Carolyn Cartwright: Lh Interview with the Inspiring Glass Goddess
Timeless. A simple yet profound word to describe the artistry, innovation, craftiness, and designs of Carolyn Cartwright. A design connoisseur of sorts, Carolyn Cartwright, revolutionized how we see glass. Most of us will never have the pleasure of working alongside film greats such as Spike Lee and Wes Anderson, or A-list actors such as Meryl Streep and Denzel Washington.
However, Carolyn Cartwright went there and did that. With her educational background in fine art and film, it afforded her the opportunity to create Hollywood sets. Two decades of the exciting, but time-consuming, film industry served for an incredible experience. But there was another passion brewing within her that the world had not yet seen.
Lighting and accessories. They may have appeared to be the smallest components of interior design, but Carolyn knew they were the icing on the cake. Being amidst the best luxurious furniture available would have sufficed for the common person, but for the extraordinary Carolyn Cartwright—the right lamp had the potential to recreate the atmosphere.
While continuing with film projects, she led her own interior design firm catering to residential interior design. Then came the idea; a collection of Venetian inspired modernist glass lamps. What better solution than to create what she wanted to see. Her former undergrad years of making tea bowls on a kick wheel and creating sculptural experience pieces were about to give birth to a new adventure in the life of Carolyn Cartwright. She named it Cartwright New York.
We had the pleasure of asking Carolyn about her road to success and her current adventure. Her answers were both highly inspiring and informative—enjoy!
LOVE HAPPENS: What led you to create the Cartwright New York brand? Why the fascination with glass? How did it become a passion?
CAROLYN CARTWRIGHT: I founded the company in 2010 out of my combined love of historical glassworks and my passion for design.
I was at a personal crossroads. My career had been built creating sets for visionary filmmakers like Spike Lee, Wes Anderson, and The Coen Brothers and with great actors: Gene Hackman, Angelica Houston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Meryl Streep, George Clooney, and Denzel Washington.
I was ready to do something else, something that was driven by passion and something that was mine.
For twenty years I poured my heart into that work. But by the end of it, I knew I needed to do something else. Film making is intoxicating, it’s exciting and challenging, but also completely consuming; it takes over your life. Adrenaline fuels film and it will take as much as you will give. By the end of those twenty years, I had amassed incredible experience and a serious resume, but I was in need of a change.
Before I went to grad school for film, I had done my undergraduate work in Fine Art; first Ceramics and Sculpture, then Photography and Art History. I started in ceramics, making vessels with the late, great Warren MacKenzie. I made tea bowls on a kick wheel and glazed in wood-fired kilns.
Then I took sculpture classes and my perspective expanded away from single objects towards the creation of sculptural experience pieces – I made a lot of wild installation art using unorthodox materials: pieces made in the snow, out of trees, in sand washed away by the ocean and with fire. It was so much fun, but I honestly, in my 20’s I had no idea how I could possibly make a living making art like that.
So instead, when I graduated, I moved to New York and went to film school. It seemed very practical to me at the time. I thought I could still work in the Arts, but I could make a living. Afterward, I went to work in the film business, made a lot of movies, I started an interior design firm, did residential design work, and film projects, I got married, had a child, and built a career. But twenty years of film was really enough.
By 2013, I was single again, living in Tribeca with my son and I had been working mostly on films non-stop. Over the years that I’d spent creating sets, I had amassed a collection of 20th-century furniture, lighting, and decorative objects. I had the idea that I wanted to design a collection of modernist glass lamps, but I didn’t know how to make the leap.
Working long hours in the film business and the daily demands of single parenting consumed all of my time. I couldn’t see how I could break away, change careers and find the time to learn everything I needed to know to make that dream come true. Then…
Through a series of life-altering events, beginning with being flooded out by Hurricane Sandy and ending with the sale of my Tribeca apartment, the universe pushed me to take a leap. I hired a friend from the glass world as a consultant and started to learn all about designing in glass. My passion for glass grew organically from there.
I went back to school, studied product design, found a talented glassblower to work with, and after a few years, I devoted myself full time to the company I created, Cartwright New York.
Years before I had visited Venice and had fallen in love with it. I used to daydream that one day I would live and work there. My studio would be there, I would live at the beach in the Lido and go to work by boat. I still dream about it.
I studied fine art because beauty fascinates me. Beauty is a mystery. It’s an ideal and a magnet. Thousands of pages have been devoted to the subject of beauty. Every era has its own ideas about it, ways of judging it and values that surround it. Aesthetics is an entire field of philosophy based on it.
