It all started with fire. Well before humans were stringing full sentences together, fire revolutionized the course of human history. We gathered around the flames for warmth, cooking, and storytelling--lost in their fluid magnetism for hours at a time. Fire is innately human, but what is it about the combination of heat, fuel and oxygen that keeps us captivated? Looking into that heat source is like looking into your soul. It’s an instinctive feeling.
That’s how I felt when I saw glass being blown for the first time. I watched as a small fireball expanded into a smooth oval that with careful blowing and a rolling technique, provoked an enchanting mix of sunset orange and crimson and finally finished as a delicate and beautiful light fixture. That’s what happens when you become a glassblower. You turn nothing into something and while skill is involved, it’s the feeling that makes it happen.
Asking Jackson Schwartz, Co-Founder of Hennepin Made confirms as much. “Glassblowing is a really visceral process,” he tells me. Even though he started Hennepin Made in 2011 with his pal Joe Limpert, Jackson has been glassblowing since he was a teenager. Much like anyone else who sees the process, at 16 Jackson was spellbound by the incredible handcrafted work that resulted from blown glass. After finishing high school and his first year of college in River Falls, WI, the town he grew up in, Jackson bought a one way ticket to Australia to finish his undergrad degree. Family brought him back to the states and after settling in Minneapolis, he decided to start teaching glassblowing at the Minnesota Center for Glass Arts, a nonprofit public access glass studio, education center, and exhibition space dedicated to the glass arts. Soon, Joe Limpert became a student of Jackson's and with a mutual passion for the work, the two started planning a business.
“So why name it Hennepin Made?” I ask.
“We started on Hennepin Avenue. We liked the idea that it’s the main corridor right through Minneapolis and that there’s all types of different culture running through it. Also, Hennepin was one of the forefathers of Minneapolis, exploring and pioneering. We liked the idea of a modern sense where we are moving forward a little farther and have to swim our way out. This idea that we don’t know exactly what we’re doing, but we need to head in this direction. So it was exploration and it still is. It was a nice marriage to the philosophies that we wanted to weave into the business.”
With a loose plan in place and a mission to put great care into the products they make, Hennepin Made was born. It started simply as a deep-rooted process of blowing high-quality glass, but turning that process into a business was one of the biggest challenges.
“Did you have any skills to bring to the business owner role, aside from making the physical product?”
Leaning back and laughing he responds, “I don’t know if I still have any of those skills! I’d say I have enough of them to keep the company alive. I think a lot of them are honed over time. There are things that I can accomplish and feel comfortable with now that I definitely did not when we started. The hardest thing is how do you even identify what’s important [whatever that skill is].”
“So what did it look like in the beginning?”
“I had my desk in the studio and we had a little kitchenette on the other side of it. You’d stop your glass blowing shift and take lunch and you’d walk three steps to your desk and grab something out of the mini-fridge and stick it in the microwave. I’d make my phone calls during break time because we’d use some big torches so I couldn’t make any phone calls [when they were in use], so I’d have to wait until they weren’t making the really big pieces. So I’d be over in the corner ordering materials or doing a sales call. And there was no office. It was just one big room.”
After moving from the one big room to their current location on Glenwood Ave., Jackson has a little bit more space to run the business. While the mission of the company has stayed the same, his personal mission is shifting with the ever-changing responsibilities of meeting demand and growing in the community he wants to build.
Building it is the hard part, but Jackson enjoys the journey.
“Well, when we talk about vision, you want to think there is some sort of runway, but it’s really like you’re on the runway with beer goggles on. You’re headed there and it’s kind of foggy, but you know if you get too far to either edge then maybe you’re getting off track. But you don’t exactly know where it is you’re going. If you can pinpoint it precisely, it’s not a vision in my opinion. It needs to be an exploration. ‘I know I want to get to this thing.’ Vision is different than a goal. To me a goal is ‘I want this thing to happen.’ I can concisely describe what it is and then I can take the steps to achieve it. Vision is like trying to have an exploration that has structure.”
Part of that exploration has extended beyond simply making the product these days. Hennepin Made is now home to multiple projects that are all focused on building out that concept of community around the craft. Within a year, the Hennepin Made building will be home not only to the glassblowing studio, but a cafe, coworking space, event space and retail section.
“So why not just glass blowing? Why build all this?” I ask.
“Because glassblowing is really interesting. I think it’s really important to share it with people. Everything is focused around glassblowing. A cafe has nothing to do with glassblowing until the lights are made from glass and you drink out of a drinking glass and you’re talking about the richness of craft and material and now all the sudden it has a lot to do with glassblowing. Same thing with events. It was unplanned to open an event space but then you think about it and decide we can use all of our lighting, we can make a lot of different experiences happen. Events are theatrical in nature as is glassblowing, so it all ties into one another. What we make out of glass is all about lifestyle. At best, there is a bunch of social and philosophical principles that are the essence of craft and function. I think you can get really deep into those. It’s what we care about. It’s people. What we really want to try and do is to allow material objects to make us cherish our experiences more. If we become more serious about the materials around us and we learn about them more and value them more, then it changes our culture.”
Changing the culture is what Hennepin Made is doing one piece at a time. The first time I saw glassblowing, I couldn’t take my eyes off it--and the employees of Hennepin Made are much the same. Many of them will stay extra hours simply because they love the work. Making glass is a part of them and without the experience, it’s like a piece of their soul is missing.
Staring into the heat, there’s a moment when you feel like you wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. You have this moment of clarity that you’re a part of something important. Like the culture that Jackson is talking about is changing in front of your very eyes. What Hennepin Made has done so well is change the conversation around handmade products, but the brilliance goes beyond the glass itself. Even writing these words it’s impossible to describe how you’ll feel. You simply have to experience it for yourself and your instincts will tell you the rest.
Words by Colby Wegter
Photos by Rachel Arnold + Ali Leigh