, feature lighting is one of the most important focal points of any interior. The ceiling creates a blank canvas and glass works well in both daylight and darkness.
Mark Douglass in his Mordialloc glass studio. Photo - Eve Wilson.
How would you describe your design aesthetic, and what influences your style of work?
It’s hard to pinpoint my design aesthetic. People tend to know my work due to the scale, usually the glass is large! Once you get over a certain size in blown glass, the presence of the work takes on a totally different dimension. I know when I see a large piece of glass I get a sense of excitement. The thrill of making these works is addictive. You have a very short time to get it right. Teamwork and timing are important. The fragility in the process of making something and the idea of making an object from an idea in any colour and size within an hour through the glass blowing process in pretty amazing.
Glass artists like Martin Blank, Dale Chihuly and Richard Marquis from the USA have all broken the art glass scene wide open. In Italy, Pino Signoretto and his older brother who works at Berengo Studio in Venice make incredible art glass. In lighting Vistosi have a great design sense and quality. I have been lucky enough to visit and work with these people first hand to see how they do it.
As most of my commissions need to work in an interior setting, I always design with the whole environment in mind. The clients’ taste and aesthetic is always considered throughout the design process from beginning to end. At the end of the day I like to make works that the client will love. Getting to know them and what they like helps me in deciding on what I want to make.
My rule of thumb with artwork and aesthetic is to make it then walk away. Close your eyes and turn around. When I open my eyes and see a finished piece for the first time, I will follow my gut reaction, which will usually lead me to decide if I need to paint over something, rearrange a setting, or add and subtract from an installation or composition. I generally advise the client to follow their first reaction too. Some people pick up on one work, where others totally miss it. We are all different and it’s refreshing to see variety and contrast that works together. If you think too hard about it you’ll get confused. Some people find it hard to trust their heart.
Your practice is extremely varied – your work is often exhibited both locally and internationally, you take on large scale architectural / design commissions, and you also design your own range of lighting and interior products under your own brand name. What division is there in your mind between your art practice and your design practice, and how to your juggle these varied assignments?
Working across three main areas requires a certain level of discipline, and I sometimes do find it hard to keep the ball rolling across my artwork and commission work, lighting work, and interior projects. The common thread between all of these pursuits is glass, which does keep everything somewhat united.
A ball of hot glass, at the end of the day, is what it is. If I spend time designing, then etching and engraving through the colours into the glass ball, reheating it and blowing it into a large vessel, that’s my artwork. It’s a one off. To be honest, I don’t know how long I will physically be able to make these one off works.
I also make smaller, simpler glass lights, but I can make a lot in a day with a glass team. These are $170 each. I sell a lot more of these.
I only want to take on one or two big projects a year. I designed and made the facade of a two-story house last year, including all the lighting, privacy screens gates and staircase. The project took a year. It was an amazing project, but it’s hard to be onsite a lot and also be in the showroom or studio.
This year I have decided to focus on the design range and lighting. I want to produce the more successful designs in a larger quantity, so I can have more stock readily available to our customers through our national outlets and our online store. Currently our custom orders have a lead time of 4-6 weeks, but I also want to offer easy off-the shelf offerings which are ready to go. I have found 50% of people are happy to choose from the floor stock, as it’s all had blown its good to see exactly what you are getting. We also offer an interior consulting service to help choose the lighting that would suit your interior. All you need is photos and we can draw up a concept.
Juggling is part of life, as long as you don’t drop the ball!
Mark Douglass showroom, Richmond. Photo - Eve Wilson.
Can you give us a little insight into Mark Douglass HQ? Where are you based, do you have a team of staff or regular collaborators, and do you outsource any significant tasks?
I am based at 240 Burnley Street, Richmond where my showroom is on the ground floor of a fabulous art deco building with great natural light. Burnley Street Studios, which I run with Ushi Swartz and Fiona Larwil, houses 10 creative studios upstairs and a shared workspace downstairs. The collaborative studio set up allows me to access and outsource graphics, PR, writers, photographers, but still be under the same roof. We also run events and functions from the downstairs spaces like artist client dinners, wedding and parties.
At the moment I work with a small team of six people. Rebecca Raymond, who has an interior design background, helps with floor sales and clients. Andrew Poon, an industrial designer, helps with CAD and solid works, design as well as web and graphics.
I work with two glass teams, Miles and Pat in Melbourne, and Jaan is South Australia. They are all experienced glass blowers who I have been working with for years. We all help get the lights assembled and orders out the door. I am always looking for interns and teaching them how a creative business works.
Mark and his team at work in the studio. Photo - Eve Wilson.
Studio details. Photo - Eve Wilson.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
I wake up at 6.30am normally, with my daughter Xanthe wanting breakfast. I get to the studio by 8.30, and have already had two coffees by then.
On Mondays I work back late in the showroom. One afternoon a week I visit clients. Thursdays my glass blowing day. I try to leave any functions to Friday. In between I work on quotes. New designs and finishing off the glass. The larger pieces I like to cold work myself.
Mark at work in the studio. Photo - Eve Wilson.
Can you list for us your top 5 resources across any media that you turn to regularly for creative inspiration?
Books are great. I found allowing time to visit other people’s book collections enables you to see books that are hard to find.
I gather screen shots and use my phone a lot to take snaps. I love Dropbox.
I also find most of my inspiration when travelling. Being stuck on a long flight lets me draw a lot.
Which other local artists, designers or creative people are you liking at the moment?
I have been working with Pascale Gomes-McNabb on Penfolds in South Australia, Yellow and Monopole in Sydney. She has an amazing eye and vision to be able to imagine a complete interior, with complex details that eventually work so well together. She’s very talented, being in hospitality she knows how things need to function.
I have also worked with Mim Design and admire their work. They have a great approach to interiors, with a focus on simple aesthetics using great materials.
I also share a studio and show some of Melma Hamersfeld’s work. I have known her for years, she was a great client and now friend, who has reinvented herself after selling her company Metalicus, and focusing on he artwork.
What would be your dream creative project?
I would like to design a multi story building and live in part of it. I like the idea of having a great bar downstairs, creative spaces, apartments and a roof garden. Don did it at the Dog’s Bar and Tim Peach has done it at Curtin House. These are both old buildings. I would like to do a new one.
I enjoy sketching up ideas even if they are never built. I have also been designing my ultimate transportable glass studio, and started making it out of shipping containers. To be able to blow glass with the general public would be great. I think they’d get a kick out of watching the process.
What are you looking forward to?
A holiday! I have not had one for a year so looking forward to one.
Mark at work in the studio. Photo - Eve Wilson.
Your favorite Melbourne neighborhood and why?
I like Richmond at the moment. It’s close to everything. I like the dynamic of the Richmond/Collingwood area, there are lots of design studios and interesting warehouse spaces.
What and where was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?
It would have to be Vue De Monde, when we had a chance to taste the degustation to see what the plates we could work on. Shannon Bennett has great attention to detail. Those tasty little things just keep on coming at you. We are working on a range of glassware with him which we hope to get up this year.
Melbourne’s best kept secret?
We found a cellar behind a false door at the studio, which no one knew about. Not anymore!