Volume 43, Issue 8 - August 2008
BY ELLEN ROGERS
If decorative glass is to an architect what candy is to a kid, then perhaps Meltdown Glass is the Hershey, Pa., of architectural art glass. The company caters to the unique tastes of architects, designers, facilities managers, art consultants, art collectors and public art commissions, and its creations can add an artistic element to a building that otherwise might be much less interesting. For nearly 16 years, Meltdown Glass has created artistic glass displays and today, as the popularity of decorative glass continues to soar, the company is finding ways to stay creative, innovative and competitive.
but on a lesser scale and was not nearly as well-known as it is today.”
In 1996 she began creating glass art for architectural applications.
“My vision for Meltdown Glass was to create the preeminent art glass house in America, and combine artistic excellence with the capacity to fabricate on an architectural scale,” says Katz.
But the transition from sculpture to storefront is not easy, and Katz says it took the efforts of many.
“When I was a gallery artist I’d formulate ideas in my mind and then I’d fabricate them. Here, what’s exciting is the collaboration that takes place between myself and the other Meltdown Glass staff and the architects and designers who take [the ideas] and add their own special, creative talents to it,” says Katz. “And what we come up with is something so unique, it leads me in directions I would never go on my own.”
When it comes to finding inspiration, Katz doesn’t have to look much further than out a window. She loves spending time outdoors, and the natural surroundings help to spur ideas.
“There is a harmony and rhythm in nature that I try and capture in my art glass so that it has a life to it,” she says. “Nature is just so rich and it is so nice to have an opportunity to bring it into people’s lives when so much in our society is manufactured and very little is hand-done. That’s the absolute beauty of what we do here,” she continues. “Everything we do is handmade.”
The Meltdown Glass team does indeed bring a made-by-hand feel to everything it creates. As a leader in the kiln-formed glass industry, the company does not use any permanent molds, so every piece of glass is truly different.
Lalita Johnson, who works in sales and design, says not using permanent molds is one of their strongest attributes.
“We’re starting essentially with a blank canvas,” says Johnson. “We compress the powder and then press the mold into it so everything has a handcrafted look,” she says. She adds, “You can look at the glass and tell a human created it.”
“I was excited and a bit apprehensive about the project. I was concerned about having the artwork flow perfectly between panels and about keeping within panel size tolerances so the installation would go well,” says Katz. “The art glass wall was installed between two fixed walls so there was not much wiggle room in the sizing. I was present as the glaziers installed the art glass wall and the installation went smoothly.”
And while the industry has changed much since Katz got started, the early projects themselves are not much different than what she does today.
“The one thing that was different then was there were fewer quality [coloring materials] than today. Now you can do much more with color,” she says.
The creative aspect of the business—cranking out fresh designs and ideas—was never a problem for Katz. The business aspect was the hard part. She says that as an artist, she did not necessarily have the skills to run a company.
“When starting out, the hardest thing for me was learning how to run a business; the creative aspect comes naturally,” Katz says.
But learning to be business minded
“When I first started calling on people they didn’t really know what I was talking about and I had to educate them from the ground up,” says Katz.
Launching the company pretty much on her own also made for tough beginnings.
“Start-up costs and being overworked personally until I could afford more than just me,” she says, made for trying times. “Any person who’s built a small business from the ground up knows you have to wear a lot of different hats, some more than others,” says Katz. Today the company has 11 fulltime employees and “a bunch of parttime employees.”
“I call the companies and ask for samples so we can experiment,” she says.
Katz also gives a lot of credit to the Glass Association of North America (GANA) and its new decorative division (see box below). She says by being a part of the group (Katz serves as the chair for the division’s membership committee) she’s been able to learn about many new techniques. GANA, Katz says, has provided an outlet for “collaborating with different companies to create a much better end product than you’d get if you were operating more so in isolation.”
While staying current with the latest techniques helps Meltdown maintain its competitive edge, team members are still careful not to stray from the intentions on which the company was formed.
“We try and stay very close to our original vision; that we operate, not as a manufacturer, but as a glass art studio,” Katz says. “We look at every single project, no matter what it is, for the artistic quality and quality control. That’s part of keeping market share: delivering really good products to your clients.”
Good & Plenty
“Overall, the most important thing has been hiring excellent people and then letting them use their creativity and their intelligence,” Katz says, explaining that the people she hires all have an interest in the arts, “and I think that comes through in the work we do.”
Like Katz, Chris Klein, assistant art director, is an artist by trade. With the company since 2000, he earned his bachelor of fine arts from the Cleveland Institute of Art, and was trained as a glass blower. In college he worked in sculpture, as well as metal and stone, but Katz taught him about flat glass.
“Over the past ten years I’ve leaned most of my work toward glass because I think the material is amazing,” says Klein. “I apply the same rules of mold making [to glass] as with metal casting, but glass takes longer to kiln. You can’t push it as much because it can crack. There’s definitely patience to it and daily research and development.”
Johnson has been with Meltdown for about two years and has a background in interior design. She often helps designers select the right piece for their projects.
“It is a challenge, value engineering, but I have to say that once we get into a project and we work with a design firm, we always, always work with them again,” says Johnson. “Once they have that comfort level of specifying it, then they are cool.”
