The Chronicle

Meet the Maker: Robbie Frankel of Balefire Glass

Portland glassblower Robbie Frankel calls his new ashtrays for Tetra "paintings," which seems strange until you realize that it just might be the perfect word to describe what makes his work so special. Released under his studio name Balefire Glass, his vases and cups are distinguished by their artistic, gestural forms and their varied yet expertly orchestrated color palettes, as if they were conjured by brush. Each swirled, mottled, or iridescent-sheened piece is hand-blown or hand-sculpted, and is essentially one-of-a-kind. "There are a lot of assumptions of how glass ‘should’ look," he once stated. "I try to make things that have never existed before."

We'd been enamored with Frankel's art glass for a few years now, and couldn't stop thinking about what it would be like to have him create a smoking object for us. Luckily he obliged, and created a limited-edition series of Sunrise and Dusk ashtrays exclusively for Tetra, which he makes by layering strips of color into a thick, luminous patchwork and shaping it into a vessel with his hands. To mark the launch, we asked Frankel a few questions about his start in glassmaking, his daily routine, and how he approaches his material of choice.

Photos by Heather Lin

When did you know you wanted to do something creative, and how did you get started in your current practice?

I was always making things with my hands as a child, I always loved creating, transforming, bringing things into existence. My mom was a fantasy-romance author when I was growing up. She brought a lot of magic into the house, and glassblowing was the closest thing to wizardry I saw in the real world. I started blowing glass when I was 18 in Philadelphia. I went to college for biology, intending to study veterinary medicine, but the glassblowing studio and the art school program called too loud.

How would you summarize your approach to your work and your materials?

When I make my work I don't look to past forms or color application techniques in glass tradition/history. I start with colors and raw material and keep combining and manipulating in ways attempting to create effects I've never seen before in the glass world. Often times I lean towards visual elements that are other-worldly.

Balefire's Epiphany Cups

Did you ever have an epic fail, and what did you learn from it?

Glassblowing is full of epic fails, if you're pushing yourself that is. You're constantly on the edge of what is possible. The larger the piece, the more complicated the color application, and the longer you have to work it outside of the heat source in room temperature, at which point you're really gambling. At any moment, a slight drop in a few degrees temperature, and the piece cracks or falls off the steel rod and shatters on the floor. Whenever you push yourself to make something you weren't able to make before, a lot of loss occurs. Then you're left hot and sweaty and tired and defeated and you have to learn from the mistakes, gather your strength, and get over yourself and your frustrations to get a fresh start of molten glass and start a new piece.

What’s a typical day like in your studio?

I wake up late with my dog, who sleeps on me while I catch up on emails and computer work. Once we've eaten breakfast, we'll get to the studio around noon. I'll spend the first hour organizing color and planning production for the day. I'll set up my chunks of glass color in the kiln and turn it on so it'll be at 1,000 degrees when I need to start working. I turn the furnace up to 2,108 degrees, turn on another kiln to 950 degrees, and start the gas-fed gloryhole that will take about an hour to reach 2,200 degrees.

While all the equipment is heating up, I'll pull out and clean all my tools, glaze some of them with fresh beeswax, and pull out the blow pipes I'll use for the day. My sweet pup will be following me around the whole time. I'll blow glass from about 2pm until 11pm. I'll take some breaks for water, a few little dog walks, and a dinner break outside. I'm usually listening to NPR, various podcasts, or an audio book. Sometimes I'll put on headphones and talk to my family while I work. I don't often listen to music when I blow glass, my ADD brain focuses better when I'm doing two things at once.

At around 11, I'll turn off all the equipment and let the day's work slowly cool overnight in a kiln. I'll clean up slowly and leave the shop around midnight.

Tell us what you love about the piece you’ve made for Tetra.

