A catch-up conversation with HM co-founders on the long road out of craft fairs and the moment they stepped into the light.
Joe: From your recollection..How would you describe me when we met 15 years ago?
Jackson: It's been 15 years?
Joe: Yeah it's been about 15 years!
Jackson: Oh man… When we met, I had come back from Australia and had experienced all these amazing glass artists from over the world. I think it was really interesting because when I started glass at UW River Falls, most of the students were very regional, very local in their experience. Then when I met you and I really saw how much potential you had in you. You were so eager and curious, but not really knowing what you wanted, right? I knew you just wanted to be part of something more expansive and more interesting.
How would you describe me when we met 15 years ago?
Joe: You had just finished studying with some of the most talented glass makers in the world down in Canberra.
All of a sudden there was this person I saw as a peer with a ton of knowledge that was different from anyone else that I had met in that small community. We just got along right off the bat because I think you had a desire to teach and wanted to help build a community. Meanwhile I wanted to absorb every last little bit of that information. It just was just so much easier because it didn't seem like some master/apprentice, teacher/student thing. It was just two pretty like-minded people that were in similar stages in life, off by a few years, but open to this dynamic of give and take.
"All of a sudden there was this person I saw as a peer with a ton of knowledge that was different from anyone else that I had met in that small community."
The long road from craft fair to building the glass house
I remember we’d be at the bar, just talking about glassmaking, what art means—that kind of stuff, but one conversation in particular stands out. You were asking me about other interests and I told you I was involved with an organization that worked on freeing child soldiers in Uganda. Instantly you were just ready to jump into action. You were like “Ok, wow tell me everything. What can we do? Let’s have a sale. Let’s screen this documentary.” And on and on. You struck me as this dude who was so intense and so serious. That was a unique perspective, I hadn’t come across that as a 20 year old.
Jackson: You meet a lot of people in their early 20s and they're often in a blissful, kind of blasé phase. I really gravitate towards people that have a fire, an intensity. And you started at River Falls in the ceramics program and really loved that tangibility and engaging with that material. But the glass studio was next door, and it was all rock ‘n’ roll. We joked that it was classical music playing over in the ceramics studio then it was sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll next-door in the glass studio. So, what are you gonna choose as a 20 year old? It was so cool seeing somebody obsessed with process, material.
“We joked that it was classical music playing over in the ceramics studio then it was sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll next-door in the glass studio.”
We would literally blow glass for several days on end and then you’d say “Oh, do you wanna do more tomorrow?” All after we'd just worked 12 hour days for three or four days in the middle of summer. You just had this obsession around creating, being in the moment, having a rhythm.
Joe: I wanted to keep at it. You were willing to provide me with as much information and knowledge as I was willing to accept. That turned from just making objects to building bigger things years later. I think that window still open.
Jackson: When we were first working together, I didn't really ever have an assistant or apprentice prior. I really saw that potential in you, you were in that tiny tiny percentage of people who had a natural affinity and work ethic.
I was really inspired by the fact that I could push my skill set much harder with somebody else around who was really talented and putting in the work.
The long road to building a studio
Joe: What do you remember about those early days trying to put together a studio?
Jackson: I was visiting these different cities, San Francisco, Seattle, New York and the whole time I was really evaluating what it would take to build a studio in Minneapolis. In my mind, I was always considering some kind of infrastructure for a creative practice. I think that was more of an exploration phase for me, trying to sort out what I wanted in life.
Joe: We were making work out of the UW River Falls studio, using it as a really affordable production space. But then they told me I needed to get out of there, I needed to graduate. I remember saying, “Hey, there are other artists in the area with their own shops,” and I thought, “how hard could it be?” With some reluctance, you agreed to go along with this plan to build a shop.
Jackson: I thought it was a terrible idea! Because when you build a shop it's way more work than you anticipate. When you have a shop it’s this family member that you need to take care of constantly and it always needs money, you have to feed it all the time.
I enrolled in an MFA program at MCAD because I thought I wanted to go down the professor track and then about three days into MCAD I realized it wasn’t for me. I was passionate about creating and realized that if I was teaching all the time it just wasn’t going to be satisfying.
