American architectural designer and glass artist James Carpenter (1949– ) became interested in glass while an undergraduate at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where he studied and collaborated with Dale Chihuly; he earned a BFA in sculpture from RISD in 1972. Carpenter contributed to the development of new glass materials at Corning Glass Works throughout the 1970s, and in 1978, he established his own cross-disciplinary architectural practice, James Carpenter Design Associates. Working at the intersection of art, engineering, and the built environment, the firm is noted for its ability to employ glass as a means to mediate interior and exterior spaces and to exploit the performative aspects of light.
James Carpenter discusses a film he made on salmon migration with Buster Simpson.02:31 Transcript
James Carpenter discusses a film he made on salmon migration with Buster Simpson. Oral history interview with James Carpenter by Barb Elam and Jesse Merandy, September 20, 2018, JCDA Studios, New York, New York. Clip length: 02:30.
James Carpenter: I did a lot of work in film in the seventies which was a little bit of this outgrowth of doing, actually etching film images onto glass and projecting light and images on glass in the early seventies. And it morphed more into actually doing small films, sort of groups of films, that were shown, basically connecting back to the Nature Lab and all of that too. Going to one of the ones that is in the museum over in Germany is that going in, while I was being at Pilchuck with Buster Simpson who was one of the other people who helped start Pilchuck, we set up a whole scaffolding over a river and used a series of seven cameras looking down into the surface of the river and there was actually salmon migration taking place. So we actually have this group of films that are moving up the stream, and you actually get them from one film frame to the next one, next one, the movement of the fish going up. And that was sort of shown as a sculpture of film installation sculpture so you walk into the gallery and there is basically a river running on the floor and the fish are moving up through it. But, what happens is that if you change the timing of the film a little bit, slow it down slightly, print a couple frames for each regional frame, you can then then actually get a more staccato sort of movement, not slow motion, but more like little electrical quality to it. It made you realize what you’re actually looking at when you hold that image for a second longer—is that certainly you are looking at the bottom of the river and the fish in the river. But you—all of the sudden you realize you are looking at a perfect image of the sky overhead. So that, that in a way I use that as a way of thinking about glass, it’s this material that has sort of a field of information on the top of it, and it has a field of information within itself, and then there is obviously a field of information beyond it. So the glass has this, for me, a capacity of being a way of collecting fragments of the world around us into what is otherwise referred to as a transparent material. And I find that very odd, that we think of glass as a transparent material where is has no physical presence, it’s basically just an aperture to the world outside, but it’s not being given any characteristics of its own, other than transparency, but within transparency is this opportunity to get reflected image and refraction, you know there is more to the optical properties of the material.Permalink
James Carpenter talks about he and Paul Holliister’s shared interest in New York glass wholesalers Leo Popper & Sons.2:03
James Carpenter discusses his interest in the natural world.1:04 Transcript
James Carpenter discusses his interest in the natural world. Oral history interview with James Carpenter by Barb Elam and Jesse Merandy, September 20, 2018, JCDA Studios, New York, New York. Clip length: 01:03.
James Carpenter: I sort of grew up in Maine and Vermont. But sort of always had more of an interest in the natural world, generally. I could have very easily become an ethnographer, or something like that. But I do think that there are collective ideas about nature that we tend to think don’t exist around us in urban environments but there are ways—and this is where glass as a means of unlocking properties of light and unlocking information that light carries can actually bring us back to revisiting some of these phenomenon that you normally associate with a remote, natural context. But it’s actually present around us at all times. That’s sort of how I think about glass, more of a vehicle for unlocking properties of light that carry information. By that I mean information of what surrounds us or what’s happening with the sun angles and reflected information.Permalink
James Carpenter discusses Paul Hollister’s interest in glass history.0:47
James Carpenter discusses innovation rather than glass history being a focus in his early days with Dale Chihuly. Oral history interview with James Carpenter by Barb Elam and Jesse Merandy, September 20, 2018, JCDA Studios, New York, New York. Clip length: 00:41.
James Carpenter: The history really wasn’t very prominent [laughs] in our thinking. Because we were, we would look at people like [Maurice] Marinot or some of these early glass artists but, I don’t think we were looking at it in depth in terms of history—longer term history, but going to Venini of course, yeah, you become exposed to that whole Venetian tradition and awareness of that. And in that sense also the awareness of the level of craft that was so highly refined. But I don’t think Dale and I were, we weren’t really thinking about that very much at all. It was more about creating something new that hadn’t really existed before. It’s a little bit about what I keep trying to do.Permalink
James Carpenter talks about glass as a compression material.4:15 Transcript
James Carpenter talks about glass as a compression material. Oral history interview with James Carpenter by Barb Elam and Jesse Merandy, September 20, 2018, JCDA Studios, New York, New York. Clip length: 04:14.