To make the ashtray, I apply patterns of color to glass, break the forms, then arrange the pieces into a quilted or puzzle pattern. Each composition is a painting of its own. Instead of a thin layer of clear glass, I back these paintings with a large amount of molten glass so it can be sculpted into a heavy dish, with the painting looking up at you. 


Meet the Maker: Tsubota Pearl Lighters

When Tetra launched in 2015, one of the first brands we knew we had to have in our stable was the family-owned Japanese lighter company Tsubota Pearl, whose unconventional designs and commitment to craftsmanship we deeply admired. At the time, we were one of only a few U.S. stores to carry their line — hard to believe, considering how many have followed our lead since! — which helped us forge a special relationship with them, and convinced us that we wanted to collaborate with them on a special edition someday. That day is finally here: We just launched our new Portal Lighters ($45), which feature a color-blocked Tetra design screen-printed onto a Tsubota Pearl Hard Edge, and to mark the occasion, we decided to get to know our collaborators just a little bit better.

Tsubota Pearl was started in Japan in 1952 by Hiroshi Tsubota, who passed away in 2004 and left his son Eiichi Tsubota at the helm. Eiichi spoke with us about his father's beginnings, how the company's lighters are made, and what inspires his own design process, from the Bauhaus to contemporary art. (Pictured above: A Tsubota Pearl catalog from the 1990s featuring its original Hard Edge lighter lineup.)

Can you tell us more about how your father founded Tsubota Pearl and why he decided to go into the lighter business?

My father was born in 1920 in Nagano prefecture, about 124 miles from Tokyo. He moved to Tokyo at age 15 to begin work at a company dealing in jewelry and smoking accessories called Tanita, where he gained valuable engineering and other experience. His role was to interface with artisans and develop products with them, as well as handle sales covering Tokyo and Osaka. He left the company in 1944, when he was conscripted.

In 1946, after trying times upon returning, he found work in R&D and sales at another smoking accessories company at the urging of a friend. In 1947, he married the daughter of a lighter and cigarette-case factory owner, with whom he had two children, including me. Always looking for a platform for originality and imagination, he went independent in 1952. Naturally, based off his prior experience, he thought to produce lighters and cigarette cases. In 1962, the company was incorporated, changing its name to Tsubota Pearl.

Hiroshi Tsubota (above) and his son Eiichi Tsubota (below)

What makes Tsubota Pearl different from other lighters, like Zippo for example? Was there always a focus on design and craftsmanship?

Beginning in the 1970s, with the introduction of new technologies and the ability to drive down costs, many manufacturers began mass-producing lighters with moulded plastic fuel tanks inside zinc alloy die-cast cases. Disposable lighters and Piezo electric lighters also gained popularity around this time. Tsubota Pearl went counter to this trend, continuing to make flint lighters and remaining embedded in traditional manufacturing methods carried down from predecessors in the field. We use metal fuel tanks, and various pressed and machined components. Using these methods for manufacturing and assembling requires precision, and is carried out by skilled artisans and not mass produced by machine. While other manufacturers were transitioning to manufacturing methods conducive to mass production, the reason we stuck to far more time-consuming traditional methods was our desire to provide non-disposable lighters that our customers can enjoy and reply upon for a long time.

On the topic of Zippo, we love their heritage and what they do: preserving traditional craftsmanship, which is not easy. How the Hard Edge differs in particular might be its construction. The model is structured by individual parts (lighter cap, outer case, tank) designed to be connected by a hinge. This makes for a ‘seamless’ construction with no glue or soldering. Another characteristic is the thickness of its case. Measuring 2mm, this improves the case’s seal, improving fuel economy as well as creating flexibility for designs. The engraved Latitudes model is one such example. Design and craftsmanship: Founder Hiroshi was fond of drawing, and had a strong distaste for doing what others were doing, so did all his own designing. Also importantly, because of his experience in jewelry, he was always working on genderless designs, which were received well by women even back when lighters were considered masculine items. His dedication to originality and resistance to preconceptions forms the basis of Tsubota Pearl’s development philosophy today.

