Glass act 2: Lake Superior Art Glass adds furnace, second location
Dan Neff is a bad student. Or at least he's acting like one. Holding a glassblowing pipe a little too high, blowing a little too softly, responding to instructions a little too slowly, the owner of Lake Superior Art Glass isn't learning so much a...
Dan Neff is a bad student. Or at least he's acting like one.
Holding a glassblowing pipe a little too high, blowing a little too softly, responding to instructions a little too slowly, the owner of Lake Superior Art Glass isn't learning so much as teaching his studio manager how to conduct a class before the students start streaming into the glass studio's second location.
"I'd like it to all be under one roof eventually, but this is a great way to get a foot in the door, start holding classes here and develop new product lines," Neff said of the new studio situated under the shadow of the Duluth Armory at 1325 London Road.
Neff's business, based on the corner of Superior Street and Second Avenue East, is famous for offering passersby a look at the fiery glassblowing process through the window. The new shop adds a glass furnace, marking a big leap in the studio's capabilities.
"It's the traditional style of glassblowing that people envision, it's the bigger scale, and we can actually get a student through blowing a piece in this studio the first time," Neff said.
As the business reaches its fifth birthday at the end of the month, classes are becoming a bigger source of income for Lake Superior Art Glass, though the new gallery offerings made possible by the new studio could help boost art sales.
"Now we can make big wall flutters and vases and bowls and drinking cups and those bigger items that are not possible to do in the flamework studio," Neff said.
Becoming a destination
Neff began shaping his business plan in 2009 before opening in 2012, and he's had his eyes on a glass furnace the whole time.
"This started basically as a way to connect the community to glass as an art form, take classes and learn more about it, and as a venue to sell more of my artwork locally, versus traveling around the country to art fairs every weekend, which is what I had been doing," he said. "I wanted to add this component to the studio and our class offerings - it's been the plan all along, and this opportunity just kind of presented itself."
Another glass artist was working out of the London Road space but was offered a teaching job in California, so he approached Neff and sold the equipment and space.
Ryan Nell, the studio manager, worked briskly, carrying a glob of glass from furnace to workstation and back again while Neff talked about the differences in how glass is made here versus downtown.
"Here it's one on one, and we can help you make a blown piece your very first time," Neff said.
When he opened shop downtown, Neff estimated about 20 percent of his revenue came from classes and the rest from gallery sales. Now it's 50/50, as classes book up a week or two in advance through the summer and the business becomes less dependent on sales off the street.
"We have become more of a destination business. (Tourists) found us online because they want to take a class," Neff said. "They didn't walk by, they didn't know we existed, they looked online when they thought, 'What can we do in Duluth this weekend?"
Fire Arts Center
Lake Superior Art Glass 2.0 shares a space with a cadre of creatives, including the Forging Community blacksmith, metalsmith Britta Lynn Kauppila and others - Armory Arts & Music Center executive director Mark Poirier calls it the Armory Fire Arts Center.
"It's a pretty neat use for an old Perkins building," Neff said.
No one there will have to worry about staying warm next winter, with the glass furnace blasting away, 24/7, at more than 2,600 degrees. If the power is cut long enough, the 150 pounds of molten glass in there could start to harden and ruin the oven - so Neff has the power connected to a security system that will let him know if it goes down.
Handbuilt furnaces like the one Lake Superior Art Glass is using can cost $12,000 and up, with some models running $25,000 and beyond. Then there are the kilns to slowly cool new pieces and to heat the end of the rods to catch glass.
"It's a much more involved glass studio, equipment-wise, than the flameworks we do downtown," Neff said. The two locations are a short-term fix, as Neff stated a few times he wants to get everything in one place. That could include a bigger home downtown, or possibly inside a redeveloped Duluth Armory.
Several renderings of what that could look like hang on the wall next to a small art glass gallery near the entrance to the Fire Arts Center. Armory development has been a long time coming, but there is still a potential buyer doing due diligence right now, Poirier said.
"We are still working with our developer, the Boisclair Corp., and right now they're working on some redesigns of parking - a very important aspect," he said. "They need to make a decision toward the end of the summer (on a purchase)."
Slow-going as that project may be, Poirier is seeing plenty of fast-moving developments from his office in the Fire Arts Center.
"We're so happy to have Dan and the Lake Superior Art Glass Studio."