Inside Chihuly's New House of Glass

The new Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibit - opening Monday, May 21 - showcases the work of the world’
Brangien Davis  |   May 2012   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
A boat full of glass floats on display at Chihuly Garden and Glass

In 1961, while studying interior design at the University of Washington, an arty kid from Tacoma experimented with melting and fusing glass. Today that kid is a world-renowned glass artist of tremendous influence—and as of this month, Dale Chihuly can boast an entire museum devoted to his career. (Tacoma’s Museum of Glass features his work prominently, but not exclusively.) Chihuly Garden and Glass (chihulygardenandglass.com) is slated to be the most comprehensive collection of Chihuly’s work, spread across eight exhibit galleries, a lecture hall, an elaborate garden and a dazzling glass house, all in the Seattle Center space formerly known as the Fun Forest. At press time, the full contents of the galleries were still being finalized, because, according to new Garden and Glass executive director Michelle Bufano, “Dale is always trying to add more to give visitors a bigger experience.”

Perhaps the most visually stunning aspect of the exhibit, the Glass House was conceptualized by Chihuly and executed by local architecture firm Owen Richards (which also designed McCaw Hall and Seattle International Film Festival’s new headquarters at Seattle Center). Resembling a glass chapel at the foot of the Space Needle (shown right), the minimalist structure echoes the graceful white arches at the nearby Pacific Science Center and encompasses 4,500 square feet in which to gawk at the enormous sculpture hung from the 43-foot-high ceiling: approximately 2,000 individual glass “Persian” forms in oranges, reds and yellows, fused together to form a spectacular swoosh. Spanning the length of the building, the piece drops down to as low as 12 feet from the floor in places, enabling viewers to see it up close. It’s one of the biggest suspended pieces Chihuly and his team have ever constructed—a wilder, freer cousin of Chihuly’s first-ever “Persian Ceiling,” which debuted at Seattle Art Museum in 1992.

The Exhibit Hall (which formerly housed the Fun Forest’s indoor arcade games and kiddie rides) has been thoroughly redesigned—with interior walls painted a warm, dark color the staff calls “Chihuly gray”—to house a thorough representation of the artist’s vast body of work. Visitors progress through eight galleries, where they’ll see Chihuly’s influences (his collection of American Indian trade blankets and baskets), his rarely exhibited early work (such as a “Neon Forest”, shown below) and the work that has gained him fans the world over, including boats full of glass inspired by ikebana flower arrangements; “Mille Fiori” (1,000 flowers of glass); a 36-foot-long “Persian Ceiling” with sparkling glass overhead; a gigantic tower of glass sea life; a “Macchia Forest” exploding with color; and plenty of those signature squiggly chandeliers.


One of Chihuly's "Neon Forest" installations will be on display in the Exhibit Hall.

Also of note is the Collections Café (open to the public, free of admission), in which several of Chihuly’s remarkable pop culture collections (including string holders, fish decoys, shaving brushes and transistor radios), will be on display in shadow boxes built into the dining tables and on the walls. In addition, a store selling the work of Northwest artisans—jewelers, journal makers and specialty-food purveyors—will celebrate local creativity in all its forms.

Between the Exhibit Hall and the Glass House sits The Garden, a richly landscaped miniature park, punctuated by some of Chihuly’s largest-scale glass sculptures, including “The Sun,” a 16-foot-diameter explosion of yellow glass, “Reeds and Logs” (made of glass and wood), a 20-foot-tall “Crystal Tower” and a 30-foot-tall “Icicle Tower.”

In a nice, full-circle story arc: All of the above is located adjacent to the Space Needle, a building designed 50 years ago by architect John Graham, for whom Chihuly briefly worked as an interior designer in 1965.

Stay tuned for extensive community programs beginning at Chihuly Garden and Glass this fall, designed to invite and inspire the public—and maybe even spawn glass artists of the future.

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