We'd love to hear more about the design process. Who is your design team? How often do they come up with new lighter ideas? Are there any design principals or ideals they incorporate that are somehow specifically Japanese, or do they feel more connected to an international design style or movement?

There is no dedicated design team at Tsubota Pearl. The lighter mechanics have been designed by my father or me. Colors, finishes, and small details are determined through dialogue within the company. In terms of research and development, we often incorporate feedback from both end-users and our business partners. We consistently strive to make products that are simple, functional, yet unique. To this end, we sometimes contradict trends in the industry as we develop product from a purposefully different point of departure. The Hard Edge is one such example I worked on.

On the other hand, we are very interested in other fields, like fashion and home goods. This is because of how stimulating we find perspectives from outside our own field. We also value the importance of seeing our product from a user’s perspective — whether or not it's something that we ourselves would want to have, and use. In addition to other industries, I'm also interested in art and design movements around the world, which I observe and take in. I really admire design underpinned by function, like the Bauhaus, for example. I also like to see contemporary art on my days off, so that influences my work also.

We wouldn’t say that we particularly make an effort to design from a Japanese sensibility, but it becomes important to maximize the skills of artisans in the best possible way when implementing those designs. When this is done, with artisans using finishing techniques that are distinctly Japanese — like lacquering (seen on the Tortoise and Green Tortoise) — the result may somehow feel “Japanese.” We do not follow a set schedule for releasing new products. We always have a number of ideas simultaneously in the works. They all take time to perfect, and are released only when we feel we have an enduring product.
The Portal Lighter features Tetra's own design screen-printed onto a Tsubota Pearl Hard Edge lighter 

Please choose one of the designs that Tetra carries that has the best story behind it, and tell us the story of what inspired that design.

We think the story behind the Hard Edge may be the most interesting. In the 1990s, when I was trying to come up with a new design for a lighter, I had the realization that almost all the lighters on the market had rounded corners — those were made to be ergonomic and easy on the hand. So then I thought, how about intentionally making the corners angled, to make a lighter that hurts a little when it’s held? I felt that the majority of lighters on the market had complicated shapes, and were increasingly ornamental. They also tended to be heavy. I knew I wanted to do something different from this trend and more minimal.

I thought of a simple box-shaped lighter, with an outer case made of lightweight plastic. Combining a Zippo-style tank, and a shell made of heat- and shock-resistant polycarbonate, the completed lighter comprised only straight lines and flat surfaces, having the appearance of a truncated square bar. It would not be recognizable as a lighter at first glance. 1998 saw the introduction of the model on the market, in a primary color palette of red, blue, yellow, green, black, and transparent. The Hard Edge is now available in an array of colors and finishes, and is one of our most recognizable models.

What is your approach to color? Since a lot of the lighters are so colorful?

Lighters like the Hard Edge and Queue solely consisting of flat surfaces get colorful treatments. We feel that flat surfaces are ideal for experiments in color. We regularly test new colors and reassess our lineups to respond to contemporary sensibilities.

How and where are Tsubota Pearl lighters made? Are they complicated to make? Does the factory have any artisans or longtime experts in the craftsmanship of lighters? For example you work with a hand-lacquering artisan on the Tortoise lighters.

All lighters by Tsubota Pearl are made in Japan. Many of the parts are machined in old, specialized factories employing traditional processes like machine-turning and pressing. These are straightforward processes, however they're conducted by hand, requiring high levels of skill and experience. There are a few members of Tsubota Pearl who have worked in lighter manufacturing for over 60 years. They're now passing on their skills to the next generation.

I also have direct involvement not only in the engineering but also the manufacturing side of production. Being face-to-face with the lighters from blueprint to finished product, I'm able to tweak completed items to improve quality and usability.