I appreciate art and design works of any era which are beautiful. I like pieces that take time to reveal themselves to the viewer. Things you can’t take in all at once, things you have to meditate on to understand. I find those pieces the most visually rewarding, and the most beautiful. I wanted to develop a visual language to create simple, elegant things that could intrigue a viewer for a long time.
In art school, I learned about composition, proportion, color, and pattern. And when I started studying glass, the first historical pieces that drew me in were all from Venice. Through my research, I went back in time and discovered Renaissance-era Venetian glass.
Venice at the height of the Renaissance had a rich and rarified design sense. It was a time of incredible innovation and experimentation. I fell in love with the objects they made at that time. It seemed that by the height of the Renaissance, all of the artisans were trying to out-do each other: the exquisitely proportioned goblets perched on impossible stems, the richly gilded and decorated chalices and those extraordinary glistening chandeliers.
The more time I spent diving into glass history, the more I discovered that the objects that fascinated me contained all the elements which I considered beautiful; the shapes, the colors, proportions, and patterns. Not to mention that hand-blown glass shows its process, in that exact way that I value so highly, that “perfect imperfection”.
My company, Cartwright New York, challenges itself to marry the obsession I have with 400 years of Venetian glass-making with my personal aesthetic of minimalism. I found in Venetian history, the aesthetic tools to create the visual language I needed, taking the techniques of the past and applying them to the modern forms of my contemporary sensibility.
LH: We read that your meeting with Venetian glassblower Pino Signoretto was a pivotal moment in your venture to the world of glass. How did he influence your career change?
CAROLYN CARTWRIGHT: Over the years in New York, I had met a number of American glass artists, but never an Italian. At that time, in the early 2000’s I was curious about glass but didn’t know much about its history yet. What I did know was focused on American contemporary glass.
I happened to be in Venice and was invited to visit an artist’s studio. That artist turned out to be Pino Signoretto – a highly accomplished glass sculptor and a larger than life character. Meeting Pino, his friends, and colleagues, introduced me to the living world of Venetian glass.
I felt like Alice in Wonderland. If you have never been to Murano, it is unlike anywhere else. It’s a small working island in the middle of the Venetian Lagoon, you travel there by boat. It has been the center of Venetian glassmaking since Medieval times and to this day it is an entire island devoted solely to the making of glass. To me, it was like wandering into a living museum with a backstage pass.
Most visitors don’t have the opportunity to see Murano beyond the colorful shop fronts of the Fondamenta dei Vetrai, the main street and there is a good reason for this. The secrets of the trade are still held very close to the chest there.
In Medieval times, glassmakers were members of a guild and were under the control of the State. The laws of those guilds were very strict. Glassworkers were not allowed to leave Venice for fear that they would divulge their trade secrets to outsiders, leading to competition in other parts of Italy or other countries. If a glassblower did leave, they were often not allowed to return, or if they did, they faced heavy fines or other, worse punishments.
Particular secrets of Venetian glassmaking, for example, how to make mirrors or the recipe for clear crystal,” cristallo” were essentially considered the intellectual property of City State of Venice. These secrets made possible specific valuable exports which added to the power and influence of Venice in the 14th and 15th Centuries. For this reason, much of this culture of trade secrecy handed down father to son still exists in Murano today.
But Pino Signoretto was a different kind of Venetian, a Maestro, but also an innovator. Whether one appreciates the aesthetic of his work or not, he was a tremendously skilled artisan and showman. His introductions around Murano were invaluable to me.
Venetians are gracious by nature and through Pino and his colleagues I met many wonderful members of the Venetian glass community; Manuela Zanvettori the brilliant glass jewelry maker, the caretaker of a massive collection of vintage Barovier and Tosso glass, and the Segusos, a family that has been producing glass in Murano since c.1397. Years later, the Segusos produced an exquisite, limited edition of my Canna and Corpicino lamps for me. We have remained friends ever since.
Glass is a material full of contradictions. It can be plain and simple or intricate and complex. It is versatile and can take an endless number of forms. Glass has extreme technical limitations and requires years of training in order to be proficient in its use. It can fill the rose window of an enormous cathedral, hold your evening cocktail, or be the touchscreen on the face of your iPhone.
In Murano, I discovered the living history of glass, it’s burning furnaces and the artisans still making beautiful work in the place it had been made for hundreds of years. Pino Signoretto was my introduction to that working world. I found new inspiration there and discovered the story behind the material.
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LH: As one who spent many years in the world of interior design – how did lighting and accessories become your focus?
