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IT MATTERS

It is with great anticipation that I park on the harbour front in the town of Nexø and step inside Matter – House of Craft, Chapter Four in glass-blower Maj-Britt Zelmer Olsen and ceramic artist Sarah Oakman’s shared story.

A story in which the first chapter was written in 2015 in a former retail space in downtown Nexø with brown tiled walls, hence the name ‘Det Brune Værksted’
– the Brown Workshop.

June 2023

 

from HÅNDVÆRK bookazine no. 6

 

Next chapter began in 2017 in a slightly larger shared workshop and retail space, which I visited several times, including in 2018, when I interviewed Sarah for my 2018 book HÅNDVÆRK.
Even then, they talked about the need for a bigger workshop, with room for employees, as well as a bigger shop and the possibility of establishing a gallery and hosting events.
Soon I heard about the empty building near the port that they had their eyes on, and I heard that it would take a long time to get a building permit. While they were waiting, they had to vacate their workshop, as the space was sold.

Chapter Three was all about waiting for Chapter Four in another former retail space.
In April 2020, photos of the 550-m2 building and its rustic harbour setting began to appear on Instagram.
Over the coming months, their followers could observe the renovation and building process.
In early January 2021, there were suddenly photos of the renovated building, now with the name ‘Matter – House of Craft’ painted on the facade.
Two months later, they had their official opening.

Matter – House of Craft contains a workspace for glass-blower Maj-Britt Zelmer Olsen and ceramicist Sarah Oakman as well as a shared shop and gallery with room to present works by Danish and international colleagues.
Matter – House of Craft was established for the two makers’ own funds supplemented with project funding from LAG.
LAG (Local Action Groups) is a fund under the Danish Housing and Planning Authority dedicated to projects that create jobs and improve quality of life in rural districts; in this case, on Bornholm.

Maj-Britt Zelmer Olsen works with glass art and glassware. She mainly works in clear glass, modifying its colour and surface by adding sandstone, volcanic ash and metals.
When I enter, Maj-Britt is wielding the glass-blowing pipe and hot glass. She finishes the bowl she is working on before she gets up to greet me.

Are you happy about your new place? is my first question, and Maj-Britt answers for them both:
We are SO happy.

Both Maj-Britt and Sarah have moved to the island from elsewhere, Maj-Britt reminds me as we sit down in the kitchen, a space with clean lines and surfaces that is their lunch and meeting room and is also intended as the setting of events with some of Maj-Britt’s and Sarah’s many project partners from the gastronomical sector.

Maj-Britt tells me she moved to Bornholm with her husband in 2005, when she was accepted into the Glass and Ceramics school.
They bought a house in Nexø, which they saw as an opportunity to get a foothold in the housing market. They imagined it would be a good way to enter the housing market and planned to reinvest the gain in a home somewhere else once their time on the island was over. The housing market was red-hot back then.
We have been together since we were both at Skælskør Folk High School. That was my first, fateful experience with glass-blowing. Since then, he has followed me on my adventures, first to England, then back to Denmark, followed by another stay in England and, finally, a stint in Norway, always so that I could improve my skill.
In other words, I had some sense of tools and material when I applied to the Glass and Ceramics School (now Royal Danish Academy – Design, Bornholm) in 2005.Craftsmanship was a condition for being accepted into the school back then,
’ Maj-Britt explains. ‘Shortly after my graduation in 2008, the financial crisis pulled the rug from under everyone’s feet, half of our craft friends left the island. Many of them were already struggling to make ends meet during the winter, when there are no tourists. The financial crisis made it virtually impossible.
I was blowing glass for the most established glass artists and makers on the island, while I was also exhibiting as part of an artist group. I spent all my free time applying for grants and creating glass art for exhibitions that very few people saw, then boxing it all and starting over. It was so frustrating.


I felt pressured and decided to take a different approach to my field. I applied and was accepted into a master’s programme at The Danish Design School in Copenhagen (nu Royal Danish Academy – Design), hoping that the advanced degree would enable me to engage in different types of product collaborations. The first project I was involved in was with Holmegaard glassworks. The task was to develop a candle holder.
Holmegaard’s design director was able to challenge my mindset.
Combative from the outset, I asked why design companies always choose to work with industrial designers rather than craft makers, with their deep knowledge of materials.
In return, she asked, how come you craft makers never want to be involved in making products that might be profitable?
She was right. I was doing everything I could to live up to the myth of the poor but noble maker. In my mind, making money meant selling out.

She was not only right, she changed my perspective and helped me, indirectly, to look at my work as a business – not just as a craft business but as a start-up.
That process gained further momentum when I met Sarah in 2015. She was going places, she already had a degree when she moved to Bornholm in 2012 to study ceramic design. She had no time to waste and launched a successful ceramics business under the name Oh Oak even before she graduated in 2016.

