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05 Oct 2018

Brokis: Raising a glass to tradition

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Before Jan Rabell founded Brokis in 2006, hand-blown glass from Bohemia was falling out of fashion. Now its unique shapes and organic quality have revived a centuries-old tradition

Bohemian glass is a thing of beauty and delicacy, a mere mention of which conjures up visions of luxury and quality. As the name suggests, it is exclusively manufactured in the western part of the Czech Republic and is hand blown and hand cut, making it a high-risk – and high-waste – product, but one so exquisite that its reputation has spanned centuries. 

Because its manufacture is a delicate process that requires highly skilled and fearless individuals to mix, blow, and cut the fine material, Bohemian glass can be prohibitively expensive. Many factories in the region have abandoned traditional glass blowing as modern manufacturing allows quicker, cheaper, and less risky glass production. But Brokis founder and owner Jan Rabell is on a mission to keep this centuries-old way of life alive, and to bring it into the 21st century by combining it with cutting-edge contemporary design.

06 OffStage 10The silica sand is heated at temperatures of up to 1723°C

Long before Brokis was born, Rabell acquired an ailing traditional glassblowing plant 140km south east of Prague. Originally, the Janštejn Glassworks produced glass objects for other designers working on old-fashioned designs. With demand for the old traditions in decline, Rabell decided that the way to reinvigorate the industry was to inject modernity into this antiquated cycle. “We use glass as the main material for the body of the lamps and the lights,” says Rabell. “Then we use a natural material like wood, or leather, and now we are using metal parts like copper and brass. But the main focus is the glass.”

06 OffStage 1Blowers carefully remove the molten glass with a hollow pole

The result of this is Brokis, whose hand-blown, but thoroughly contemporary, lighting systems have been attracting the attention of interior design connoisseurs and light enthusiasts alike. With the help of Czech designer Lucie Koldová, Rabell has created glass lamps with such a specific USP that they are essentially unique: contemporary designs that push the boundaries of traditional glassblowing. “The main thing is to keep the tradition of the hand production. So we never use technology, or robots, or machines to accelerate or to have bigger productivity.” 

The Janštejn Glassworks is the hot core of the Brokis universe. Though Koldová’s designs are decidedly cosmopolitan, the remote setting where they come to life is as rural as it gets. The glassworks is the main employer in the village, and the acrid – though not unpleasant – smell of molten silica wafts through the quiet streets night and day. 

06 OffStage 6Their first act is to spin the glass to remove any bubbles

When OnOffice visits, it is a glacial morning and a seemingly endless blanket of white covers the neighbouring fields. Upon entering the gargantuan warehouse that makes up the main manufacturing area, the first thing that hits you is the heat, exacerbated by the biting cold on the other side of the doors. 

Glassblowers wear shorts and protective gloves, each one assigned an area in the shopfloor where they carry out their duties as part of a production line. The first step is to mix the silica sand to create colourful glass. Brokis works with clear and opaque glass in colours including white, black, onyx, pink, and orange. Each of these colours and treatments is made using pure silica sand and a chemical compound, and will melt at a different temperature, requiring different furnaces burning at temperatures of up to 1723°C. 

06 OffStage 8Shattered glass waste is a reminder of the delicacy of the process

The hotter the melting point for the glass, the more challenging it is to work with. When the experienced blowers remove the molten silica sand from the furnace using a hollow pole, they must do it with extreme care. They first spin the molten mass to remove bubbles, then it’s time to blow. 

Koldová’s exquisite designs are often a challenge, requiring the blowers to make large and often unwieldy shapes. Her latest creation, Puro, can be over 1m in length, and the beloved Macaron is up to 60cm in diameter in its biggest size. Each piece must be blown to size in one go, as the blower furiously spins his hollow pipe and blows into it at once. When the right size and shape are reached, the molten glass balloon is lowered into a mould, where it’s finalised into a uniform shape with more blowing and sometimes a spurt of cool water. 

06 OffStage 3The glass has to be blown to the right size and shape in one go

“I have to be really flexible when it comes to the handmade manufacturing,” says Koldová. “It’s not like other types of design. With Brokis, each piece is an original; I need to count on that from the very beginning. Which means that when I have an idea, I start thinking about a new product, from the very first sketch, that it needs to stay loose and I need to combine materials that allow this.”

06 OffStage 7There is a danger of glass exploding when sprayed with water

Any number of things can go wrong at any step of the process: the blower might miss the shape, or the glass might explode in the mould if it’s the wrong temperature when sprayed with water. Only after all these hurdles are cleared can the new object, now almost solid, be taken to the kiln to cool and set. 

06 OffStage 2The almost-solid design is taken to cool down in the kiln

The final step is to hand cut and finish the glass, making sure edges are smooth and the correct shape for connectors. Finally each piece is washed and polished before the electrical elements are added and they are shipped around the world. Though completely handmade, all Brokis pieces feature hi-tech elements like dimmable LED lights, and some even feature wireless controls. 

06 OffStage 4The pieces are polished and finished ready to leave

The partnership with Koldová has been so successful that in 2013 Rabell made her art director at Brokis. His role is in managing the business and the manufacturing and she handles the design side including partnerships with international names. In 2018, Koldová headlined the experimental design installation Das Haus in the IMM festival in Cologne. It was mostly populated by Brokis products, including the Puro system arranged like an exploding supernova and the new Ivy pendant light, a delicate string of pearly orbs that fade in and out in a soothing pattern (but can also be set to stand still), that can be combined to create a veritable garden wall of ethereal light. 

06 OffStage .12jpgLucie Kolková’s Lightline design is produced at the factory

It’s all very cutting edge, so much so that it can be easy to forget that these futuristic objects are made by hand by local craftspeople, but traditional technique is the backbone of the design. As Brokis conquers the world of design, it has achieved Rabell’s aim of revitalising the glassblowing industry in Bohemia. The Janštejn factory is brimming full of new apprentices blowing new life into this beloved local tradition. 

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