From paraphernalia to high art

“Icy Blue Beach,” a piece from the private collection of glass broker Adam Kandel by artist Quave.

There has long existed a divide between high art and craft. Devoid of utility, art is free to speak on its own terms, as if in rising above the functional it acquires more significance and worth. Certain media, like glass, are cursed by their association with craft, seemingly tethered to the forms of daily function. Over and over again, glass takes the shape of bowls, vases and cups, finding utilitarian value while relinquishing the halo of pure aesthetic appreciation.

Nonetheless, some pieces rise above the rest. Perhaps because they descend from a certain canon, time period or line of lauded craftsmen, they are able to escape the confines of craft and fetch prices that compete with art. Take for example three vases that sold at a Sotheby’s auction in December of 2016, each fetching more than $70,000.

But, within the domain of modern functional art there lies another distinction, specifically in glass — that between craft and paraphernalia. The difference owes to how a piece is intended to be used, some being socially acceptable (legal) and others that are deplorable (illegal). Consider a glass pipe meant for smoking cannabis, the kind that you’d find glittering underneath the glass counter at headshops and dispensaries. Prior to legalization, these were the ones labeled for “tobacco use only,” the ones that could get you into big trouble with the law if tainted by resin and confiscated by the cops. But below the swirling controversy of their use, many of these pieces are handmade by craftsman no different than those that cast goblets or decanters. It was only a matter of time before these artisans began to exploit their artistic liberties.

Colorado glass broker Adam Kandel first noticed a change in the glass market in 2014, back when his interest in functional glass was only personal. He was at a glass show in Denver where he saw a buyer purchase a Klein-style piece made by artist WJC for $5,000. The next day, the buyer re-sold the piece for $10,000. Overnight the pipe had doubled in value, and Kandel knew he was witnessing the dawn of a new era, a transition not just from paraphernalia to craft, but from craft to art.

He explains it as a part of the end of prohibition when smokable pieces began to lift from their morally and legally confined niche. With the stigmas of marijuana fading, functional artists were freed to take innovative leaps in design, function and aesthetic.

“The artists and their work are not new,” he says. “They have been working in this medium in this way for a long time because they love what they do. What is new is the context of legalization. Instead of displaying their pieces in headshops, artists are getting shows in respected galleries. Instead of appealing to the tastes of counterculture, these pieces are suddenly appealing to mainstream, pop culture. Suddenly you’ve got celebrities buying these pieces just like you’ve got investors buying them, too. So we find ourselves at an interesting moment when demand is being unleashed just as the artists are seeing newfound permission for their work. I’m lucky just to be positioned at the center of it all.”

One of the first and most influential of this artistic renaissance is Washington blower Scott Deppe, who Kandel refers to as “all of my favorite glass artists’ favorite glass artist.” Before the legal market existed, Deppe was making a new class of functional art, creating colorful and elaborate multi-part pieces that more closely resemble a game of Mousetrap than a pipe, and just like that, Deppe changed the game. Instead of letting the function of form limit his art, he used it to unleash a new wave of creativity, one that consumers were eager to support.

Notable buyers like Snoop Dogg have been bolstering the work of folks like Deppe for a while now, but in the last decade a new wave of celebrities are commissioning the next generation of artists. Poker champion and celebrity Dan Bilzerian recently bought a piece from the glass artist colloquially known as Buck. It’s a 10-foot tall chandelier composed of goat heads, each individual pipes. And Action Bronson, star of Viceland’s Traveling the Stars, regularly invests in pieces and frequents Colorado to do so. “Colorado is the new mecca of glass,” Kandel says. “And this is just the beginning.”

Not only are we witnessing an artistic renaissance, Kandel says, but a cash fall as well. Kandel only deals with high-end pieces, buying and selling pipes that range from $10,000 to $70,000. At the extreme end of the market, he says he’s seen pieces list for up to $100,000 and says these pieces are only growing in value. For an example he points to a piece in his own collection, one by artist Quave that he bought for $10,000 that’s now valued at $65,000 — the type of return that would make any investor take note. Without hesitation he says, “We are in a boom of functional glass art.”