For the last few years, Dan Daniels, founder of Delphi Glass, has had his eye on China.
With its rich art history and growing middle class, the country offers a new opportunity for the largest art glass retailer in America.
In the United States, art glass, like woodworking or quilting, is a popular pastime. But until recently, China didn’t have the luxury of pastimes.
“Ten or even five years ago, the Chinese didn’t have the time or money to take on a hobby,” Daniels said. “Now that’s starting to change.”
As a result of economic development, leisure-time activities are becoming more and more common in China. People are spending free time with their families, playing outside or visiting the mall.
But there are no big box craft stores offering paper crafts, jewelry or sewing supplies in China. The craft industry as we know it in the U.S. is simply non-existent. Likewise, there are no art glass stores offering stained glass, fusing or flameworking products.
Art glass as an art form, however, is not new to China. In 2000, an art professor named Zhuang Xiaowei, who studied art glass at Wolverhampton University in the U.K., opened a glass studio at Shaghai University to teach the popular pate de verre (cast glass) technique. Soon after, professor Wang Jianzhong also launched undergraduate and graduate glass programs at Tsinghua University. This was the start of a fast-growing Studio Glass movement focusing on cast glass sculpture.
A testament to the popularity of the art form, the Shanghai Museum of Art Glass opened in May of 2011. According to the Museum, its opening was a momentous step forward in the development of the Chinese Glass sculpture movement.
On a recent trip to China, Daniels visited eight universities and art centers in six major cities in China. He met with four of China’s internationally recognized glass artists including renowned jewelry artist Lu Chi and Professor Guan Donghai, whose work has been featured in TIME Magazine and whose sculptures start between $5,000-$10,000.
“All of them were interested in expanding their art glass programs,” Daniels said. “But materials and instructional tools are expensive and difficult to obtain.”
Resources are even harder to find for those outside of the university system.
The predicament seems eerily similar to the one Daniels faced 40 years ago when he was starting to teach stained glass classes at Michigan State University. Supplies and educational tools were very limited or altogether unavailable. Daniels decided to take matters into his own hands, and in 1972, he founded Delphi Glass – in his garage.
From there, Delphi Glass became the first company to make art glass accessible to everyone.
Today, the company offers more than 30,000 art supplies, and houses the country's largest selection of glass in its retail showroom and 45,000 square foot distribution center.
In 2010, Delphi began partnering with independent glass studios around the world, which act as Delphi “Creativity Centers.” These stores sell supplies, offer classes and are supported by Delphi’s marketing program.
Daniels envisions a similar future in China.
“Our mission at Delphi is to support talented artists, and the growth of art glass, in China and around the world,” Daniels said.
In December 2011, Delphi China opened its doors in the Tianjin business district outside Beijing. Supplies and support are available for advanced artisans as well as beginners.
For now, the company is focused on introducing fusing and flameworking.
Delphi China plans to offer American-made System 96 glass, including Uroboros, which is harder to acquire, and is hoping to partner with local universities to develop a System 96 fusing program for students.
“I think it’s the right time to establish these new art glass programs in China,” Daniels said. “We already have the supplies available and are working on setting up instructional opportunities.”
With Chinese customers hungry for new creative outlets, Daniels is excited about the future.
“Our vision that creativity should be fun and rewarding has been met with great success for the last 40 years,” Daniels said. “We’re looking forward to 40 more successful years here and abroad.”
Photos: Top left, From the 'Gate Collection' by Guan Donghai; Top right, at the Shanghai University; Left, 'Seven Swords' by Guan Donghai; Bottom right, Dan Daniels with artists Lu Chi and Guan Donghai; Bottom left, web capture of new Delphi China website.