The Marble pattern finish is done by hand using stencils, one by one on each lighter. During lacquering, the stencils are floated off the surface to create the appropriate blurring. Depending on the size of the lighter, the stencils have to be changed, and the cap and the body must be painted in a way so that the pattern is continuous across the two. Once the marble pattern has been lacquered, it's sprayed with a clear coating, and polished by hand to add a shine before completion. This process has historical precedence in Japanese lighter manufacturing between 1960 and 1980, when it was popular to lacquer metallic lighters in a faux ‘tortoise’ pattern. At Tsubota Pearl we took this method originally reserved for solid metal surfaces and applied it to transparent material on the Hard Edge. The blending of the Hard Edge’s modern design and this heritage detailing was received well by our customers, and has been in production since 2006.


Under the Influence: Julianne Ahn of Object and Totem

Julianne Ahn's ceramics career was forged in an difficult yet creatively fertile time not unlike the one we're currently living through now — the economic downturn of the late-2000s, when Ahn moved home to Philly for a job, lost it, and reinvented her career after taking pottery classes just to pass the time. She'd studied Textile Design at RISD and intended to veer towards fine art after graduating, but when she founded her ceramics studio Object and Totem in 2011, she decided to work squarely on the line between art and design, creating some functional, affordable pieces — like the new Wave Tray ($90) she's designed exclusively for Tetra, below — and some conceptual one-offs.

Both sides of her practice are united not just by her recognizable aesthetic — which marries spare, highly refined finishes and textures with sculptural or geometric forms that sometimes have classically-influenced details — but by the quality that's always drawn us to her work: her incredible taste. It's what separates her from the ceramicists that rely on trendy Instagram vibes or ambitious technical feats, and it's what makes our Wave Tray such a showstopper. We interviewed Ahn about what 5 outside influences have been informing that taste as of late; read on to discover them. (Portrait above by Clement Pascal)


Julianne Ahn's influences:

Vintage Braun Electronics
"I've always been a fan of Dieter Rams, and the Museum Der Dinge in Berlin has the most amazing archive of mass-produced, industrially manufactured works on display — everything from brushes to teapots to stereos, the Braun electronics being my favorite. They're just so easy to look at and use. I followed similar design rules to Rams's when designing the Wave Tray for Tetra, joining extruded clay ripples with a flat surface so it could function as a way to hold things and roll on without looking too obtrusive." (Photo by Wright)

Ocean Vuong Poetry
"Like everyone else, I’ve been trying to implement a lot more literature into my life these days in lieu of social media, but it’s hard to name other authors that have had the same impact on me as Ocean. Night Sky with Exit Wounds was one of those poetry compilations I had to re-read over again because his choice of words is so melodic — the way they stick with you and explore so many themes of identity, nationality, war, etc. I just love how he uses language and negative space."

Korean Scholar Stones
"After watching Parasite (pictured above) last year and learning about Korean scholar stones — aka 'Suseok' — I got really into them as beautiful objects of art, and their symbolism of academic nobility and class. It sort of reminds me of how bonsai plants have that natural impact of conveying a much larger idea of nature beyond their small scale. The stones have a way of capturing that essence in a way where they feel kind of alive."

Fidget Cubes
"My friend Natalie Herrera told me about fidget cubes after I was telling her that my son started to bite his nails during quarantine — she suggested them as a way to ease his anxiety at night, so I bought a few. They’re these small, cheap, plastic, non-functioning cubes that have buttons and switches on all sides, so you have the satisfaction of clicking them when you’re nervous. The first one I got him he completely tore off all the silicone buttons somehow, but I decided to keep it as a way to remind us of what we all went through, and are still going through, this year."  

Matt Kleberg Paintings
"I went to undergrad in Textile Design, but sometimes wish I’d taken painting, and when I came across Matt’s paintings I had that gushy feeling of attraction while simultaneously having a feeling of 'god damnit, I wish I’d painted that'! He uses just the right amount of color and optical illusion to create the most beautiful arches and spaces. I just wish I could see these in person some day soon."