That was the moment that catalyzed things for me. I realized I wanted to be here in Minneapolis, to be the best in Minneapolis. I wanted to quit basically everything else I was doing. Then I went to you and said, “I think we should build a studio, even though I think it's a bad idea.”
"I realized I wanted to be here in Minneapolis, to be the best in Minneapolis."
Joe: Do you remember why you felt like it was a bad idea?
Jackson: I was a little fearful of where having a studio would take us. I ultimately really wanted to be creative and I knew once we built a studio it would lead us down a certain road. I was around 24 I think, and perhaps I was scared to commit to a trajectory when I wasn’t sure how we’d do it. But I felt confident we’d figure out how to make it work.
I also knew that I didn't want to do art fairs, driving in the van every weekend of the summer for the rest of my life so I said “OK, we have to figure out how to make this happen.”
Do you remember your worst art fair experience?
Joe: Oh yeah, that time in Des Moines–
Jackson: –there was a tornado, yeah?
Joe: You were at some show on the East Coast, and I had enough money to put gas in the van, drive down there, and rent a spot in the fairgrounds so I could camp in the back of the van once I had emptied out of the work.
I was at the show, the first day went fine, but then that night this wild storm came through. I could barely sleep that night in the back of the van during a storm, but went to the show the next morning. And we had a corner booth–you know corner booths were the most desirable, so we’d pay more to have two streams of foot traffic seeing our work. But with a corner booth you’re also super exposed. So when a wind gust came through up underneath the tent that night, it lifted the entire 10x10. So woke up the next morning to find the display, naked, and the tent wrapped around a light pole a block away.
Then the rest of the show it was 110, and I was under absolutely no canopy just getting absolutely fried by the sun. I was completely burned, by myself standing on a corner in Des Moines, Iowa trying to sell $4500 vases that nobody was interested in back in 2009. I was just ready to be done with that life at that point but we still kind of did it for a few more years after that.
What are some memorable experiences you wish you could forget?
Jackson: Driving to Telluride, Colorado by myself. I did a two day show and it said it was a 21 hour drive. The first day I didn’t sell a single thing, the crowds were super thin. I was camping because I didn’t have the money for a hotel. But that night I was like… “you know whatever, it doesn't matter, I'm going to get a nice meal– I'm not eating canned soup for dinner.”
I remember sitting at this nice restaurant, and there’s this hedge fund manager or something there. I just remember feeling like he was on the opposite end of reality–he had a home in Telluride, flew in on his private jet. He says he comes up to Minnesota every year for the boundary waters, probably on his private jet, with his son for a canoe trip. The whole time I’m thinking about how serendipitous the details were, and thinking, hey maybe he’ll at least buy my meal–
Joe: –and he paid for your dinner, didn’t he?
Jackson: He did! Anyway, the next day, there was an hour left of the craft fair. I had spent $1,000 on the fair, $1,000 driving down there. This couple comes by with 20 minutes left of the fair, looking to buy a $25 paper weight and that was it. So, yeah, I drove to Telluride, Colorado to sell a $25 paperweight.
Experiences like that can really motivate you to make a change.
Joe: When did the lightbulb go off about putting light bulbs in our pieces? We had earlier schemes. Like, buy a $40 drinking glass, drink unlimited free beer.
Jackson: We never did the bong thing. If you’re selling a bong and allowing unlimited hits, then you’re in trouble.
"We wanted a brand that makes lighting, that makes glass, that was part of a broader community."
Joe: There was a long transition. We would make wall art and other stuff that wasn’t our taste, we just kind of had to do it. Some of it was our taste, too though. We had some architects and designers who’d have us do commissions. Out of those commissions we did a couple of lighting projects. We realized we had an opportunity. Everyone needs light, so there’s more of a need than an object like a vase. There’s a lot of value in connecting function to beauty. It was an opportunity to pivot to creating a lighting business but I had no idea how to do it.
Jackson: The keg party model only works for so long. We needed an interim thing to move us to a viable working business. I had the recipe for that, and Joe was on board, as long as we could make a plan and figure it out.
