Unique designs lure Annieglass fans
By: Maria Guara Published 8:41 am, Friday, November 16, 2012
Like countless teenagers before her, Annie Morhauser found her bliss on a beach near Santa Cruz. But it wasn't a handsome surfer who provided Morhauser's "Eureka!" moment. It was a glassblower who had fired up a portable furnace on the sand, transforming flame and glass into molten beauty.
That convergence of art and ocean proved life-changing. The young art student switched her focus from etching to glass, set down roots in Santa Cruz, and founded the luxury tableware company Annieglass.
This year, Annieglass celebrates its 30th anniversary manufacturing exclusively in Santa Cruz County, with Morhauser still at the helm.
Morhauser's seductive slumped-glass plates, bowls and serving dishes now adorn celebrity dining rooms from Hollywood to the Vatican - as well as display cases in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington. Annieglass has showrooms in Los Angeles, New York, Dallas and Atlanta, and is sold by luxury retailers including Neiman Marcus, Gump's and Bergdorf Goodman.
Yet commercial success hasn't diminished the company's craft tradition. Every piece of Annieglass is designed and handmade in Morhauser's Watsonville factory, which can turn out up to 600 pieces per day in approximately 500 sizes, shapes and designs. But, keeping the manufacturing close to home hasn't been easy.
"The pressure to move my manufacturing offshore began right off the bat, and has never let up," Morhauser says. "My designs were instantly knocked off, and there are a lot of challenges to manufacturing this far away from the Bay Area.
"But I don't want to live in China or in India. I don't want to give up our crafting tradition. And I'm so lucky to be playing in this sandbox."
While design and production takes place in the Santa Cruz sandbox, 98 percent of Annieglass' first-quality production is sold outside of California, with high demand on the East Coast, and a particularly fanatical following in the South.
Morhauser credits her Southern fan base to the regional tradition of beautiful homes, as well as the value placed on heirloom-quality furnishings - despite its translucent loveliness, Annieglass is not fragile.
"After (Hurricane) Katrina, I got many reports from customers that the china cabinet had fallen to the ground, and the only pieces to survive were the Annieglass," Morhauser says.
Morhauser's factory is a low-slung, turquoise warehouse on the outskirts of Watsonville, across the street from acres of row crops and a neighborly distance from vegetable packing sheds.
On a weekend morning, Morhauser arrived at the factory with her two friendly Jack Russell terriers, and began examining prototypes for her annual holiday line, as well as designs to be unveiled at the New York Tabletop Show - then less than a month away.
A silkscreen design of a jaunty bird with a Santa cap was set aside. Adorable, yes, but too whimsical to mesh with the rest of the collection. Jewel-tone plates blazed with platinum were judged "risky," in an approving tone. But "they're too small," Morhauser says, comparing different size plates, "and the corners need to be rounded." She scribbled a few notes on sticky paper, asking her staff for adjustments.
The new versions would be done in a day or two, tweaked, and sent back for additional refinement. Today, as Thanksgiving approaches, the 2012 holiday line is on store shelves across the country. The three images to emerge from the design process include a filigree reindeer silhouette, birds in a winter tree (sans Santa hats), and delicately rendered holiday ornaments.
While offshore manufacturers enjoy rock-bottom production costs, they've never been able to duplicate Morhauser's artistic sensibility, quality control and lightning-fast turnaround.
"We are lean and nimble, and our lines are not designed by committee," Morhauser says. "It's just me and my staff, and it's all done right here."
Annieglass begins as thick sheets of window glass, purchased from a California manufacturer. Circular pieces are still cut with a hand-cranked diamond blade, while irregular outlines are carved with a device originally used to shape car windows.
Morhauser's newest toy is an industrial cutter that employs a jet of pressurized water and garnet slurry to carve glass into elaborate templates, such as a flower-shaped platter with deep-lobed petals.
"I resisted this at first, because it seemed too high-tech," Morhauser says, patting the hulking device. "But there are advantages to this merging of technology and art. There are almost no boundaries to what I can do with this."
Annieglass artisans apply accents of precious metals with handheld brushes, and silkscreen designs and colors with an assortment of ground-glass pigments. The decorated glass is placed on forms and heated in kilns until it softens and slumps into place, fusing the metals and pigments with the glass.
Once the glass has cooled, workers use a towering belt sander to smooth and bevel the edges, a detail that prevents chipping and is key to Annieglass' durability. The backs of some pieces are sandblasted to set off the design, and each is hand-engraved on the back with identifying information. Seconds are marked with a tiny 's'.
Because the luxury market is exacting, Annieglass produces a variety of seconds, a designation that can be hard to explain, considering that the individuality of each piece is what collectors value.
Morhauser's wares range from $34 for a small plate to more than $500 for the limited-edition sculptural pieces released every year, such as the giant aqua-tinted clamshell, or the "Splash" bowl, with edges that mimic the foaming edge of a wave on the sand.
Collectors lucky enough to find seconds in their pattern can chop as much as 40 percent off the first-quality price. However, seconds and discontinued patterns are sold only at the factory and at Annieglass' flagship retail store in downtown Santa Cruz - a boon for residents and a treasure hunt for visitors.
For Morhauser, creating art in her factory-size playground is a treasure hunt every day. Walking between rows of just-cooled kilns, she popped open one lid after another, not knowing exactly what she would find inside.
In one kiln, a platinum-accented chip-and-dip platter got a thumbs-down.
"It looks like a hubcap," Morhauser says. "That one's going nowhere."
But a similar platter edged in playful gold ruffles earned a smile. "That might not sell at Neiman Marcus," she says, "but I know what my Southern customers like."
She gently pried a sari-printed piece with embossed elephants from its mold, and held the still-warm platter aloft for inspection. It was perfect.
Retail store: 110 Cooper St., Suite F (near Pacific Avenue), Santa Cruz; (831) 427-4260. annieglass.com. 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, until 5 p.m. Sunday.
Factory store: 310 Harvest Drive, Watsonville; (831) 761-2041, Ext. 21. annieglass.com. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Free tours are at 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Friday-Sunday. Wine tastings noon-4:30 p.m. Friday-Sunday:
Maria Guara is a freelance writer in Santa Cruz. E-mail: email@example.com