Glass artist Ben Walters building a business empire
PUBLISHED: 00:00 25 February 2014 | UPDATED: 12:18 25 February 2014
Glass artist Ben Walters is shuttling between Cheshire and China as part of a business venture which will put his designs in some of the plushest homes around the world
Few of us get the opportunity to go face to face with our younger self. But Ben Walters can gaze upon a glassy reproduction of his visage as it was ten years ago.
As an 18-year-old studying at Mid Cheshire College, Hartford, Ben took a mould of his face. Finding the mould again a decade later, and by now an established glass artist, he used it to create a limited run of seven glass masks. Ben resisted the temptation to churn out more, despite the demand, and declined other ideas along the same lines.
‘My friends have asked me on occasion to cast bits of their body,’ he says, sparing us any embarrassing details.
In any case, Ben, who has a home in Northwich, has bigger fish to fry. He is spending much of his time in southern China where he is setting up a factory for Timothy Oulton of Halo, the furniture firm which has grown from its 1970s origins as Halo Antiques of Altrincham.
‘I’m physically building the factory for them, and then I train them and step back as a designer, and they will produce my designs,’ says Ben, aged 28. ‘It will be very expensive cast glass tables and big architectural blocks. It’s not just a blowing factory, we’ve got molten pouring furnaces to put the glass into moulds.’
Those glass tables could have price tags as high as £30,000, which puts Ben’s designs in a very rarefied market.
He grew up in Handford, and remembers art being part of daily life from an early age.
‘My mum always encouraged us to draw,’ he says. ‘She was a childminder and she would regularly sit all the kids down at the table and encourage us to be creative.’
Ben cites Chris Malins, his teacher at Mid Cheshire College as an influence. One key moment came when Chris showed Ben how a sheet of glass could be put over a mould in a kiln and, heated to 900c, the glass would slump into the mould. Ben was hooked by the possibilities, and went on to the National Glass Centre, part of the University of Sunderland, to study for a BA and then an MA.
‘It’s fantastic. It’s a big glass building like a cheese wedge, that sticks out to sea,’ says Ben. ‘You go onto the factory floor and it’s full of kilns and furnaces and studios, with very skilled technical makers.’
Ben then did a masters degree in 3D design at Manchester Metropolitan University, but had already been selling his glass artworks, such as chandeliers and sculptures, since the age of 18.
You’re bound to wonder whether working with glass may be a little risky sometimes.
‘There’s a few nicks and burns here and there,’ Ben agrees. ‘But generally it’s that hot you’d almost be burning before you touched it. You grow this instinctive awareness not to get burned.’
While setting up the Chinese factory, Ben is also doing a year-long- residency at Mid Cheshire College, inspiring the next generation of glass artists.
‘A lot of people think, oh, he’s running off to Asia,’ says Ben. ‘I’m staying in Cheshire, and that will be my base.
‘I’m now giving advice to industry to make very bespoke creative pieces of artwork, but it’s created more in a factory environment than a small studio. I’d like to do my work on a much grander scale, but you need that very large factory equipment to do that. So I think my artistic work will now be produced in larger factory environments, and my key goal is to come back to Cheshire and put my consultancy there.’
But he adds: ‘I’ll keep a close relationship with Timothy Oulton and Halo because they’ve got the means with which to finance really wild projects. For instance, for me to build a prototype half-ton table out of solid crystal, I’d have to invest a large proportion on my company’s money, and it might not sell.’