|SIMON AND PIA PEARCE|
As a boy growing up in Ireland, Simon Pearce did everything he could to avoid going to school. For him, it was a frustrating environment and a miserable place to spend the day. He quit school and went on to use his curiosity and common sense to teach himself the skills to eventually build, in a small town in Vermont, one of the highest-quality glassmaking companies in the world.
Simon’s work as a designer and maker in the fine craft of glassblowing spans four decades. He began his career in the late 1960s. In the 1970s, he built his first glass workshop, at Bennettsbridge in County Kilkenny, Ireland, and met and married American Patricia (Pia) McDonnell. Simon and Pia left Ireland and moved to rural Vermont in 1980 to forge an innovative opportunity for their creative and commercial interests. From an old woolen mill that they renovated on the picturesque Ottauquechee River in the village of Quechee, their glass business grew and expanded throughout the 1990s and into the new century.
Unlike most glass factories of its size today, Simon Pearce follows time-honored glassblowing techniques from an earlier era; small teams of glassblowers produce its extensive line of glassware by individually crafting and hand-finishing each piece. Like the characteristics of the old Georgian glass that inspired him, Simon’s glassware possesses unique qualities that remain timeless and elegant and inspire us today to use his glass, not just on special occasions but every day of the week.
Simon Pearce products quickly expanded to include pottery. Glassware and pottery are products for the home and table, and Simon Pearce also offers select lines of accessories that are perfect accompaniments to its own handcrafted products. Simon and Pia opened restaurants in Quechee and in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where guests are able to experience the simplicity, character, and individuality inherent in the company’s products by drinking from its handmade glassware and eating honest food from its handmade dinnerware.
The success of the company the Pearces have created has been measured not only by the quantity of products sold and the range of designs offered but, more importantly, by the lifestyle possibilities Simon and Pia offer to those who choose to use their products. Simplicity is key; imagination, the opportunity.
Making glass is central to Simon Pearce. But the story of Simon and Pia, their interests, influences, and the very products of their prodigious output show us the important connections between their way of life and the products it has inspired.
• • •
Simon was trained as a potter and knew much more about making pots before even thinking about making glass. When he was sixteen years old, he left Ireland to spend two years training with master potter Harry Davis in New Zealand. Returning to Ireland in 1964, Simon worked with his father, Philip, and his brother Stephen to make pottery at Philip’s workshop on Ballycotton Bay, on the southern coast of Ireland. At the time, there was a significant studio-pottery renaissance in England and Ireland, and many potters advocated making beautiful, one-of-a-kind pieces. However, it was younger potters like Richard Batterham, who were making functional ware, who inspired Simon. “There was a lot of art in making pots back then, but I was always interested in making something functional,” Simon recalls. Utility became a central theme to Simon’s search, and the desire to create simple, beautiful, utilitarian objects with his hands offered a clear direction.
Simon developed an interest in old glass—glass that was blown and finished by hand in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—and his work and life took a turn. Simon started collecting old glass, wanting to learn more about it and to make glass like it. He became keenly interested in old glass and the difference between it and what was being made commercially at the time. In comparison to new, machine-made glass, old glass has character and individuality because it was blown and hand-finished one piece at a time by a craftsman, not a machine. It was the mere simplicity of old glass that originally fascinated Simon and became a major influence. Recalling old Irish rummers—everyday pub glasses—and Georgian and French wine glasses, he wanted to make simple, functional glass: “It’s more about the feeling and character of glass than its specific shape or design.” Though the ideology of making glass by hand in the 1960s was an anachronism, it appealed to him.
For Simon, learning anything about making glass proved to be an enormous challenge, and a lengthy journey. He wrote to dozens of glass factories in Europe, requesting to meet their people, see their facilities, and ask them how to make glass. For all his enthusiasm and genuine interest, he found it impossible to get a foot in the door at any of the factories; they were all very protective of their methods and turned him down. Simon found that if he could learn how to make glass, the only way he could achieve the character he desired would be if he made each piece of glass individually and hand finished it. This was a much less effective way of making glass than the mass-produced methods that were employed in all the large glass factories at the time.
The Royal College of Art in London was the only school in England at the time that had a glass department. Simon had no qualifications for admission to college because he had not finished high school. But he was not interested in earning a college degree; he was interested in knowing something about glassblowing. He spent some time at the college, but the glass department was mostly limited to studies in art glass, and it offered little instruction about the skills needed for making functional glassware.
Continuing on his quest, he set off from London for Amsterdam, to the Gerrit Rietveld Academy. In Amsterdam, however, as in London, he was unable to make any progress—he found the academy’s educational focus was again on art glass, not functional glass. But he at last found an opportunity to learn about glass when he got his first job, at Leerdam, a glass factory just outside Amsterdam, where he was hired as the assistant to the factory’s top glassmaker. The man could not speak a word of English, and Simon could not speak a word of Dutch, but they worked together for three months, making glass.