In recent years, Maj-Britt has been a sought-after partner for some of Denmark’s leading restaurants.
This includes Michelin restaurants Geranium, Alchemist and Jordnær, among others, not to forget the local restaurants Christianshøjkroen and Restaurant Molen.
While I am on Bornholm, she is working on a commission for 240 small bespoke bowls she developed for Alchemist for a specific dish.
That puts food on the table, and it’s very satisfying that my professional skill set can help chefs realize their vision, naturally always with my specific signature, otherwise it makes no sense.
The only reason I can do these kinds of tasks is that I am not just a designer but also a competent craftsperson – a maker.


Success breeds success, and the more restaurants Maj-Britt works with, the more commissions she gets from other restaurants that want her help. ’It seems to have been a matter of being seen in the right context, and now it’s just snowballing,’ she says, with satisfaction.
She is so busy that her husband, who is often away at sea as a cook for the Danish Navy, helps to give the glass the finishing touches before it is sent to the client. He has taught himself to sand off glass edges and polish glass. He insists that he enjoys the work and says that the past summer there was so much work in the studio that he took leave from his job to help out.

I ask Maj-Britt to explain how she perceives the term craft maker. She hesitates, then says, ‘It has to do with making objects characterized by high-quality craftsmanship and in a recognizable form. It also has to do with respect for the inherent quality of the material. I wouldn’t dream of blowing something in glass that might just as well be made in other materials. Furthermore, there has to be something about the object that justifies using the material. Glass-making is very resource-intensive, and you can only justify consuming resources if you do it well.

The resource issue is literally in our face – two large glass kilns are blasting heat into the high-ceilinged room, straight through the wide-open gate and on the harbour front.
Maj-Britt says that she recently ordered an electric kiln to replace one of the gas kilns. In the future she hopes to be able to invest in a sustainable energy source: solar panels on the roof or a share in a wind turbine, for example.
As I see it, in order to succeed in your field, you need to improve your technical skills and your craftsmanship,’ says Maj-Britt. ‘The school is more academic now and less practice-oriented than when I attended it. There are fewer folk high schools, where people can take their baby steps, and there are fewer workshops hiring assistants. The facilities are there at the school, but it is up to the students themselves to take responsibility for their training. Mastering a craft gives you an opportunity to make a living making glassware, not least now, when there is greater demand than we have seen in a long time; demand from a young generation who want something different from what their parents were buying in the 1970s and 1980s.

The bulk of Maj-Britt’s production is blown here, within sight from the public section of the place. On Bornholm and in many other glasshouses around the country, there is a tradition to perform glass-blowing for the tourists. ‘I don’t want to do that. My work is not a show,’ she says emphatically. ‘On the other hand, people are welcome to watch when I work; in that way there is a communication aspect. Communication is one of the purposes behind Matter – House of Craft. It is clear, by the way, that people stick around longer and spend more money when the studio is active. They are more inclined to shop when we are here to tell them about our work.

The part of the collection that is not made here, she blows in the Czech Republic in a studio where she can work with very large and heavy objects.
The big, exclusive pieces are much easier to sell from the current space than the previous one, she explains – the credibility of the place is clearly related to the scale!
There are customers in the shop; even if it is not officially open today, they found their way through the open gate. I thank Maj-Britt for her time and let her go talk to the customers.

 

Fra HÅNDVÆRK bookazine no. 6

 

Det er med spændt forventning, jeg parkerer bilen på kajen i Nexø og går indenfor i Matter – House of Craft, fjerde kapitel i glaspuster Maj-Britt Zelmer Olsen og keramiker Sarah Oakmans fælles historie.

En historie, hvor første kapitel blev skrevet i 2015 i et nedlagt butikslokale med brune kakler på væggene, i downtown Nexø, deraf navnet Det Brune Værksted.

Næste kapitel tog sin begyndelse i 2017 i et lidt større, fælles værksteds- og butikslokale.
Der var jeg besøg ved flere lejligheder, blandt andet i 2018, hvor jeg interviewede Sarah til min bog HÅNDVÆRK, som udkom i efteråret 2018.
Allerede dengang talte de om behovet for et større værksted, inklusive plads til ansatte, foruden større butik og mulighed for at etablere galleri og afholde events.
Snart hørte jeg om den tomme bygning på havnen, som de havde udset sig, og jeg hørte om lang ventetid på at få byggetilladelse. Mens det stod på, måtte de fraflytte deres værksted, da lejemålet blev solgt.

Tredje kapitel skrev de i venten på det fjerde, i endnu et nedlagt butikslokale.
I april 2020 begyndte der at dukke billeder op på Instagram af den omtalte 550 m2store bygning og dens rustikke havneomgivelser.
De særligt interesserede kunne i månederne derefter følge med i renovering og opbygning.
I begyndelsen af januar 2021 kunne man pludselig se billeder af den istandsatte bygning, nu med navnet Matter – House of Craft malet på facaden.
To måneder senere slog de officielt dørene op.

