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Getting inside the minds of creators is often a challenge, but Andi Kovel was willing to talk. She’s the co-owner and creative director of the luxury, high-end glass blowing Esque Studio in Portland, Oregon, and after being recently featured in the second season Netflix’s Blown Away (more on that later), having the spotlight shone in her direction now doesn’t seem so daunting. As a matter of fact, Kovel is keen on engaging in conversation as it relates to the world of glass blowing—especially how it’s integrating with, and reacting to, the design industry.
Steeped in tradition and technique, there’s a lot more to this artistic endeavor than one might imagine. For Kovel, the intention of adding to and advancing art and design—rather than replicating the past—remains a top priority. Her personal view is reflected in her branding, designing, and self-described “punk lux” style that’s a combination of provocative and avant-garde with functional installation. “The individual vision or voice,” she says, “that is everything.”
Originally hailing from Brooklyn, Kovel trained in fine art and sculpture and only got into glass blowing after taking a class during the 1990s while she was teaching at the Museum of Modern Art and working towards her master’s degree at New York University. After that, she began her journey as a professional glass artisan, and among her accomplishments, includes Esque Studio being named to Time magazine’s Design 100 and a host of notable clients such as Lenny Kravitz, Nike, Sephora, and The W Hotel (among others).
While her range of handmade art and design objects runs the gamut from lamps and sconces to bowls, jugs, and decanters—and are often based on collaborations with her design partner, Justin Parker—Kovel admits she is a big fan of multiples. “I love when you have a grouping because that gives you an opportunity to develop a color palette but still have this modern simplicity to each piece,” she says, “and you can develop an overall form and concept if you put multiples in.” And creating multiples was something Kovel took to her experience on Blown Away with (as you’ll soon read) varying results.
Behind Blown Away
There are 10 episodes in total of the glass-blowing reality competition Blown Away, and Kovel passed all of the challenges up until episode 7. When she was eliminated, I (for one) just wasn’t on board with it. I loved her final piece, “Megaphone,” for what it symbolized, its artistry, and color composition. Having watched the entire season—and knowing that she already has 20-plus years of experience under her belt—I wondered what it was like for Kovel to come into a television series, and its corresponding format, with an already established, highly successful career. “I guess for me going on the show, the one thing I thought about before we started filming was no matter what—I am doing me. I’m going to make sure that I love every piece I make, and that each one is something I would include in my body of work,” she explains. “I’m not going to end up changing or being influenced by what everyone else is doing, or what I think they’re looking for, because I just want all the work to look like mine and be something I love.”
Kovel reveals that signing up to do Blown Away was going to be way out of her normal comfort zone. “I like making stuff, but I also love designing, and I do all of the marketing and branding, so I'm interested in a lot of different aspects. I'm not the head gaffer (professional glassblower) in the studio every day, some days I just assist,” she says. “Lately since the show, it's kind of been more 50/50. Justin and I design our own pieces and make our own work, but sometimes, he’ll make things I designed and vice versa.”
Ultimately for the designer, the experience was a combination of highs and lows including the challenges of personal and public perceptions as well as personal and professional exposure (on the one hand), and the advantages of her big-picture plan of leveraging the experience (on the other). The use of that leverage has helped expand her brand awareness, level of intimacy, career growth and prospects. “I want more opportunities to create,” explains Kovel. “I want to be driving my career rather than being dragged behind it.” Her love of design, intention, and environmental responsibility played a part as well (so to speak) in the designer’s decision to appear on the show. Having conversations and asking questions about the nature of the industry continues to draw her artistic desire to the fire, and this was one way to bring those discussions to light.
While art and design on TV is for entertainment, there’s a big focus on social media personalities now too. Although artists are compelled to cater to current media platforms, styles, and attention spans, Kovel continues to stay true to herself, which may have been one of the reasons she didn’t make the final cut. “I think in retrospect it's actually perfect I didn’t fit in there and I wasn’t accepted,” she admits. “I think I had a bigger question mark presented to me, like how design and forward-thinking—or new modalities—are embraced by traditional crafts. It's so great that I wasn't the status quo. I feel like I operate on a different playing field, and the fact that I didn't fit the mold of what they were looking for is perfect.” What’s also perfect is the fact that in the end, Kovel’s appearance did expand her reach with viewers who became fans of her work. “I'm glad I didn't get a 100,000 followers who are pedestrian. The people that liked the work I did there, and have gotten in touch, have all been those who get what I'm doing, that like design, and have an aesthetic. It really brought out my audience.”
Admittedly when it comes to glass blowing, most people can’t name any artists or designers outside of American glass sculptor Dale Chihuly, but now at least if you’re reading this, you’ve become familiar with Andi Kovel who knows that “in the big scheme of things, the show is really interesting because people are interested in watching it and following along, so I think it’s a resurgence of glass as an art form.”
Other Esque Studio pieces, including a killer Mirrored Skull and .38 Special Sculpture, are available at Amusespot here.
Stef Schwalb, the author, is a freelance writer who specializes in food, beverage, design, workplace trends, and travel. Her work has been featured in Boston magazine, Boston Home, Designing Lighting, The SOMM Journal and Tasting Panel magazine.