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Heart of glass

Words by Hannah Tapping

Glass fusion meets interior installation in a mesmerising combination of colour, clarity and composition.

Glass fusion artist Jo Downs is a luminary in both senses of the word. As one of the world’s most respected fused glass designers, she leads the way in terms of both her giftware collections and bespoke installations, while each piece stands alone as a light-emitting body of work. Although Jo has become renowned in recent times for her signature giftware collection it was the larger glass installations that were the focus in her early career, including ceiling and wall installations, chandeliers and illuminated structures for hotels, cruise ships and private homes.

“When I first left college, a large proportion of my work came in the form of commissions from architects and interior designers. I would visit them, clutching little pieces of sample glass, from which we would visualise a project. However, these projects would often not come to fruition for several months after and so I had to find a way to fund my studio, and pay my way in life – I kind of fell into creating all the giftware, more by necessity than intention.”

“When the giftware business took off, the larger commissions took something of a back seat, but these have always been where my heart lies. I love the freedom that these projects bring and am often given free rein on an entire wall to create something unique.” Jo goes on to explain that her larger commissions have evolved somewhat over the years; there has been a shift from large individual panels and wall-to-ceiling triptych installations to more dynamic and flowing wall sculptures of shoaling fish and falling leaves, as well as incredible lighting pieces that border on the architectural.

Jo’s love of open-water swimming, the changing seasons that paint the Cornish countryside and nature’s symmetry have been the inspiration for her fluid glass sculptures. “I have always wanted to create a fish installation on someone’s wall, and I was given that opportunity by one of my clients. He owned a new build that had a really big wall onto which he wanted to put one of my glass installations. We looked at a triptych, but the nature of the space, which incorporated an area above a doorway, didn’t lend itself to a symmetrical glass structure – and I was worried that due to its size the weight of a single piece would be too much.”

“I had this idea of creating a shoal of fish that would circle around and then appear to swim off. He was really receptive and pretty much just allowed me to get on with it. What I managed to create was a highly effective solution for covering a large wall, while maintaining the beauty of the artwork. Each fish or leaf is individually placed on the wall and so no two installations are the same.

It’s a fluid process, as part of the creation of the artwork is actually in the presentation and the laying out of elements on the wall. They have become very popular in swimming pool settings as the glass isn’t prone to the same damp effects that a traditional artwork might be.”

While I can comprehend how a glass fish may adhere to a wall, I’m fascinated as to how Jo’s incredible lighting pieces are imagined, designed, constructed and hung. “I remember when the first one was commissioned and working it all out was quite a technical feat,” explains Jo. “There’s a lot of engineering involved and I had to carefully research the fittings and fixtures that could be used.

The fish themselves needed to be bent to achieve the appearance of them swimming around the light and so I had to spend quite a lot of time getting the moulds right. Now that the development work has been done the only real limit is the client’s imagination!”

Being dyslexic, Jo is a very hands-on creator and while she sometimes employs the CAD skills of her partner on the more technical aspects of an installation, the way she translates her ideas is by actually making them. This is evident in the way each installation is unique; she doesn’t follow a formulaic pattern, preferring to let the building and space dictate the form. “Each bespoke project is unique and this is how I love to work. Individual clients will choose different colours and orientations for the fish, or leaves, and I can adapt and work with this.”

While Jo’s fish and leaf installations have become incredibly popular, she is often approached for one-off projects that push the boundaries of glass fusion to the very edge. A project in point was a walkway panel commissioned to be set into an entrance hall, that once suspended in the floor would be both walked across and viewed from the level below. “For obvious safety reasons, the panel had to be sandwiched between two thick pieces of toughened glass, which meant that the glass couldn’t be a single panel. The very nature of glass fusion means that the surface is not completely flat, there are various intersections, and so there would have been uneven pressure points in a single pane.”

There was a point where Jo thought she was trying to create the impossible, but not one to be defeated she found a way forward, whereby she could create lots of individual pieces and then these ‘waves’ could be laid out with mosaic between them. The result is something very special and after all the work and effort Jo made sure she was the first person to walk on it!”

So, I ponder, what has been Jo’s favourite large commission? “I think it’s probably the ceiling I did on the P&O cruise liner, Arcadia. “I went to a meeting, and they said they wanted me to create a glass ceiling. As ever, I agreed; in my young naivety perhaps not comprehending the full scope of the project, but in my mind, there was no reason why it couldn’t be done. It ended up being made of 104 individual panels that spanned 11 metres. There were a lot of technical challenges as each piece had to be laminated onto toughened glass.

During my early career, I said yes to a lot of projects that became the biggest headaches, but this one was so worth it once I saw it in situ, and was an amazing opportunity.”

While Jo now has a team of highly skilled glass fusion artists that work with her, she remains ultimately hands-on. She has a studio and kiln in her backyard, which has been 20 years coming, and is constantly firing new pieces and ideas: “This is one of the joys for me and I’m lucky being able to do what I do. I’ll put some work in the kiln at night and then when I return to the studio in the morning there’s been an amazing transformation. There are many things I now have to be involved with in running the business, but the reality is that I do get to create most days and still obtain the same delight from each new design as I did when I started – which is quite humbling, as not everyone is able to enjoy their work as much as I do, nor be so hands-on. I’m still totally involved – I just can’t keep my hands out!”


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