Matter – House of Craft rummer værksted for glaspuster Maj-Britt Zelmer Olsen og keramiker Sarah Oakman foruden fælles butik og gallerifacilitet med mulighed for at vise arbejder fra danske og internationale kolleger.
Matter – House of Craft er etableret for egne midler, foruden nogen økonomisk projektstøtte fra LAG.
LAG (Lokale Aktions Grupper) er en pulje under Bolig- og Planstyrelsen, som gives til projekter, der skaber jobs og forbedrer livskvaliteten i landdistrikterne, i det her tilfælde på Bornholm.


Maj-Britt er i gang med glaspibe og varm glasmasse, da jeg kommer ind, hun gør den igangværende skål færdig og rejser sig og byder velkommen.

Er I glade for jeres nye sted, spørger jeg indledningsvis, og Maj-Britt svarer på begges vegne, “Vi er SÅ glade.”

Både Sara og jeg er tilflyttere, repeterer Maj-Britt, da vi har sat os til rette i det stramt indrettede køkken, som foruden at fungere som frokoststue og møderum er tænkt til at danne ramme om events med nogle af Maj-Britts og Sarahs mange gastro-samarbejdspartnere.
Maj-Britt fortæller, at hun flyttede til Bornholm sammen med sin mand i 2005, da hun var blevet optaget på Glas- og Keramikskolen.
De købte hus i Nexø og så det som en chance for at komme ind på ejerboligmarkedet. De forestillede sig, de ville kunne tjene lidt penge, som de siden, når de skulle fra øen, kunne geninvestere i en bolig et andet sted i landet. Der var fart på prisudviklingen i de år.
“Vi blev kærester, da vi begge gik på Skælskør Folkehøjskole. Der blæste jeg glas for første og skæbnesvangre gang. Siden har han fulgt med mig på eventyr, først til England, så tilbage til Danmark, efterfulgt af endnu en periode England og slutteligt en tur til Norge, alle steder for at jeg kunne dygtiggøre mig teknisk.
Jeg havde med andre ord nogen fornemmelse for værktøj og materiale, da jeg søgte og kom ind på Glas- og Keramikskolen (nu Kunstakademiets Designskole, Bornholm) i 2005.
Håndværksmæssig erfaring var en forudsætning for at blive optaget på skolen i dens daværende form”
, forklarer Maj-Britt.

Hun fortsætter: “Kort tid efter jeg blev færdig i 2008, væltede finanskrisen alles planer, halvdelen af vores kunsthåndværkervenner forlod øen. For mange var det i forvejen svært at få økonomien til at hænge sammen i vintermånederne, hvor her ikke er turister. Finanskrisen gjorde det næsten umuligt.
Selv blæste jeg glas for de mest etablerede glaskunsthåndværkere på øen, sideløbende med at jeg var udstillingsaktiv i en kunstnergruppe. Jeg brugte al min fritid på at søge fondsmidler og på at skabe kunstglas til udstillinger, som meget få mennesker så, for derefter at pakke det hele sammen og starte forfra. Det var virkelig utilfredsstillende.”

“Jeg følte mig presset og besluttede at vinkle mit fag anderledes. Jeg søgte og blev optaget på en kandidatuddannelse på Danmarks Designskole i København (nu KADK) og håbede, at overbygningen ville åbne muligheder for at indgå i produktsamarbejder på forskellig vis.
Det første projekt, jeg var involveret i, var med Holmegaard. Opgaven var at udvikle en lysestage.
Holmegaards designchef formåede at rykke ved min bevidsthed.
Jeg spurgte, på forhånd fornærmet, hvordan det kan være, at designvirksomheder altid vælger at samarbejde med industrielle designere frem for med kunsthåndværkere, som har en dyb materialeforståelse.
Hun kvitterede med, hvordan kan det være, at I kunsthåndværkere ikke vil være med til at lave produkter, man kan tjene penge på?
Hun havde ret, jeg gjorde alt, hvad jeg kunne for at leve op til myten om at være en fattig, men ædel kunsthåndværker. Jeg forestillede mig, at det at tjene penge var lig med at gå på kompromis.
Hun ikke bare havde ret, hun fik mig på andre tanker og hjalp mig indirekte til at se på mit virke som en virksomhed, og ikke bare som en kunsthåndværkervirksomhed, men som en iværksættervirksomhed.
Den proces blev forstærket af, at jeg traf Sarah i 2015. Hun havde fart på, hun havde allerede en uddannelse i bagagen, da hun flyttede til Bornholm i 2012 for at starte på at uddanne sig til keramisk formgiver, hun havde ingen tid at spilde og fik succes med sin keramik under navnet Oh Oak, allerede inden hun tog sin afgang i 2016.”