James Carpenter: Well, I think that’s it. Yeah. I think glass always is a little bit—or unfortunately characterized for one characteristic, you know, just its potential fragility, ease of breakage, all that, on the other hand glass is remarkably strong, you know, in certain conditions, particularly compression and, you know, glass is in fact, stronger than steel, you know, in compression conditions. I think a lot of that [inaudible] is going back to, you know, talking about working in Corning and some other things, just learning about glass and material. We, one of the biggest things we worked on over the last 25 or 30 years is on the structural use of glass where you actually deploy the glass as a contributing member of a larger structure and system. And that really just was not something that was being done by anybody. You know, today, you see, I mean, actually we did the very earliest [inaudible—according to Ben Coleman, JC is talking about JCDA using glass structurally for stairs and other things long before Apple] stairs and stuff like that, but now you sort of see it around and it’s become sort of a signature. But that’s the, that’s—and I think that, that’s the, I think that that’s, that’s a very interesting thing because it confounds people that what, what they perceive as being very fragile and potentially dangerous, and all those things can in fact be remarkably safe, and not a problem at all. So in Tower 7, I think, I think maybe what you’re referring to is the blast wall at the front of the building? And that’s a little bit of another example of some of the stuff we did in structures. That’s a detail where we’ve done a lot of these big cable wall systems in Germany and Columbus Circle is one, one year, that’s the one at Hudson Yards is a cable system too. There—and the, the reason I got involved in those early on like, early nineties, is that I’ve always been interested in the qualities of the glass itself. And this is coming back to what I said about reflective images of the surface or what’s behind it or what you’re doing inside the class. The information that’s resident on the glass or within the class is very subtle and can be very easily overlooked. And a lot of times structure using glass, it’s either going to be a heavy frame to hold the glass like on a building or curtain wall, or you might be aware of a lot of these other structural systems which have big cable trusses and the glass is basically held by point fixings on these big cable structures. Well, all of those systems are assuming the glass has no strength, therefore, you have to have this really robust structure around it to hold it. And the glass is just going along for the ride. And what we’ve tried to do over the last 30 years is minimize the actual visual apparent presence of structure just with simple cable, and you’re actually letting the glass work and the glass becomes a participant in the structure and in that cable wall at the 7, that dynamic is obviously a very sort of instantaneous load and the wall will move with roughly three feet. So what we’ve done is in the, where the cables cross each other, each fitting embedded in the glass with this material that we’ve worked on developing the glass is actually allowed to slide and come back into the fitting. So the glass would actually, you know, silicone joints have great elasticity to them. That’s the great strength of glass so in the joint you have conventional silicone joint, but at the corners it actually is allowed to slip and come back. So the whole wall can actually distort all the panels, move away from each other, you know, three-dimensionally. And then it come in and go the other way, which is obviously the reciprocal [inaudible.]. So anyway, that was always—and then the principle, the reason I sort of got involved in that is like you want the glass to always be predominant. That’s what you want people to focus on. And then just not, not contradicting what I said about not to look at the object, but it’s, it’s, you want the subtlety to be available for interpretation or recognition.Permalink
James Carpenter talks about glass having a memory and its responsiveness.0:42 Transcript
James Carpenter talks about glass having a memory and its responsiveness. Oral history interview with James Carpenter by Barb Elam and Jesse Merandy, September 20, 2018, JCDA Studios, New York, New York. Clip length: 00:42.
James Carpenter: Well glass definitely has a memory; it also has a life to it too. I mean, in terms of durability and, yeah, from the moment a piece of glass is produced, it’s degrading just with atmospheric moisture. Not, not of anything else, just you have moist air around it the glass is deteriorating. And that’s just fundamental to the nature of the porous material and the acidity in the air. But, it is, it is a material, I think that’s very open to, I mean, you use sort of a word of word describing it as—I think it’s a material that’s very responsive in a way, and in some ways it’s a neutral ground and that neutral ground allows for greater responsibilities.Permalink
James Carpenter discusses experimental work he made with Dale Chihuly. Oral history interview with James Carpenter by Barb Elam and Jesse Merandy, September 20, 2018, JCDA Studios, New York, New York. Clip length: 02:02.
