Ann Morhauser, Designer-Craftsperson

Ann Morhauser, Designer-Craftsperson

Water Bowl sculpture, frosted, by Ann Morhauser

Water Bowl sculpture, frosted, by Ann Morhauser

One night in the San Francisco Bay Area in May 1974, Ann Morhauser, a young art student, went to a raku party on the beach. People were firing pots, and then somebody showed up with a portable glass furnace.  “Watching them blow glass with that long blowpipe, in the moonlight, was pretty hypnotic and amazing,” recalls Morhauser, who was so entranced that she soon took up the craft herself.

That hippie happening led to her present-day success as the owner of Annieglass, maker of artful tableware sold at 400 retail locations in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. Represented in the collections of the Smithsonian and other museums, these are plates, platters, bowls, and other accessories of the highest style, made of slumped glass decorated with painterly streaks of gold and platinum. “Something I admire greatly, and try to keep in mind, is wabi-sabi – what the Japanese call the beauty of imperfection,” she says of her work’s elegantly organic, textured look.

Morhauser oversees a staff of 30 at her 15,000-square-foot studio in Watsonville, California. They produce about 100,000 pieces a year, from molds she designs and makes. It’s a direction she never imagined for herself as a student at the California College of the Arts in the 1970s, where she was educated in the conceptual, sculptural possibilities of the glass medium. Yet the route she pursued after graduation – making sculpture, showing in galleries  – somehow didn’t satisfy her. She had a day job in a glass gallery, though, that taught her about the retail business. Steadily she edged toward the design and home decor market, launching Annieglass in 1983.

With Roman Antique, her first dinnerware line, “I really wanted to push those boundaries of what was acceptable in a marketplace that only bought mass-produced items,” Morhauser says. “I mean, I was selling glass dishes. There was no place for me. I couldn’t be in the china department, or the crystal department. I had to define not just a brand, but a niche.” That meant convincing buyers that her wares were sturdy, their gold rims were permanent and would not flake, and they were dishwasher safe.  Roman Antique is still in production today, along with a diverse range of other products. “What makes the business work is that every six months, I do new collections, and that’s what people buy,” she explains. “They continue to carry the old stuff, but they’ll buy the new. I wouldn’t have Annieglass still if I didn’t do that – if it wasn’t based on new designs, constantly.”

Her biggest challenge has been learning to let go of a design once she’s made the mold or prototype, and give it up to the production process. “To me, making one is easy. Piece of cake. Make 200, 300, 400 a day, that’s the hard stuff. I’m happy that I’ve got such a great staff to figure that out along with me.”  Over the years it’s become clear to her that the key to success is being open, flexible, and willing to embrace new methods and ideas. “When I read the Steve Jobs biography, I thought, ‘That’s it. That is exactly it. I want to be in that place, at that crossroads of art and design and technology,’” she reflects. “And I took forever to do that.”

As her baby boomer generation grows older (she’s now used to hearing “My mom loves your stuff”), Morhauser makes a point of staying tuned in to youth culture, particularly in her role as a trustee at CCA, her alma mater, and an advisor to the college’s new (and first of its kind) MBA program in Design Strategy. She recommends others do the same. “Get your butts around young people, and learn something. Let new designers come in, engage them, give them a hand up,” she says. “Push yourself, and push limits. And be excellent at what you do. That’s what matters.”