Maj-Britt har de senere år været yndet samarbejdspartner for nogle af landets bedste restauranter.
Vi taler om Michelin-restauranterne Geranium, Alchemist og Jordnær, blandt andre, ikke at forglemme de lokale Christianshøjkroen og Restaurant Molen.
Mens jeg er på Bornholm, er hun i gang med en ordre på 240 små skåle, som hun har udviklet til restaurant Alchemist til en helt specifik ret.
“Det giver smør på brødet, og det er meget tilfredsstillende, at jeg med min faglighed kan hjælpe kokkene med at forløse deres idé, naturligvis altid med min signatur, ellers giver det ingen mening.
Sådanne opgaver kan jeg løse, fordi jeg ikke bare er formgiver, men også en dygtig håndværker, altså en kunsthåndværker.”

Succes avler succes, jo flere restauranter Maj-Britt har hjulpet, jo flere opgaver får hun fra andre restauranter, som vil have hendes hjælp, “det har tilsyneladende været et spørgsmål om at blive set i den rette sammenhæng, nu er det en lavine, der ruller af sig selv”, siger hun tilfreds.
Der er så travlt, at hendes mand, som i øvrigt sejler som kok for søværnet, hjælper med at give glasset dets sidste finish, inden det sendes ud til kunderne. Han har lært sig selv at slibe glaskanter og at polere, og han nyder arbejdet, bedyrer han og fortæller, at der i den forgangne sommer har været så meget at gøre på værkstedet, at han har haft orlov fra sit job for at hjælpe til.

Jeg beder Maj-Britt fortælle mig, hvordan hun forstår benævnelsen kunsthåndværker. Hun tøver lidt og siger så: “Det er i hvert fald noget med at skabe objekter af høj håndværksmæssig kvalitet og i et genkendeligt formsprog. Det er også noget med respekt for materialets iboende kvalitet. Jeg kunne ikke drømme om at blæse noget i glas, som lige så godt kunne fremstilles i andre materialer”, og yderligere, “der skal være noget ved det pågældende objekt, som retfærdiggør brugen af materialet. Det er meget ressourcekrævende at fremstille glas, man kan kun tillade sig at forbruge ressourcer, hvis man gør det godt.”

Det med ressourcerne er præsent, to store glasovne er i gang i et hjørne af det store, højloftede lokale, og porten står på vid gab og sender overskudsvarme ud på kajen.
Maj-Britt fortæller, at hun netop har bestilt en elektrisk ovn, som skal erstatte den ene af de gasdrevne. Hun håber i fremtiden at kunne investere i en bæredygtig energikilde; solceller på taget, andel i vindmølle, for eksempel.

“Det er i mine øjne en forudsætning for at få succes med sit fag, at man dygtiggør sig håndværksmæssigt”, siger Maj-Britt. “Skolen er mere akademisk og mindre praktisk, end da jeg gik der, der er færre højskoler, hvor man kan tage de første skridt, og der er færre værksteder, som ansætter assistenter. Det kræver, at man som elev på skolen tager ansvar for sin egen træning, faciliteten står til rådighed. Det at kunne håndværket giver mulighed for at tjene til livets ophold ved at fremstille brugsglas, ikke mindst nu, hvor der er større efterspørgsel end længe, efterspørgsel fra en ung generation, som vil have noget andet end det, deres forældre købte i 70’erne og 80’erne.”

Størstedelen af Maj-Brits produktion blæser hun her, i direkte forbindelse med publikumsarealet. Der er en tradition, på Bornholm og i mange af landets øvrige glashytter, for at blæse for turisterne. “Det vil jeg ikke, mit arbejde er ikke et show”, siger hun med bestemthed, “men folk må på den anden side gerne kigge på, når jeg blæser, der foregår på den måde en form for formidling. Formidling er et af vores formål med Matter – House of Craft. Det er i øvrigt tydeligt, at kunderne bliver længere og køber mere, når der er aktivitet på værkstedet. Det skærper også lysten til at handle, når vi selv er her til at fortælle om vores arbejde.”

Den del af kollektionen, som ikke fremstilles her, blæser hun i Tjekkiet på et værksted, hvor der er mulighed for at arbejde i meget store og tunge formater.
De store, og dermed eksklusive, arbejder er i øvrigt meget lettere at sælge fra det nuværende lokale end fra det gamle, fortæller hun, stedets troværdighed hænger tydeligvis også sammen med dets format!

Der er kunder i butikken, selvom det egentlig er lukkedag, men de har de fundet vej gennem den åbenstående port. Jeg takker for i dag og lader Maj-Britt tage sig af kunderne.

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