From the Netherlands, Simon went to Italy and got a job simply helping out at Venini, a highly revered glass factory on the island of Murano in Venice. For Simon, this was an extraordinary experience: to observe glassblowing at one of the greatest factories in Europe. But he was still an observer, not a maker. After three months working in Italy, he went on to Scandinavia—where everything changed.
Warm, welcoming, and hospitable, it was Scandinavia that opened its doors with enthusiasm to Simon, its people offering him their unselfish knowledge about making glass. He arrived first in Denmark and went to Kastrup-Holmegaard, where the management was very open, encouraging Simon to set up his own workbench to start experimenting with and producing glass. From Denmark, Simon drove to Orrefors Glass, a factory deep in the forest in the Småland region of Sweden, where, during an earlier time, there had been dozens of glass factories, and the trees from the thick forests were used to fuel the glass-melting furnaces. Simon became a student in the factory; for six months, he learned about technique, experimented with design, and made samples of the kind of glass he wanted to make in his own workshop one day. After his instruction at Orrefors ended, Simon visited more factories in Scandinavia before heading back to Ireland to build his first workshop at Bennettsbridge in 1971.
Simon and Pia met in Ireland and married in 1979. Pia, who had grown up in rural New Jersey, was educated at Stanford University in California and Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota and had recently graduated from the University of San Francisco, where she received a doctoral degree in education. Pia was fascinated by an approach taken by one of her professors, who taught interpersonal and small-group communication. The professor abandoned all traditional classroom formats and textbooks: she and her class were completely radical at the time. For Pia, this new and very different approach to classroom learning made sense, and it was exciting. From this pivotal experience, she developed an interest in communication and the skills involved in it. But she was now living at the end of a long country lane in rural Ireland and learning everything she could about glass. However, later on, her interests in education and communication would serve her and the family business she and Simon were to build.
After several years building a factory and establishing a market for his glass, Simon realized that Ireland was a very difficult bureaucracy in which to run a business. He and Pia decided to leave Ireland in order to grow. On a visit to the United States, Simon and Pia found just what they were looking for, in Vermont.
• • •
Simon had always enjoyed doing business with Americans; they were straightforward, and Simon liked that. The Pearces wanted to establish a traditional glassblowing factory and retail store in the United States. Simon looked at several sites on the tributaries of the Hudson River in New York, but none of them was quite right—something was always lacking. By chance, while attending a family wedding, Simon and Pia made a connection with a couple who had a home in Woodstock, Vermont, and who encouraged the Pearces to look for a suitable location nearby. Simon and Pia drove to the small village of Quechee to look at a 200-year-old former woolen mill. When they arrived and saw the old brick building, the majestic river, and the water falling over the dam, they knew it was right. It was everything they had been looking for: a beautiful setting, a fantastic workspace with enough room for a retail store, and the potential for harnessing natural energy and converting the power to electricity to fuel their glass furnaces. Simon had thought considerably about the possibilities of hydropower; an alternative, local source of power could make sense economically and bring an inspiring energy to the enterprise.
Simon built a furnace and made glass, and Pia ran a small retail store in the front lobby, where she sold Simon’s products. Work continued at the mill as steadily as water flowed over the dam. It took them about five years before they saw their dream begin to work. Slowly, more and more visitors started to make trips to the mill. As a beautiful place on a pretty river, with a waterfall next to a quintessential Vermont covered bridge, the mill had something special. It was—and remains today—an active and productive place where one could see beautiful handmade glass being crafted. And visitors could purchase the glass from the source that made it. In the 1980s, the idea of locally produced, handmade products on this scale was novel. “People who came would love the experience, and they would tell their friends, and more and more people came,” explains Simon. By the end of the 1980s, Simon and Pia’s plan to develop their ideas was working.
Although Pia has always had a critical role in their company, she had no background or formal training in running a business. She, like Simon, used common sense and instinct when moving their company forward. In addition to raising their four sons, overseeing their nontraditional education, and maintaining the family home, Pia became involved in every aspect of decision making for the company. The 1980s were full and exciting years for Simon and Pia. Simon had defiantly renewed the art of glassblowing and crafting and finishing glass one piece at a time by hand, in an era when virtually all glass was manufactured and finished by machines. And, remaining true to his production methods, he built a business capable of sustaining a consistent, high level of quality and production to meet demand, proving that handmade products could compete in the marketplace. Simon and Pia’s company expanded throughout the 1990s and into the twenty-first century to include new facilities, products, restaurants, and retail stores.
• • •
The connections between Simon Pearce glass and tableware and the environments in which they are used are many. For the Pearces, gardening, growing produce, and cooking healthy meals are paramount to providing a broader experience. Enjoying good food and drink on products of natural materials—clay and glass—provides diners with intangible qualities that elevate every meal.
