Swedish craftsmanship of the first glass

Florida has the Magic Kingdom, Will Perkins has the Wild Kingdom, but Sweden has the Glass Kingdom. There are no overgrown mice walking around on their hind legs or footage of lions munching on zebras, but if your grandmother keeps a jar of candy in her home, then the Glass Kingdom is probably where it came from. The jar, not the candy, or your grandmother - unless she's Swedish

The Glass Kingdom is an area in southeast Sweden where you can’t drive for more than two minutes without running into a glass factory, and breaking it. There are nearly 20 such factories within a 20 mile range. The undisputed ruler of this kingdom is Orrefors, so naturally that’s where I started looking for a job.

I thought this might be difficult because my technical glass-blowing Swedish was not up to scratch, I didn’t have a Swedish work visa and, well, I didn’t know the first thing about making glass. But I was eventually passed on to an extremely nice PR person who told me I might be able to try my hand at it for a day, though she suggested it would be more interesting to “work” at Kosta Boda, better known for their avant garde style. A long rival of Orrefors (in fact, Kosta Boda tried to buy Orrefors 30 years ago), Kosta Boda is now owned by the Orrefors Group.

Orrefors is an old Swedish word meaning: “Don’t forget to bring your wallet” and Kosta Boda means “While you’re at it, take out a loan.” Some products are affordable for people like you and distant relatives of Bill Gates. But collecting this glassware is normally reserved for the kind of people who let their polo ponies get hair cuts from guys named Phillippe.

In order to work a full day at Kosta Boda, I was told that I would have to wake up at 5:30am. Seeing the stricken look on my face, and since the Glass Kingdom was located several hours from anywhere, they let me spend the night at the Kosta Boda guest house.

I started my brief apprenticeship in the glass-painting department, where they decorate plates, bowls, and glasses with elaborate designs. As you might imagine, this requires considerable skill, and during the first hour (at 6AM) I didn’t display any. In the second hour, as I gradually woke up, I still didn’t display any, but by then I was thoroughly enjoying myself. What I’d do was take, say, a perfectly nice glass bowl, set it next to the pre-designed model, let Linda, a professional glass painter, help me mix my paints, and then I’d paint something on the bowl that didn’t resemble the pre-designed model in the slightest, except for the color scheme, thanks to Linda.

Fortunately, the PR department, sensing a keen opportunity for publicity, had assigned Karin, a young PR intern to guide me through the large factory, help with occasional translation, and tell me (with a straight face) that every piece of junk I designed was a masterpiece.

After creatively defacing about $500 worth of fine glass, Karin led me to the engraving department, where I learned how to creatively deface fine glass via the technique of engraving.

There are two general types of engraving. One type can be learned in about one day. The other takes four to five years to master. I nearly got the hang of the first technique: tracing a design on a plate with a dentist’s drill. “Incredible,” spouted Karin, looking over my shoulder. Naturally, it didn’t look like much, but I was really getting into this arts-and-crafts stuff.

Moving on to the second technique, Jan (a master engraver) gave me some valuable pointers. I managed, in just one hour, to engrave a dolphin on a glass vase which, if you dimmed the lights and backed up a bit (to, say, Finland), looked vaguely like a dolphin on a glass vase. If you didn’t take these measures, it looked more like a Tuna on a glass vase. Or a glob of spit on a glass vase.

“That’s okay,” mustered Jan.

“It’s just beautiful,” gushed Karin.

It was time to attend lunch – I mean, a press conference with food. The glass designer, Gunnel Sahlin (a woman), was giving a presentation in Swedish for the local press on her recent exhibits in America. In this part of Sweden, a few of these glass designers, Gunnel included, are as well known as some TV celebrities because, well, people really seem to like glass here. I was introduced to Gunnel but I didn’t ask her anything because I hadn’t understood much of her hour-long presentation and I had been nodding my head appreciatively the whole time as if I had.

The next stop, the glass blowing department, looked like Santa’s workshop – if it were moved to a sauna and the elves had taken steroids.

Krister, a master glassblower, tried to show me the ropes. The first step, he said, was to take a long metal blowing rod and get some hot glass on the end of it. I walked over to the large pizza oven and dipped the tip of the rod into the pot of glowing white liquid glass. But I didn’t do it quickly enough. At six feet away, the hair on my arms singed from the extreme heat.

I pulled out what looked like a glowing (2000 degree) giant wad of chewing gum. Then Krister asked me to practice blowing a bubble with it. While spinning the rod quickly to keep the gooey glass from dripping onto the floor, I began to slowly inflate it. With minimal effort, I was able to make a bubble nearly the size of a chair. Before it burst, Krister took the bubble over to a cool water trough and let it break safely underwater.

“Now,” he said, “you will make a bowl.” Actually, I made several bowls. But if you saw any of them, I doubt you would say, even if you were trying to be polite, “Hey, nice bowl!” You would probably say, “Hey, nice lobsided ashtray!” or “Hey, nice wad of melted glass!” or simply “Hey!”

Karin loved them all.

We went up to the PR offices to say hello. Karin insisted I show everyone my dolphin vase. “Look, isn’t it beautiful!?” They all agreed it was. The head PR person even took a photo of it. My plates and glasses were also passed around. The PR office squealed with each creation: “Beautiful!” “Wonderful!” “Incredible!” Once all my handicraft was spread out, I could see I had ruined an impressive amount of glass.

So what, you may ask, did I take away from this experience besides a hideous set of original tableware? Well, I felt so bad about ruining their glass that I purchased an expensive item that I have absolutely no use for. But the most amazing thing was that in this same glass shop, which looks like Wedding Gift Utopia, I found myself picking up large glass objects and examining the painting, engraving, and blowing work for several minutes with the eye of a craftsman.

I had acquired, if nothing else, expensive taste.

Doug Lansky is a travel writer based in Sweden.

Further information

Kosta Boda web site

Kosta: +46 (0) 478 345 29

Boda: +46 (0) 481 424 10