Written by Emily Ballard | Photos by Anthony Harden
Smooth lines, vibrant colors, and a collection of glass artwork gleams in the light of a special gallery in downtown Asheville.
Each piece of hand-blown glass begins in the furnace located just past the entrance. On any given day, inside Lexington Glassworks, you will find the owners, Billy Guilford and Geoff Koslow, diligently and delicately crafting one-of-a-kind pieces in the gallery’s 2,100-degree furnace that they assembled themselves. Locals and tourists casually drop in and stand behind a simple wood railing barricade that separates this impromptu audience from the artists’ main stage. As they meticulously heat and shape the molten glass into an intricate piece of sellable art, they also create an opportunity for their customers to directly interact and witness the story behind the spectacular pieces on display.
All Roads Lead to Asheville
Geoff and Billy are young, casual in demeanor, and welcoming to all who enter their space. They exude a comfortable confidence gained from almost a decade of refining their craft. They are not new to the art scene, or the glassblowing industry, and although they have only resided in Asheville for a few short years, their business accomplishments are impressive. With a prime location, a growing presence in the community, and plenty of artistic freedom, financial success has become a reality for a couple of talented friends who shared an artistic dream.
They met while attending Alfred University, a small school in upstate New York, in what they describe as a one stop light town. Originally from Richmond, Virginia, Geoff had been working with glass since he was 15 years old. Billy, on the other hand, hailed from Cleveland, Ohio, and applied to the school for its world renowned ceramics program, but quickly became enamored with glass. Little did they know that the friendship shaped in those years would be a reflection of new things to come.
After graduation, Geoff was offered a full-time job blowing glass in a small production studio in Austin, Texas. He started at the bottom, cleaning up after more seasoned glassblowers. Over a four-year period, he worked his way up the ladder and eventually took on a management role.
During the same time period, Billy accepted a position at the Pittsburgh Glass Center, a nonprofit glassblowing school whose mission was to teach and educate others about the art of glassblowing. As a technician, he was in charge of building and maintaining studio operations, as well as teaching classes. Much like Geoff, he was able to learn and grow his job within the Center.
Perhaps the most important thing these creative partners have in common is a shared work ethic. They continually challenge themselves and each other. “We are passionate about the material. We are hard workers. You reach the top of that ladder and you find more room for growth,” says Billy.
A Spark of Imagination
Both Geoff and Billy were ready for something new and began to hash out ideas. It just so happened that they were each planning road trips across the country. Call it fate or serendipity, but their lives seemed to be on the exact same trajectory: they needed to be free and explore. Seizing the opportunity, they spent the next few months travelling almost 14,000 miles. After their adventures and explorations wrapped up, they reconvened, eager to begin planning their future.
The skilled artists had each taken classes at the Penland School of Craft and had connections in Asheville. They felt a strong sense of community in the mountain city. Geoff recalls visiting the area after feeling burnt out from his job in Texas and sensing that it would be a great place for their new endeavor.
“I saw the opportunity here, “Geoff remembers. “Not all cities are still accessible for young people and that really excited me.”
The kind of studio they wanted to open was rare and, at that point, practically nonexistent in Asheville. They had plenty of experience and know-how, but were new to the details involved in building a business. They were determined to do it the right way.
“We basically had zero business background… just four years work experience after graduation. No experience [with] getting funding or writing a business plan,” Geoff remembers.
Both Geoff and Billy feel fortunate that they were able to start their careers directly after college, and, in fact, were the only two in their graduating class to be offered positions in their field so quickly. They were able to use their savings from this work experience to launch their new business. They also secured a small credit line to cover start-up costs.
To avoid distractions, they leased a small studio in the River Arts District. The space was just big enough for their computers, a printer, and a fax machine. They would spend 40 hours a week doing research, drafting their business plan, and studying the area’s market. As the two describe this time period, they jovially depict the office as more of a storage unit. They exchange glances and laugh at the memory of the hours spent together in those very close quarters, brainstorming and planning ways to make their dream a reality. You can sense the ups and downs, and the excitement and fears, that must have filled that small space.
“We sat in that office day-in and day-out researching, and the numbers were just speaking to us. [quote float=”right”]We were reading about all the market trends in Asheville and felt this was the perfect opportunity,” Billy says.[/quote]
If they didn’t take action, they knew they would miss out on an incredible chance. They enrolled in classes and seminars at AB-Tech and within the community, collecting any advice, guidance, and support they could find.
After scouting locations in Biltmore Village, the River Arts District, South Slope, and Weaverville, they found a building on South Lexington Avenue. It had been vacant for six years and had last been home to a group of artists. Billy describes the space as “empty but full.” They would have their work cut out for them, however. The first thing they had to do was strip down the building entirely. With the assistance of a friend’s dump truck they emptied tons of trash. They enlisted the expertise of an architect friend to design a studio that would have an open and spacious feel with room for them to grow.