As children, Simon and Pia each grew up in homes where their family gathered daily for meals. The quality of the food served at the table was equally important. Pia, inspired by her mother’s example, recalls that her mother has always loved entertaining and giving dinner parties “because she really cares a lot about meals and about the table. She cares a lot about how the table looks and how it is set, and she always uses her imagination and creativity in cooking exceptional meals matched with beautiful table settings. She has always enjoyed cooking and teaching other people how to cook. I learned how to cook from my mother, and she learned how to cook from her mother.” Pia grew up in a big family—there were nine children—and they always had meals together. In her family, meals were about eating good food and gathering together each day.
“My mother loved to cook,” Simon remembers. “She was a fantastic cook. I think what she loved most was using very simple, basic ingredients from the garden—real ingredients. And we always ate things in season, never out of season—you couldn’t then. You couldn’t buy a strawberry unless you grew them; nobody imported them in those days. And she never bought anything canned—except tomatoes!” His mother developed great relationships with the local vendors: “They always delivered products right to the house in those days. She would use the inexpensive cuts of meat but do great things with them—she’d cook wonderful stews and casseroles.” Simon hunted quite a bit—duck, pheasant, and rabbit—and his mother prepared and made great dishes from the game.
Ireland was simpler and slower then. Tommy Sliney, a fish vendor who always wore a tweed jacket, lived two miles from the Pearce home. He had a donkey and a little cart that he used to deliver fresh fish twice each week to his customers, who included Mrs. Pearce. When Simon was a boy, he often rode in the cart back to the fisherman’s home.
• • •
Vermont resides in a gastronomically wealthy and diverse area of the country, where the culinary skills of home and professional cooks who are inspired by the region take great pride in the products they grow, make, or cook. This feature sets Vermont apart from many regions.
Simon and Pia furthered their interests in gastronomy by opening a restaurant where their glass, pottery, and food for the table make a dining experience complete. Enjoying good food is an important part of the experience of visiting the Mill at Quechee. The cuisine at their restaurant reflects the Pearces’ interest in cooking, using local ingredients, and pairing simplicity with the best quality possible.
When people dine at the restaurant, they enjoy the simple, good food it offers in a relaxed setting overlooking what few locations can boast: a stunning river, an impressive waterfall, and a charming wooden covered bridge.
To many guests, the food that is offered reminds them of what their mother or grandmother would have made years ago. By design and thoughtfulness, the wholesome style of cuisine and simple presentation at the table reflect the Pearce ideal of timeless, unfussy quality. At their restaurant in Quechee, Simon and Pia impart the same philosophy they had known in Ireland and from their mothers in honoring the freshness of good ingredients in Vermont: support the local community of produce farmers and dairy, beef, and chicken producers by purchasing and using their products.
Visitors go to the restaurant with very high expectations. From the moment they drive onto the property, they know something is different. And when they approach the building and step through the massive black wooden doors to enter the mill, they know they have reached something very special. The waterfall—itself a metaphor for an event—is just yards from the dining-room tables, and the water changes in the way it looks almost every day. Consistency and change are important at this restaurant. Because of the restaurant’s reputation for good food combined with beautiful ambiance, very few guests dine there merely to fill their stomachs; many dine there to have a full and simply beautiful experience.
The restaurant’s executive chef, Josh Duda, wants to make sure that guests receive the best-quality food possible. With input from the Pearces, he changes the menu four times each year to coincide with the distinct seasons in New England. Having been trained in France, where the bounty and importance of fresh ingredients are critical to the cuisine, Josh applies the same kind of French cooking technique to offer something truly distinctive and to provide patrons with a taste of what is harvested in Vermont. He is able to obtain the best in-season ingredients by working with one local produce farmer, who supplies the kitchen with about ninety percent of all its vegetables and salad greens during the warmer months of the year. The quality of the food served is inherent in the taste of greens and vegetables that were picked that morning; the thick, rich cream that arrived fresh from the farm that day; or the savory chicken that was raised free-range that season.
Well known for its wine list, the restaurant offers an extensive selection of about twenty to twenty-five wines by the glass on any given day—many more than most restaurants offer—and the list changes regularly. It also maintains a solid reserve wine list of 800 to 1,000 selections. The wine list has expanded beyond French and California wines to reflect what guests are interested in outside the two regions. And the staff constantly adapts the list to the food they are serving in that particular season to provide a variety of taste and fulfill the expectations of serious wine lovers.
At the restaurant, glass, pottery, and food unify purposefully to offer diners an integral experience: food is served on Simon Pearce pottery, and drinks are served in Simon Pearce glass.
Living and working today in an era that is more about technology, speed, and invisibility, it is extraordinary to consider how many lives are touched by the positive qualities that Simon and Pia seek to quietly inspire through glass and pottery made by hand and the food served at their restaurants. From Ireland to Vermont, the intangible connections the Pearces have made through their work are central to the ideals they have known and continue to encourage, all of which find their expression in objects we can hold and use every day for a lifetime.
— Glenn Suokko, 2009