Hot Art Starts at Furnace Design Studio

Michelle Plucinsky and Chris Nordin are growing a business that does more than work for the bottom line. Their Furnace Design Studio is at once an artistic enterprise, an educational resource, a model of environmental stewardship, a catalyst for childhood development and more.

The Dearborn duo, who are married with two children, run Furnace Design Studio, a design collaboration they began 15 years ago in a cramped, 1,500-square-foot studio space in Southwest Detroit. After moving four years ago to a 14,000 square-foot converted tool-and-dye shop on Trowbridge (near Michigan and Gulley), the couple started The Glass Academy, offering classes in hot glassblowing, stained glass, neon, slumping and fusing, and torch work. Then, last year, they launched Young Sprouts, a summer educational youth program that teaches kids to make art using the environment, recycling and "green ideas."

Work produced by the Plucinsky/Nordin-led team at Furnace Design Studio can be seen in some of the trendiest venues in metro Detroit. (View an online portfolio here.) For Vinotecca, a restaurant in downtown Royal Oak, the studio produced a wall-mounted 3-by-3 grid, each square containing a different lighted metal-and-glass sculpture representing one of the nine colors of wine. The focal point of Vinotecca's wine bar, the sculpture is used as a teaching tool for patrons and connoisseurs.

For the perennially top-rated Opus One in Detroit, the studio created large clusters of glass grapes hanging from a wooden trellis spanning the ceiling, their corkscrew-shaped glass vines like so many ribbons curled with scissors. From the ceiling at Charley's Crab in Troy, translucent stingray-shaped glass bodies scale the walls and massive, tentacle-stuffed jelly fish lights shine down on diners, courtesy of the studio. And Furnace Design also made for the Palace Grille in Auburn Hills some large, red torch-like lanterns, lit from below, which sit atop tripods and direct serene pools of light at the ceiling.

The studio has also created works for nearly two dozen other environments, including St. Joseph Mercy Hospital and Vinotecca's sister restaurant, Vinology, in Ann Arbor, Riverside Business Plaza in Southfield, and Universal Images, a design firm whose post-production house is also located in Southfield. Michelle and Chris refer to their work for Universal Images as "extreme custom design," noting they have installed numerous sculptures, functional tables, desks and workstations, tailoring each office to the taste of its designer occupant while maintaining a cohesive look in the conference rooms and lobbies.

Each one teach one

The addition of a glass academy to Furnace Design Studio five years ago was a true boon to Southeast Michigan's art community, notes Michelle, who learned to blow glass while working at Greenfield Village and honed her skills at a number of schools including Detroit's College for Creative Studies and Alfred, NY-based Alfred University, where she received a bachelor's degree.

Michelle and Chris now share their expertise with others. Furnace Design's academy is the only state-certified glass school in Michigan.

Taking advantage of the studio's spacious workspaces, the academy offers a two-year certificate program in each of the five areas mentioned above. It also offers auxiliary courses, such as one Michelle teaches on how to photograph, market, and otherwise make a business in art. The studio offers something for all levels of interest, from a sampler class (a four-hour introductory class on Saturdays) to weekend classes (a two-day intensive class) to eight-week courses (24 hours of hands-on instruction, three-hours per class). The studio also rents space so students can practice their skills after completing coursework.

The creation of Young Sprouts last year advances a number of Plucinsky and Nordin's objectives. During the eight-week course, students ages seven-to-14 years old use recycled bottles to make a garden cloche, sandblast patterns on recycled sheet glass to make coasters, create swizzle sticks from glass rods, turn a glass bottle into a personalized drinking glass, and more. In addition to fostering creativity in children, the classes instill the importance of caring for the environment. Such respect for the earth is reflected in their work, as elements of nature -- especially fire, sun and water -- inform their work. As further evidence of their devotion, the couple is planning to put a living roof on their studio, similar to the one atop Ford's Rouge Factory in Dearborn. The roof, which will create a tranquil place for artists to walk or sketch, will keep the facility 20 degrees warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer by the same amount.

The price of classes (up to $600 for an eight-week course) or studio rental ($40 per hour) is dwarfed when compared to the tremendous expense of operating a glass studio. While the conversion of the tool-and-dye shop was costly -- requiring new floors, walls, and electricity, as well as giant gas lines, 800 gallons of paint and the removal of copious airlines that had accumulated during 60 years of manufacturing -- it's the maintenance that's most daunting. The raw materials that comprise glass batches are expensive, and the furnace must be run 24/7, resulting in an average monthly gas bill of $4,000. It's a reality of the business that puts the price of glass artwork in perspective.

"If I blow a $1,000 piece in three hours, every extra hour that the furnace is going takes away from that profit," observes Nordin, who received his bachelor's degree at CCS and is one of very few American artisans skilled at technical Venetian glass.

Nordin and Plucinsky have hit on a number of innovative ways to defray costs while benefiting the community. The couple rent their space for private parties and events, offering demonstrations, lectures, catering and corporate workshops to such disparate groups as Fortune 500 companies, school groups, Red Hat ladies, homeschoolers and fundraising organizations. They have also carved out a number of niche markets, including custom-made bridesmaid and groomsmen gifts to sculptures companies can use as corporate gifts or awards. Meanwhile, the studio sells any number of works, from small pendants to glasses made from Red Stripe bottles to fanciful Venetian stemware, as well as components of a 15-year retrospective of Plucinsky and Nordin's work that the studio hosted in April.

Recycled art

At a recent street art fair, the couple had set up booths for the studio, the academy, and Young Sprouts. As booth volunteers showed children how to tear, shred, fold and fluff the pages of retired phone books (provided by booth cosponsor AT&T) to make mini sunflower seed pots for the garden, Glass Academy graduate Randy Bromley showed off some of his work. The former Ford worker, who attended classes through a partnership between the academy and the United Auto Workers union, says he's sold his glass pieces online in the U.S., Canada and Australia.

"If you can pick up a piece of paper and a pencil and draw something, you can make it out of glass," insists Bromley, whose 20-year woodworking business suggests he nevertheless had an artistic leg up learning the glass trade. "You don't have to have any artistic background. You just have to have an open mind."

Having an open mind is clearly a formula that has served Chris and Michelle well. Their operation is imbued with a flexibility and sense of fun that's manifest in the smallest details. Late one afternoon in May, the focal point of the vast and teeming studio was in fact the couple's five-month old cat, Batch. Few animals enjoy an industrial facility for a playpen, and the lithe creature had free reign, moving acrobatically through aisles and playing on lofty, open window grates. At one point, Batch leapt onto a treacherously narrow countertop lined with delicate, featherweight glass, crossing nimbly from one end to the other. One misdirected flick of the tail would have sent glass flying to the ground, but Michelle was unfazed.

"It's OK," she said. "She knows what she's doing."

So, it's clear, do her owners.

Lucy Ament is a frequent contributor to Model D and metromode. Reach her here.

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