While waiting for construction permits, Geoff and Billy sidestepped labor costs by ordering all the special materials they needed to start building the equipment by hand: a cooling apparatus, and two crucial pieces needed to blow glass: the furnace and an oven they would use to reheat the glass between steps, called a glory hole.
Billy had plenty of experience with construction, but he describes the process as “unnerving.” He always had supervisors looking over his shoulder and inspecting his work. Now they were on their own, with no choice but to make it work.
“At the time there wasn’t anything like what we wanted to build in Asheville. My background is more the retail side,” Geoff explains. “Billy knew how to build everything. [quote float=”center”]It takes two people to blow glass. I think that’s how we really started the conversation. I had a pretty good idea what the product needed to look like and how to do the management and retail side. Billy knew how to build everything we needed. You can’t just go to the store and buy that stuff.”[/quote]
Equipment assembly was not the only project the partners did for themselves; the walls had to be power-washed; the rafters needed paint; the plumbing had to be ripped out and replaced, and a long list of other responsibilities fell to them in an effort to save money and create a business that would truly represent them as artists.
“We didn’t have a real-estate broker; we did everything; we built the space ourselves; we wrote our own lease. We didn’t even know we had these skills,” Billy proudly recollects. Still, there were bumps in the road and moments when the two feared that maybe it wouldn’t happen.
A Grand Re-opening
After seven months they gradually overcame those doubts and the frustrating intricacies involved in dealing with city permits and financing. At last, everything was in place. They were fired up and ready to open the vintage garage doors to reveal the reimagined space to the public.
They moved on to doing the creative work: blowing glass, developing products, and creating inventory. Research and development was complete. It was time to see if their strategic preparations and projections would pay off.
“At first, it was just two of us. People would wander in and ask if we were open. The pedestals and gallery were empty. We were trying to remember what blowing glass was like. After two months we felt like we were actually open and had a good amount of work out there.”
Billy and Geoff wanted to create a space where people, children, and dogs were welcome. Anyone could walk in from the street and not worry about breaking something. They wanted to get away from the more traditional setting of an exclusive gallery and make their space accessible. What they have achieved is a clean and airy atmosphere that strategically enhances visual aesthetics, while serving the gallery’s other function as a working studio.
Beyond the shelves of vibrant glass vases, complex bowls swirled with color, and elaborate light fixtures, the guys are hard at work. As the small furnace door swings open, the heat is palpable. Glowing embers emanate a surreal orange glow. Geoff explains that it takes years to fully understand what you are seeing. Through that small opening is the glass that is being created. For these expert glassblowers, clear glass is a blank canvas. Once it comes out of the furnace, they add layer after layer of color and use hand tools to shape and form the glass.
As you watch them work, it looks like a carefully choreographed dance. They sit at the workbench, using techniques that have been around for 2,000 years; their movements are precise – each action deliberate. They work expertly together; a well-oiled machine, trusting each other’s knowledge as they handle the extreme medium, controlling the materials with care. Onlookers stare transfixed, following the thrilling process from melted glass to a vessel that has been blown to life by the breath of these two remarkable artists. It is not every day that you get to actually witness the practice of glassblowing. And that experience was the crucial intersection between art and commerce in their business plan.
“We didn’t want that disconnect where you go into a gallery and say, ‘I love this piece. Can you tell me about the artist?’ In this studio you are talking directly to the artist that made the work,” Geoff says.
Billy explains that they are selling more of an experience than a product. They promote an open door policy and encourage people to witness their process in action. It’s free to enter and welcoming to the general public.
“There is an educational aspect of what we do that really gives people an appreciation. Being able to see it happen and explaining the process empowers that $25 item or $1800 item. It really puts it in perspective for our clients that they are supporting local artists,” says Billy.
Billy and Geoff have already experienced success beyond their projections and they are excited for what comes next. Soon they will be opening up a small beer tasting bar within the studio. They envision their patrons purchasing one of their affordable hand-blown drinking glasses and filling it with beer, socializing, and taking in the surroundings.
In the future the studio may be open for special events, and the guys are excited to work with local restaurants and hotels in hopes of producing lighting fixtures, an increasingly popular product line for them. Each day has a full schedule. They collaborate with clients, fill orders, and further their craft; a combination of artistic experimentation and practical business fulfillment.
Billy and Geoff are elated to be a part of the development of Asheville as the city continues to grow. When they first started learning their craft in college, they were unaware that they would one day become a bustling city attraction.
A Bright, Clear Future
If Geoff and Billy had a crystal ball, they would hope to see Lexington Glassworks become a staple in the Asheville artist community, with tourists and locals continuing to visit and re-visit their studio, watching their works-in-progress evolve. “We are excited to be where we are. We are blown away by the response that we have gotten. It has been a lot of hard work, but we are just happy that people are actually enjoying their experience.”
They also want to pay it forward by creating job opportunities for new graduates, in the same way those opportunities were given to them. Ultimately, these innovative entrepreneurs want to sell beautiful stuff that people are really interested in and share its story.
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