Jeremy Jones, an architect with DWL Architects + Planners Inc. in Phoenix, has worked with the company for a number of years. He says it’s the way Meltdown approaches its work that distinguishes it the most.
“They are really interested in pushing the limits of glass, and [with all of the] trends right now in glass, they want to stay ahead of the game,” says Jones. “In working with them we set up the mutual parameters of the work—what the piece needs to do, etc.—and then allow them to integrate that into the design. We just get out of their way and see what they can do.”
Jones adds, compared to other companies Meltdown seems much more interested in working with the architects on projects.
“They are interested in working with [us] and integrating their work into the design of the space rathe than just showing off their work,” says Jones. “[In other words] they don’t view the building as just a backdrop for their work.”
All Weather Tempering, also located in Phoenix, has been tempering glass for Meltdown for about five years. “So we’ve seen quite a few amazing projects come through our tempering plant,” says Sarah Porter, who works in All Weather’s new business development department. In addition to providing tempering services, All Weather has also sold cut-sized annealed glass, sometimes with notches, holes and edgework, to Meltdown.
“We usually supply these annealed parts when they are working on bigger projects so that they can focus on making the art, rather than cutting glass,” says Porter. Like Jones, Porter says Meltdown is a company that has worked hard to create an architecturally appealing product that retains artistic integrity.
“They aren’t just selling a decorative glass product to fill an opening,” Porter says. “When you look at their work you can see that they’ve really made an artistic statement.”
Likewise, Katz says her business would not be what it is without such professional relationships. “We work very closely [with customers and suppliers] and good communication is extremely important,” says Katz. “Sampling, rendering, managing expectations so that everyone is on the same page every step of the way, from selling the job to creating the design to fabricating the work to having it installed, we work very closely with both the architect and designers on the creative aspect and with the glaziers on the technical aspect.”
The role that the contract glazier plays on the job is one that’s extremely important, and the Meltdown team works hard to make sure the installers have all the information they need to ensure a proper installation.
“We have a project manager who works closely with the glaziers and we have a form we go through with them that collects all of their specification information. That way, before we begin, we know exactly what is expected and how it is to be done,” says Katz.
For Ron Marx, president of glazing contractor Milwaukee Plate Glass, working with Meltdown was an extremely positive experience.
“They got us the quote quickly; if I had to call them with questions my calls were returned promptly, and returning phone calls is such a big thing,” says Marx. “And when we placed the order they went over their checklist with us.”
Marx adds, that aside from how appealing the glass from Meltdown is, it’s their responsiveness and professionalism as a company that makes them stand out.
“They are very cooperative,” says Marx. “Similar companies aren’t always quite that way. Others might take more of a ‘this is my glass and I’ll get it to you when I can,’ attitude.”
“More brings more,” Katz says. “Competition doesn’t cut down on the success of a business; it increases it because people get more and more ideas.”
Keeping Up with the Trends
“I think it’s just a vey good time to be in decorative glass,” says BJ Katz, founder of Meltdown Glass. “It’s very popular and you have so much ability to realize your creative vision, so much more than in the early days. There are terrific works being done by a whole range of people and those works are so uplifting to view.”
Lalita Johnson, who works in sales and designs at Meltdown, says one reason for the increase in decorative glass popularity is the fact that there are more U.S. companies getting involved. She says while the market may have started out in other countries, it’s coming on strong here now.
“Now it’s time for the United States to really start taking off,” says Johnson.
So just what are some of the big decorative trends?
“Color is very hot,” says Katz, who adds that dichroic glass is also growing in popularity. “It’s lively and the color shifting is a low-tech way to get high-tech quality into your installation.
Companies are also combining other artistic technologies, such as photography, into glass.
“I’m doing my first project where we are integrating photography into cast glass,” says Katz, who explains they are using a process that takes a large-scale photograph and applies it digitally to cast glass.
“There’s always something new and if you’re open to it and looking for it then you can stay current and keep growing,” says Katz.
GANA Decorative Division Accelerates Forward
“Not only was the creation of the decorative division met with great enthusiasm, but it continues to flow as we are into our second year,” says decorative division chair Kris Vockler of ICD High Performance Coatings. “New products and new processes are giving even more options to architects and designers. The challenge now, which is an exciting one, is finding a way to communicate all the options available. As a division we continue to gain new members at a fast rate; those members are getting involved in the committees and literally helping to shape the industry. It's an exciting time to be in decorative glass and even more so to be a part of the new industry movement toward decorative glass acceptance.”
Several projects for the group include:
• Publishing a Glass Informational Bulletin on guidelines for handling and cleaning decorative glass;
• Preparing a presentation on decorative glass for AIA approval;
• Drafting a white paper on decorative glass and how it pertains to various U.S. Green Building Council LEED credits;
• Creating a sub-set of the GANA website for decorative glass that will focus on a photo gallery and different types of decorative glass; and
• Updating the GANA Engineering Standards Manual to include decorative glass.
In addition, the division is a participating association sponsor of the annual NeoCon trade show for interior design.
The decorative division will hold its next meeting as part of the GANA Fall Conference scheduled to take place September 8-10 at the Wyndham DFW Airport North in Dallas.
Additional information is available online at www.glasswebsite.com.