Michael Ruh & Natascha Wahl have their hearts in glass - an art that uses both the mind and body. Their mutual love of working with glass brought them together, led them first to travel the world and then finally to settle in London, where they now successfully run their own studio.
Michael Ruh & Natascha Wahl (Michael Ruh Studio)
glassmakers and designers
LONDON IS …
LONDON IS NOT …
a sleepy pasture
MY FAVOURITE MUSIK:
L’Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi
MY FAVOURITE MOVIE:
Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth
A GOOD DAY STARTS WITH …
a cup of coffee made from Kurt’s Volcano Coffee
I´M HAPPY WHEN …
the sun shines and it’s cold outside
MICHAEL WOULD NEVER …
eine Karriere als Buchhalter machen
Before Natascha met Michael, she met his drawings. She had arrived in the town of Mechelen, Belgium, to attend a glass art summer-school programme. Michael was working from a studio in Bonn but had done some work at the school. Natascha: 'I was looking at some drawings at the school and thought, "Oh, they look just like mine." We were drawing similar shapes in a similar way.' They met in person when Michael visited to check out the programme. After a long-distance relationship, and then a period living together in Michael's Bonn studio, they threw around a few ideas about places to live permanently - and London seemed like a good place to start life as a new couple.
London was a good place to start, to make a new life, to grow as a couple.
Natascha: 'We were both involved with glass. There were about seven glass studios in London at the time; it was a good place to start, to find a new job, to make a new life, to grow as a couple.' As a place to call home, London crept up on them. Michael: 'The first time we came back from an extended stay away from London, that's when we had this feeling of London being our home.' Buying a house also played a big part in their embracing the city. Initially they were renting, but the owner of the house told them: Either you buy or you move. After four months of nesting they were ready to fly away, for a time.
First stop was Corning, in upstate New York, home to the Corning Museum of Glass and its extensive collection, and also the Rakow Research Library, a leading glass research centre. Michael and Natascha had been accepted for an arts festival in Denver, Colorado. In Corning, they made their work for the show at the museum's studio. They travelled to Denver, and around the United States, in a 'Luton' van, and then in a van with creamy-white wall-to-wall carpeting, aircon, cruise control and vinyl wood panels - nicknamed Woody the Cream-puff.
It makes London wonderful to live in, that you can have a little piece of earth and you can grow things, and harvest.
Now they live in West Dulwich, in a mid-century modern house close to their studio. Nearby, at Rosendale Allotments, they have a cherished piece of land, 'a little slice of the countryside in the middle of the city', that they've been cultivating for ten years. Natascha: 'It makes London wonderful to live in, that you can have a little piece of earth and you can grow things, and harvest. We have a small child so she's growing up on this allotment as well.'
In 2004 Michael and Natascha set up what they consider to be their first proper studio, in West Dulwich. Generally there are three people in the studio: Michael, Natasha and their full-time assistant. Their current studio is in Tulse Hill, where they moved at the beginning of April 2013. Downstairs consists of a hot shop, which, as the name suggests, houses the furnace with molten glass; it's where they make the blown glass objects. Next to it is the cold shop, where the grinding, polishing and embellishing is done - all processes that use water-cooled machines. Upstairs they have an office and gallery space. Natascha: 'We like to have 1,500-1,600 sq ft because it gives you a little more room, room to move.'
If you’re not into food it makes for difficult conversation... and it also makes for a difficult lunch.
There's a good reason, indirectly related to their practice, why a little more studio space is necessary - they prefer to have a kitchen in their studio. They always eat lunch together, along with their assistants. Natascha: 'We always, always eat together and we do one hour of lunch. And it gives us a bit of time together without work.' Michael: 'One of the things I talk a lot about with people working for us is food.' So if you're not into food it makes for difficult conversation. Natascha: 'And it also makes for a difficult lunch.'
As in most artists' lives, the commercial and the creative butt heads. Michael and Natascha are often asked if outsourcing would be more viable economically. Both say it would take the fun out of it - the pleasure being in the making. In fact, their commitment to the creative has led to times when they took work wherever they could find it, including a period when Michael worked onboard a cruise ship making glass in an outdoor studio. Michael: 'On board we would narrate and work. And when I narrated, very often I would ask the audience to raise their hands and show me, "Who is happy with their work?"' A good day was when half the people put up their hands. Michael: 'At least we're happy. I think that's worth a lot.'
Strong memories of his surroundings, and illuminated landscapes, are what Michael tries to feature in his work. Growing up in the US with an artist's eye, in a cold climate, Michael noticed everything: the lines made by wind-blown snow, striations on rock left by melting ice and receding water. Michael: 'I try to incorporate light and line within my work. Colours as well, of the US desert and southern Morocco - these are the subtle colourations and colour gradations, the palettes, I draw upon. The lines in the work are integral to the pieces - not on the surface but on the inside of the vessels. You can't necessarily see the lines, but when light hits the object those almost invisible lines cast a shadow.'
I use red sand for blowing and casting into. It reminds me a lot of Australia.
Natascha's work is quite different, and mostly opaque. The colours of the central Australian desert - in particular Uluru and the Olgas - have heavily influenced her work. Natascha: 'I use red sand for blowing and casting into. It reminds me a lot of Australia.' Current studio projects include a range of lighting. It's early days but it's going to be a mutual project, something exceptional for them, as although they work together they rarely collaborate. In September they will show at the London hotel One Aldwych, as part of the London Design Festival. They also have a hotel project in development in the US.
Coffee beans from Volcano Coffee Works
One of their favourite things in London is coffee from Volcano Coffee Works, run by their friend Kurt Stewart. Living through the process of Kurt making his coffee roaster workable resonated with the glass artists. Says Michael: 'It's the heart of his business, as the heart of our business is our glass furnace, and I'm always attracted to process, and processes which include heat and time.'
Cooking, glass making and roasting coffee beans – it’s a meticulous process of heat and time.
'Cooking, glass making and, for Kurt, roasting his beans - it's a meticulous process of heat and time. It's not just about ticking the minutes off a clock. It's also being able to know that very fine line between being done and overdone. The process of our glass making is a little bit like that as well, where suddenly you just say, 'I'm done. And that's it.'
Text by Clare Carlin Photos by Peter Clayman, Martin N. Kunz, Natascha Wahl