Master glassblower Jason Ruff was studying ceramics in 1991 at the College for Creative Studies, in Detroit, when he stumbled on a group of students blowing glass across the hall from one of his classes.
"It was mesmerizing to watch. How could I not want to do this," Ruff said while shaping a blob of molten glass from a 2,400-degree furnace at the Russell Industrial Center in Detroit. "I took an elective in glass. But when you go in there and try to make what you want, it's so frustrating. It took me about four years working with glass to get to the level I was already with in ceramics."
Apparently, part of the trick to glassblowing, other than years of practice, is to never become too attached to the piece you're making. For each of the dozens of glass decanters, cups and sculptures in the exhibition portion of his studio – many which sell for tens of thousands of dollars – there are a dozen or more broken or shattered pieces that never make it to the showroom.
"That's why glass art costs so much," he said. "People don't always realize how much goes into making one piece."
His most recent project involves his FIN6 handblown decanter series, which incorporates artistry and functionality. The pieces are designed to specifications that balance beauty, ergonomic design and function to decant a 750 milliliter bottle of wine in just minutes. Based on more than 15 years of work creating decanters, he said the decanters offer utility that others, including some of his previous designs, do not.
Ruff started experimenting with decanters about 17 years ago when he was commissioned by the Detroit International Wine Auction to produce 100 decanters for the show's use. Early designs featured an off-center decanter that later incorporated ribbing, bubbles and twists to help aerate the wine. The current series, he said, came in more recent years.
At the time, Ruff was co-owner of Epiphany Glass in Pontiac, a well-recognized art studio he founded with his former wife and partner, April Wagner. Together, the two built the business into a leading glass studio in southeast Michigan. When the two later parted ways and Ruff sold his end of the business, he returned to his hometown of Bloomfield Hills to attend the Cranbrook Academy of Art, earning a master's degree in fine arts.
Ruff has spent the past two years building and designing the 4,500 square-foot space in Detroit that houses Jason Ruff Designs. He has designed and crafted nearly every piece of furniture and item in the space, which is a reconfigurable space that serves as a gallery, exhibition and performance space. Meanwhile, he continued to work with glass and his decanters.
"The purpose of a decanter is to get the sediments out, but most importantly, to aerate and open up the wine," he said. "This one does in two minutes what normally takes an hour to do."
In December, Ruff obtained a utility patent for the decanter, which allows him to market and produce the decanters on a large-scale level while retaining protections to keep others from copying the decanters. The patent process itself, he said, took about five years, but the process leading to the current decanter was much longer.
"I probably made about 500 attempts before I made it to where I wanted it," Ruff said of the decanter. "Out of those 500 attempts, I probably broke three-quarters of them."
Photo: Laurie Tennent