James Carpenter: Well sort of both. I mean I think you probably, maybe you know a lot of those early neon pieces. [inaudible] with Dale. They were all things we started working on together. And we did a show at the Craft Museum [Museum of Contemporary Crafts, now Museum of Arts and Design, New York], in ’71 I guess, that had these tall, seven or eight foot tall blown glass forms. I mean the experimentation I think had to do with going back to some of this I just said a moment ago was not the formality of using wooden blocks and blowing a vessel and punties and all of that. It was more about letting the glass actually find a form that it naturally wanted to take and that’s where we got into this whole thing of blowing it, gathering up our glass, letting it fall on the floor and then inflating the pieces and actually learning that the floor material itself, you know if it was wetted before you dropped the glass on it, it would produce steam. It would actually begin blowing its own forms, so that you could control just by letting the steam escape. You know, it’s on a blow pipe but it’s where you are using two different ways of working with the glass. So it was a lot of experimentation with process, I think, which has stayed with me and stayed with the underlying foundation of the studio. And I think that Dale and I were after like trying to do things that were truly more sculptural and were also on the edge of that whole conceptual art movement and land art movement type of thing. So my own work began to be sort of in the ‘72, three, four there began doing more photography on glass and film installations and that coincided with some work I did at Corning on photosensitive glass. So I got invited to go to work at Corning which I did for several years. So—and that introduced me to obviously a much more technical level of glass making and I worked with a really terrific person there, fortunately, who invented glass ceramics so I learned a lot.Permalink
James Carpenter talks about learning to blow glass at Venini through RISD’s European Honors Program.0:44 Transcript
James Carpenter talks about learning to blow glass at Venini through RISD’s European Honors Program. Oral history interview with James Carpenter by Barb Elam and Jesse Merandy, September 20, 2018, JCDA Studios, New York, New York. Clip length: 00:43.
James Carpenter: I graduated from RISD, I went ‘71-72 on the program from the school’s European Honors Program. And then I went and worked at Venini for a year in Venice, and Dale came over and we did some stuff in Europe together for a period of time and I sort of side-stepped this. I actually really did focus on learning how to blow glass. I mean designing things for Venini and learning the process of blowing glass sort of in the Venetian way, using, you know, the marvering tables and all of that. And sort of brought that back a little bit when I came back to RISD, and I taught at Berkeley [University of California, Berkeley] first and then I got hired at RISD; I actually ran their natural history museum. They had a natural history museum on campus.Permalink
James Carpenter discusses learning equipment construction at RISD and building special annealing ovens with Dale Chihuly. Oral history interview with James Carpenter by Barb Elam and Jesse Merandy, September 20, 2018, JCDA Studios, New York, New York. Clip length: 01:06.
James Carpenter: Yeah, you learned it at RISD, because it was sort of—well, you have the ceramics program, so kiln building is pretty well established. And then there was sort of a format, sort of a rudimentary idea of what refractory materials you would use for small glass furnaces. So you know, we all we literally all just build everything furnaces, and welded up the steed frames to hold them and built the annealing ovens and it was particularly true for the stuff that Dale and I were doing then as you need a completely different type of annealing oven that was sort of the size of this table but the top was flexible. You could actually, you had these insulated panels you could move and this tall forms. You know they’d be in the shallow oven, actually about the same height as this. You could actually put the thicker glass piece down in the annealing oven, but the narrow pieces would come up, you know, like six or eight feet out of the annealing oven. So in a sort of way you’re designing the equipment to accommodate what you are trying to make. So it wasn’t like you were just doing a standard annealing oven furnace or making the furnace a different type of opening so that you could get more glass out of it or something.Permalink
James Carpenter discusses overseeing RISD’s Nature Lab.01:59 Transcript
James Carpenter discusses overseeing RISD’s Nature Lab. Oral history interview with James Carpenter by Barb Elam and Jesse Merandy, September 20, 2018, JCDA Studios, New York, New York. Clip length: 01:59.
James Carpenter: Well the woman who started it was—her name was Edna Lawrence. And she began it probably in the—I’d say even in the thirties. So it really became part of the core freshman program—every student had to take a class. Primarily a drawing class in the Nature Laboratory and she actually sort of taught that class. It was on detailed drawings of, you know, natural forms basically—shells or butterflies, whatever. So you actually had to, one day a week, you were in there drawing something, usually bones, or something. Anyway, I was—because I had done botanical illustration before I got to school I was sort of interested in what she was doing. And I’d always had an underlying interest in natural history and when I was even a student at RISD, I used to work the summers down in South America for the Food and Drug Administration and collecting plants basically. So anyway, I used to bring her things, I really liked her and I liked what she was trying to do, so I was using [inaudible] to bring it back. So when I was teaching at Berkeley she just wrote me a very nice letter, just saying, you know, she thought she wanted to retire and was concerned about what would happen to this Nature Lab and would I consider coming back and taking it over so—I thought it was a good idea.
Barb Elam (BE): Yeah, no, it’s great. Is your name on any of the—are you listed as a donor for the—
JC: Oh, no, I don’t know about that.
BE: For the specimens from South America?