How long did it take for us to become a lighting company in that temporary studio, what were the key moments?
Joe: Our friend, Jim Bell had access to tons of metal. He’d bring truckloads of free steel–tube stock steel that we could weld into different pieces of equipment, walls around equipment, heat and exhaust hoods. Jim was essential to building that space, and facilitating that introduction to Room & Board?
Jackson: At that time did you feel driven to build a design brand? Something that pushed some level of aesthetics, design, innovation, craft, emotion. What was the balance between our need to survive and being artistic?
Joe: We needed a functional studio, something we could have control over. That was step one.
Jackson: Speaking of, this month is your 11th anniversary of our first glass piece in that makeshift studio.
Joe: It took us four months to build it.
Jackson: That first piece was so wonky.
Joe: I remember things going from survival to having some level of control, and not just saying yes to just any opportunity that came to us.
I’m not going to name them but there was a designer we worked with a lot early on, who got us a number of projects but was also always trying to squeeze every last drop out of us because they knew we were young, inexperienced, and desperate.
Later down the road I remember hearing from other young craftspeople who had similar trajectories to us, and apparently this person was saying “I used to really enjoy working with Hennepin Made, but they just became so serious and so corporate over there, they won't make me samples for free…” this was maybe 8 years after we stopped working for that person. It gives me a lot of satisfaction to know that even in times of desperation, we were willing and able to take control over our situation. We wouldn’t make mediocre junk just because somebody was willing to give us a project.
Jackson: We always had standards.
Joe: Even when we made stuff that wasn’t our aesthetic and we made it well.
I think we had a clear idea of what we wanted this to become. We wanted a brand that makes lighting, that makes glass, that was part of a broader community. I think we were willing to let go of the kind of solo glassblower ego to make something bigger than ourselves.
Jackson: I mean stuff is challenging when you’re a small business. You’re so vulnerable in those first two or three years. A few times things were really tight and we and you would say “You talked us into this, you have to get us out of it.”
Joe: I knew that you were so good at managing relationships that you'd’ find a way to make stuff work out. I was always focused on the here and now: how do I melt a batch of glass this week? I was focused on the immediate environment and trusted that you could take care of thinking about the future. Some of your ideas were batshit crazy but I’d hear most of those ideas and see you doing the research and work to move the business into the next stage of development. I knew it would work out.
Like the cafe–before we even found this location, I was always interested in the performative part of glassmaking even though I’m pretty introverted. I was into having public access to our studio. Having a little coffee shop so people could get a coffee, maybe a scone, and watch glass get blown.
What do you remember about that transition, with the cafe?
Jackson: Like lots of things in my life, one thing leads to another, leads to another, and I’d just say “Wow, how did I end up in this spot?”
Part of it was intentional and part of it was by accident. When we started Hennepin Made we were in this building with lots of studios and lots of makers. Everyone there was trying to create great products for people. I was worried about taking us out of that context into our own facility. I was worried people would lose motivation and inspiration. I wanted to find some way to make sure we had energy and newness coming into the facility.
Joe: I love connecting with people, so at that point, several years in, people would remember the underground parties we threw and ask if we had space they could use. It became more formal and we needed to legitimize it into a legit business or we’d get in trouble.
I was in the neighborhood association and talked to other people and they’d say “to sell beer, you gotta get into food,” but we just continued to take everything one step further, another step further.
Jackson: We were working on a little espresso bar and crafting a little showroom experience. We started thinking about the cafe as a living showroom that has lighting, while the actual showroom is more of an art experience. we had to go through a kind of refinement process, to optimize and get all the components reinforcing what our values are.
Joe: We really embraced a cowboy mentality, we always figured stuff out in the past and kept getting away with it. To some degree we did but we also faced some adversity that crafted who we are now, our personal relationship, how HM interacts with the space, how Glasshouse exists because of the failure of the Holden Room.
Jackson: Is part of our identity this constant iteration?
Joe: Absolutely. In its current phase things feel the most true to us and what we wanted to build.