CAROLYN CARTWRIGHT: Light is so important, I learned that first in filmmaking. It’s a way to sculpt space, in film, if you don’t light it you don’t see it. In interior design, light is a way to create focus in specific areas in a room. When I am designing, I always look at the windows and how the light falls naturally in the space. Then I look to the use of the space, and how to position the lighting in the room in the best way for that use.
Lights and accessories are really the jewelry of a room. They can be unique, showing the character of the owner, they can add color or glow or sparkle. Even when they are as tailored and elegant as the pieces we make, they offer moments of subtle joy.
Chandeliers and pendants can work in two ways, for their functionality in terms of the light they create, but also sculpturally. They can draw the eye and animate a space, and they are perfect for creating mood.
That is also true for table lamps and sconces. Sconces can add much-needed light to a dim dining area, hallway or bath but can also draw the eye up a wall, changing the perceived proportions of a space. Table lamps can create visual anchors, add a splash of color or create focal points in a room.
As for accessories, the word somehow doesn’t quite capture the spirit of what we make. Perhaps from my film background, having to find the ideal scripted prop which could hold special meaning and thus move the story forward. Or maybe from my passion for art history, I think of accessories more like talismans, like artifacts of the present- special objects which capture your attention and to which you can return and discover something new every time.
LH: What is the methodology behind designing a particular piece? Is it always a unique process or a more central approach to all designs?
CAROLYN CARTWRIGHT: My process is a classic product design approach. My family is all academics, so the discipline of research and a dedicated work ethic are in my DNA.
When I begin a project, I start by identifying the central creative problem and by doing basic research. Once I have a sense of the range of possible solutions, I start sketching. I sketch and then make scaled drawings exploring the idea, kind of sculpting the object in lines.
Then, if the piece I am working on requires a more complex structure, I start to make models, first small ones and then larger ones.
When I’m clear on the construction, material, and proportions, I start prototyping. I collaborate with an exceptional glassblower here in Brooklyn. He interprets my ideas in glass.
We make many pieces in order to get a design right. We test color, refine shape and size, discuss and revise before adding a new design to the line. This creative process is what brings the pieces to life.
LH: You mention on your website that you employ techniques dating back from the 1400s. Which techniques, stand out to you from that time period?
CAROLYN CARTWRIGHT: Both Cane, the use of colored glass rods embedded in the clear glass and Latimo, the use of white glass, are Renaissance Venetian techniques. We use both of these extensively in our work.
Cane, (Canna or Filigrana), which technically dates to the 1500s in Murano, adds color, structure, and pattern. In our Canna Candela lamps, I use it to create a vertical rhythm.
In our Mezzafiligrana glasses, we achieve a spiral pattern. The distinctive gap spiral cane pattern in our glasses makes for a unique drinking experience. You find yourself focusing on the pattern in the glasses which I’m convinced makes everything taste better. I think Mixologists would love them.
Our glasses make great gifts as they feel both informal and precious at the same time, it’s a vibe I think of as “Venetian casual”. A lifestyle I aspire to.
Lattimo, historically was matte white, like milk – latte and was created to mimic Chinese porcelain. But by layering a transparent color over the white, we can create a sheer color, which has a special kind of luminosity.
The layering creates a way for light to enter the surface of the object and bounce off the reflecting layer underneath then back out through the color. This is similar to one of the techniques the Renaissance painters used to achieve their luminosity.
This application of color gives our Latimo pieces a unique quality which reminds me of cashmere. It’s a soft, delicate color that has beautiful depth. The sophistication of these Renaissance Venetian techniques fascinates me as does the endless variety we are able to achieve with them.
LH: From all of the creations of your collection, which one stands out the most to you and why?
CAROLYN CARTWRIGHT: Our signature piece is our Otto Luce Chandelier. This piece brings both a novel and timeless atmosphere to the space it inhabits.
Eighteen-carat gold hot gilds its glass shades, which when blown out, creates a lace-like effect on the surface and adds a shimmering, warm glow to the light. The light is reminiscent of candlelight; soft and intimate. It creates a wonderful atmosphere; calming and flattering, perfect for over a dining table, in a living room or anywhere that calls for an intimate light. It actually softens and warms the space it hangs in.
LH: We too love the Otto Luce chandelier! It is a wonderful representation of the craftiness and innovation of your brand. What triggered this incredible design? What went into the creation of this piece?
CAROLYN CARTWRIGHT: The Otto Luce was a fantastic collaboration. We had been making our glass lamps, the Canna Candela and the Corpicino Latimo for a few years, and I wanted to design a chandelier.