JC: No, I don’t know about that, but I did a lot of little expeditions with students down to you know Arizona to collect cacti and stuff like that, and then I sort of shifted the course actually a little bit from purely nature drawing to actually more natural processes like [inaudible] camouflage and migration. And you had all students, you had architecture students or sculptors. So it was really trying to talk about principles of natural history that influenced all these different disciplines. So we, yeah, had a good time there.Permalink
James Carpenter talks about the progression of his architectural studio and working with clients that take an interest in exploring glass in new ways.1:24 Transcript
James Carpenter talks about the progression of his architectural studio and working with clients that take an interest in exploring glass in new ways. Oral history interview with James Carpenter by Barb Elam and Jesse Merandy, September 20, 2018, JCDA Studios, New York, New York. Clip length: 01:24.
James Carpenter: And I think that that whole process of like, I mean how you start with just a pile of sand and what do you do with it. That’s always, that’s still part of what we do here. We’re all, you know, working with casting glass, big castings, and bending glass and chemical strengthening glass—where we work with people all over the world that are specialists in one aspect of that production or another and then, and then it’s a way for us, we bring sort of that knowledge to a project. And originally when I to started the studio it was, I guess it was as much seeking out work with architects whose work I admired and who I thought might take an interest in exploring glass in a slightly different way and sort of introduce myself and try to work with them as a basically a consultant on glass use, and glass structures and stuff like that. And then gradually that morphed into getting commissions from some of those architects to just do parts of the building. And then eventually, you know, some of the clients actually then knew what we did for that project and then they would give us the responsibility to take one more in the next project. So each sort of just morphed into a sort of a practice today which is still consulting a little bit but it’s more doing some art commissions, but also we have clients that come design—that build a whole building, too.Permalink
James Carpenter discusses doing research for Corning Glass Works.00:36 Transcript
James Carpenter discusses doing research for Corning Glass Works. Oral history interview with James Carpenter by Barb Elam and Jesse Merandy, September 20, 2018, JCDA Studios, New York, New York. Clip length: 00:36.
James Carpenter: So my own work began to be sort of in the ‘72, three, four, there began doing more photography on glass and film installations and that coincided with some work I did at Corning on photosensitive glass. So I got invited to go to work at Corning which I did for several years. So—and that introduced me to obviously a much more technical level of glass making and I worked with a really terrific person there, fortunately, who invented glass ceramics so I learned a lot. He was very generous with his time.Permalink
James Carpenter talks about Dominick Labino and Harvey Littleton bringing glass to university programs. Oral history interview with James Carpenter by Barb Elam and Jesse Merandy, September 20, 2018, JCDA Studios, New York, New York. Clip length: 00:14.
James Carpenter: Yeah you had like Nick Labino and Harvey Littleton and you had a couple of people that really did understand the industrial furnace construction idea and how you scale that down into a very modest scale that you can put into a university program.Permalink
James Carpenter talks about his ideas for light effects in constructed environments.0:46 Transcript
James Carpenter talks about his ideas for light effects in constructed environments. Oral history interview with James Carpenter by Barb Elam and Jesse Merandy, September 20, 2018, JCDA Studios, New York, New York. Clip length: 00:42.
James Carpenter: Yeah, or even even in a space where you constructed an environment where a certain light effect actually might happen in the building, you know, in certain times of the year or something like that. How, say how the light entered the building today, what would happen if, you know, 20 minutes later you were actually seeing how the light entered the building six months earlier. You know, like somehow there’s this overlay—overlaying different time, moments of time, allowing like what’s actually coming into the building, overlaying it with what actually came in the building at previous times, where there’s sort of like the history of light passage within the building. How can it sort of have that become a very subtle way of reawakening your understanding—that’s going on.Permalink
James Carpenter discusses historic, nature-based lampwork with Paul Hollister and gives Hollister a book he illustrated on herbs in a circa 1991 interview.Playing00:50 Transcript
James Carpenter discusses historic, nature-based lampwork with Paul Hollister and gives Hollister a book he illustrated on herbs. Paul Hollister Interviews with Edward Larrabee Barnes and James Carpenter, c. 1991 (Rakow title: James Carpenter interview [sound recording] / with Paul Hollister, BIB ID: 168555) Clip length: 00:50.
Paul Hollister [PH]: And of course you’ve seen all the [Herman O.] Mueller lampwork at the Natural History Museum [American Museum of Natural History, New York, New York].
James Carpenter [JC]: The one at the Peabody? [Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts]
PH: New York. New York.
JC: No, here. Right. And all the animals, and the sea life—
PH: Protozoa, diatom, radiolaria, and all—
JC: Right, right—that’s fantastic.
JC: But also the collection at the Peabody, the glass flowers was always very impressive.
PH: Oh, yeah, yeah. I took my anthropology course there.
JC: I was just looking for a book that I could give you, actually. I have a—where would it be? I might have it upstairs, but I should give you a copy of a book that I did on herbs [The Herbs of Lost Thyme, by John Ferris, illustrated by James Carpenter (Shelburne Mass: The Lost Thyme Press, 1971)].
PH: On herbs?
JC: Around ’70. Actually done around 1971.Permalink