Words by Mercedes Smith
In conversation with Jo Downs, where glass fusion meets interior installation in a mesmerising combination of colour, clarity and composition.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and your background?
I grew up in the midlands with my parents and two brothers, and at school I had big plans to become an art teacher. I was really interested in working with clay, but a tutor suggested I try working with glass and I fell in love with it instantly. That was the moment that changed my life. I went on to study Glass and Ceramic Design at Sunderland University, and after graduation I set up my first studio in London, just me and a kiln and all my enthusiasm for making beautiful things out of fused glass. It was the start of an adventure that I’m still on thirty years later!
What led you to start Jo Downs Handmade Glass, how did it all begin?
I set up Jo Downs Handmade glass straight out of university and began working on really big projects, designing glass installations for hotels and cruise liners. It was a wonderful start to my career, so exciting creatively, but very demanding technically. It really taught me to perfect my skill in the studio, and I learned a lot about business. In 2001 I moved to Cornwall and set up a new studio in Launceston, deciding to focus on making interior pieces. That proved really successful, and it allowed me to work and be a mum at the same time – I had my two sons around that time, so life was busy, and fun and pretty chaotic, but we made it work. In 2005 I took a real plunge forward with the business and opened the very first Jo Downs Handmade Glass gallery in Padstow. That was such a scary time business-wise, but it worked beautifully – people loved the work and 17 years later the gallery is still going strong. Since then I have opened galleries in St Ives, Fowey and Tintagel, and expanded the workshop in Launceston to include our biggest interiors gallery where visitors can get a first look at my latest designs. I’ve also opened a gallery in the south east, near Ascot, which includes a dedicated space for glass-fusing workshops. They have become really popular.
Where do you take your inspirations for your stunning collections?
Creatively, moving to Cornwall was incredibly inspiring, and you’ll see the colours and textures and details of this place in nearly all my work. But these days, thanks to the support of my lovely glass fusing team, I am sometimes able to find time to experiment in my studio, to try out new patterns or designs or new shapes. It’s important not to get too fixed in your ideas as a designer, so creative freedom is essential. I launch something new at the galleries every season, so our visitors can get excited about what’s next.
Take me through your process, how do such beautiful and intricate pieces such as yours come together?
I begin by sketching out my ideas, and then spend days or sometimes weeks making test pieces – testing colours and textures and how different combinations will react in the kiln. Eventually, really great forms and colour combinations will emerge, and I’ll refine the design until it’s perfect. Then I’ll start making collections with my team, and they go in the galleries. It’s always fun to see people’s reactions when we launch a new design.
Talk to me about any commission pieces that you’re particularly proud of, or stand out to you.
Creating commissioned work is my favourite thing to do. It’s a special thing to design a one-off commission for somebody, it’s really meaningful for them and that makes it all the more important to me. I created a wall mounted Shoaling Fish design for an architect designed house in Padstow some years ago, and that was a really key commission for me – it kicked off a whole world of wall-mounted art installation commissions that have just run and run. Another key design was when I began making bespoke chandeliers for clients. That took so much experimentation and testing at first, but the results were spectacular and those pieces have become really high profile for me. I absolutely love that moment when they are delivered to the client and installed for the first time. It’s always so special. But all commissions are special! Lately I’ve been creating bespoke glass panels as kitchen splash backs – turning a practical idea into a custom work of art in someone’s fabulous new kitchen, in the heart of the home. Splashbacks effectively take the form of long paintings, so the design possibilities are endless.
What do you feel your pieces add to an interior space?
My bespoke work offers clients the opportunity to express their own personality, their own passions. Because my work is built around the client’s own wants, and is tailored to an exact space, the results are always unique – and we all want something unique and beautiful in our lives, don’t we? It’s good for the soul!
Are there any new projects in the pipeline?
Yes! I have something really exciting in the pipeline. They are ‘drop vases’ – beautiful elongated forms that are created from ‘slumping’ glass, which effectively means ‘melting’ glass, and letting it drop downwards to create really soft and natural shapes before it sets to a lovely, polished surface with beautiful twists of colour through it. I’ve spent nearly a year playing around with various designs and testing them out with different forms and textures. They are gorgeous! I hope people will love them as much as I do.
Tell me about your experience working with glass, and what it means to you.
From childhood I never doubted I’d be an artist, but it was that first encounter with fused glass at university, with its brilliance and colour, that set me on a career path for life. I just fell in love with it! A whole world of creativity opened up to me right then, and I’ve never looked back. I’m never happier than when I’m in my studio, with a cup of tea and the radio on, and a full day of playing with glass in front of me. I feel very lucky to live such a creative life.