I started researching chandeliers, looking at their history and structures; candles to gaslight to electric and so on. I had the idea for a chandelier that could adjust its shape in a way similar to a mobile, but remain in geometric balance. I wanted a piece that was part light fixture and part mobile; a hybrid.
I found the inspiration in the structure of a small 1960’s tabletop candle holder from Denmark which had been given to me as a gift. This piece is about 4” x 6”. I became fascinated by it and thought it would be a good starting point for the structure of a chandelier.
I took that idea to a talented metalsmith and fabricator and we worked out how my idea could be made. How it could make different configurations and how to marry the metal to glass. I wanted a piece that would feel perfectly classic and yet modern at the same time. A piece you could put in all sorts of interiors and it would feel at home.
I worked on that piece for about a year and it has been very successful. I’m honored to say that it has been embraced by the highest levels of the design community.
LH: What kind of quality can one expect when they invest in your products?
CAROLYN CARTWRIGHT: Everything we make is made to last. When I started my company, I set out to make things that were so beautiful that no one would ever tire of looking at them; things that were precious, like jewels. That is still a motivating force for me.
I make objects/accessories that you will want to hand down to the next generation; heirlooms, things that you will treasure. A perfect wedding gift, for example.
I create objects that are contextually fluid and are comfortable in any type of interior; traditional, transitional, modern, contemporary. I don’t make things which are trendy, or gimmicky.
In fact, I have a client who bought the very first Otto Luce Chandelier I ever sold, her designer was a good friend of mine and he helped her create a beautiful apartment on Park Avenue. She loved the process of working on the design of her apartment so much, that when it was done she sold the apartment and bought another one so she could do it again.
She contacted me to tell me that she had taken her chandelier with her to the new apartment and asked if I could make new shades to go with her new décor. Of course, I said yes, and we did. We both could not have been happier. This is the perfect example of what I mean.
LH: What advice would you give young women who have a passion for interior design?
CAROLYN CARTWRIGHT: Follow your passion. Do your homework. Learn everything you can about the things you love. Value the skill it takes to make things by hand. The knowledge of how things are made will inform your process and give richness and originality to your ideas. And don’t be afraid to try things! You never know what can happen creatively if you just start exploring.
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LH: What legacy do you want to impart to the world of interior design with Cartwright New York?
CAROLYN CARTWRIGHT: My grandfather on my father’s side was a jeweler in Pall Mall, London. I am a firm believer that we are the product of all that came before us. We have history in our DNA. We need to value and celebrate that, give credit to the past and build honestly on it to innovate for the future.
Cartwright New York is a legacy brand in the making: honesty, integrity, transparency, and responsibility are our core values.
All of our pieces are made with deep respect for craft. Our current offerings are all made one by one with strict attention to detail. Each piece is made in the USA, built in Brooklyn, New York. I personally oversee every phase of production on every piece we make. If you call us on the phone, you get me.
I have a sustainability mindset and I design with a “cradle to grave” mentality. I use materials in their pure form, with mechanical connections, no adhesives, no paint. And I design so that each element could be disassembled and recycled should it ever come to that.
The environmental impact of what we do on this earth is incredibly important to me. I have been a vegetarian since I was 16, I compost my food scraps, eat organic and recycle everything. I think that the more we consider the impact of our actions, the more evolved we can become. We owe this earth the effort of our stewardship. I firmly believe that we should do whatever we can to leave a better world behind than the one we were born into.
I hope that through the creation of our pieces that I can inspire people.
Cartwright New York is a young brand, but it is based on the traditions of great design houses of the past. We are growing and developing new pieces, working to innovate all the time. We are seeking new venues to share our work through, as well as actively looking for projects to collaborate on.
I am always on the hunt for new commissions, I’d love to do a piece or series for a restaurant or a hotel. I want to expand our offerings. Currently, we are making pieces for; a high rise in Hong Kong, a ski lodge in Utah and a Villa in Portugal designed by incredible South African Architects by way of Milan (!). So, I don’t really see any boundaries to our growth potential.
Residential work is certainly the core of our business, but hospitality is changing and becoming more about story and experience. I think we have an opportunity in hospitality to make more beautiful things that draw on the past and invent the future.
I have ideas for pieces perfect for a big hotel lobby for example. The more public the space, the more people could enjoy and be inspired by our work. So, I welcome anyone to reach out to us with their projects, so we can grow our community and create new exciting work together.
Words by Jada Ledbetter
Feature Photo of Carolyn Cartwright by Brien Hollowell