Crafts magazine's critic Teleri Lloyd-Jones watches the drama unfold
We know the format by now. Over 10 episodes, a bundle of hopeful contestants are whittled down to one winner. The tasks push competitors to the limits of their creative endurance and we watch, hoping to see feats of accomplishment and the odd dramatic failure.
It’s a tried and tested formula in the UK, thanks to the behemoth Great British Bake Off and followers, the Great British Sewing Bee and the Great Pottery Throw Down. It shows no signs of flagging as Throw Down heads for its Channel 4 renaissance and BBC launches All That Glitters, a search ‘to find Britain’s most brilliant jeweller’. Now Netflix has entered the fray with Blown Away.
This North American series, filmed in Canada, was made in collaboration with Corning Museum of Glass. The winner is titled ‘Best in Blow’, so prepare yourself for every possible PG-rated pun on the word ‘blow’ (no-one is bold enough to attempt a glory hole joke – this is an innuendo-free zone). The prize includes a week’s residency at the museum and an exhibition of work from across the series on display until 1 July 2020.
It is serious business for professional makers, rather than amateurs. To varying degrees, all are putting their reputations at risk. Some contestants are in their early 20s while others, such as Janusz Pozniak, have three decades of experience behind them. It was certainly a strange choice to include Annette Sheppard who hasn’t blown glass for four years, having given it up for management consultancy.
Blown Away’s production values are high: think Peaky Blinders meets craft. There’s a plethora of slow-motion dolly shots of furnaces, sweating brows, molten glass twisting on blowpipes and steam billowing from water-soaked pads. There isn’t another craft better suited to this treatment. What the show communicates is the physicality of glassblowing; not some pretentious choreography of movement but the heat, the sweat, the weight and the strain.
The technical basics are covered at the start of each episode, and when something more intricate, such as reticello – an Italian decorative technique characterised by a fine netting of threads – rears its head, Katherine Gray, glass artist and associate professor at California State University, is on hand. Gray is an insightful guide and level-headed resident judge, off-set by the perky, mildly irritating presenter Nick Uhas.
Each episode is just over 20 minutes long. It’s breathless for those accustomed to comparable but more leisurely hour-long programmes. You soon realise that the format is unforgiving on an unfortunate breakage or misguided concept. Accidents happen – in the first episode there is not one but two – and they are satisfyingly dramatic in a hot shop.
The making takes place in a huge post-industrial building in Ontario, kitted out to be the largest glassblowing studio in North America. It’s a space originally made for a previous era of manufacturing, reborn as a craft performance space. Within the hot shop is a pristine white box: the gallery where finished pieces are revealed at the end of each episode. It’s a striking contrast one finds at the heart of much contemporary craft, as objects go from the studio’s dirt – all that embedded connection and context – into the blankness and blandness of a white cube.
There is diversity of approach among the contestants: some prefer the functional, while others are more conceptual. The work is sometimes stunningly beautiful and other times stupendously hideous, sometimes thought-provoking and other times tone-deaf. Memorable moments often come from the conceptualists, such as Leah Kudel and her decanter for a dancing drinker, designed to be attached to your belt while the glass sits in your cleavage. Deborah Czeresko makes several brave choices, creating a womb for men designed for a future of equal opportunities childbearing, or responding to a botany-themed challenge with an arrangement of sprouting potatoes.
Tasks range wildly from Pop Art homages and functioning light fittings to robots for an unknown future. We see creative ideologies and personalities placed in contrast throughout. But the secret ignored here is that craft isn’t about range, it is the opposite: it is about doing a thing well. Blown Away celebrates victory over technique or clarity of concept, but also demonstrates that a glassblower who can create a compelling art installation might not be the best equipped to create a flawlessly functional wine glass and decanter. Though the format enforces competition, one hopes that, through depicting different ways of thinking and making, it is the craft itself that is the winner.
Teleri Lloyd-Jones is a writer and editorial manager at Central Saint Martins