Hazy shades of winter

Mon pays, ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver” goes the opening lines of Gilles Vigneault’s 1964 song Mon Pays, “My country is not a country, it is winter.” These now iconic lines capture not just a landscape or a season but a way of life that takes place within that landscape and that climate. Understanding the genus loci or sense of place of where we live, Christian Norberg-Schultz tells us, guides the best architecture and design – for it helps us to dwell meaningfully even in this rootless age of supposed globalization.

It is a sentiment shared by Quebec’s master glass maker Michel Mailhot, who, along with mechanical engineer Bertrand Charest, is partner/owner of ThinkGlass. For Mailhot, who grew up in rural Quebec, it was how the natural landscape of rock, water and forests has been shaped by wind and ice, and constantly transformed by shifting light that has guided his evolving work. Glass, with its malleable, tactile form, its enigmatic translucency and its crisp, ice-like blue/ green tone, capable of accepting brilliant colours, is superior in its possibilities to metal or wood, he believes.

Yet glass’s reputation for fragility and brittleness would seem to limit its possibilities as a flexible design element. It is a view both Mailhot and Charest reject. From floors to kitchen counters, to stairs and massive walls, ThinkGlass has emerged as a world leader in the design and manufacture of glass for architecture and interiors, exporting more that 95 per cent of its work.

ThinkGlass was founded just over a decade ago when Charest and Mailhot united two disparate careers to create the design and manufacture firm. Since 2006, it has been located in a $1.5 million, 30,000-square-foot atelier/plant in Boisbriand, Que., on the outskirts of Montreal. The plant boasts 15 custom-made electric ovens whose state-of-the-art design has allowed Mailhot to transform glass thermoforming into an industrial-scale art form unmatched in North America.

Thermoforming (castglass) works by melting previously measured pieces of glass on soft molds of plaster dust for a period of one to 30 days, a technology perfected by ThinkGlass in order to produce unlimited textures and shapes. In the process that commonly lasts four to five days, “cooking” temperatures are slowly brought up to between 1400 and 1500 degrees Fahrenheit. “Once the glass is taken out of the oven,” reports Charest, “it can be reshaped and worked on until it perfectly represents Michel’s vision.” Finally, it is sanded with diamond grit and polished to the desired finish.

The plant can create pieces as large as 7 by 12 feet and as thick as 12 inches by fusing -inch-thick sheets. Outputs may be unique pieces or in series of repetitive textures and patterns reproducible at reasonable cost. Glass with relatively high greenish colouring is imported from the U. S., but “crystal” quality glass with low iron content is also brought from Germany, allowing for a more transparent (more bluish tint) look.

Technological advances, many originating with the company, also permit unique artistic treatments with such things as colourization, copper plating and the production of filled glass slabs unconstrained by thickness requirements. Output includes copper-plated glass tiles, floor tiles that incorporate LED lighting and fused glass with different textures. Incorporating bright colour, according to Mailhot, has replaced texture and shape as the leading trend. Metal pigmentation, such as cobalt blue and red oxides, are inserted between the sheets prior to the heating process. “The constant progressive evolution in technology opens up new horizons for designers, architects, lighting companies and/or just plain glass lovers,” continues Charest, “and they in turn continually put new challenging design briefs on the table.”

ThinkGlass’s staple product has been 1 -inch-thick glass countertops, impressed with organic patterns whose uniqueness is derived by not casting in any standardized molds. “We are able to fabricate a variety of custom shapes to fit sinks and appliances, including single seamless pieces in the range of 10 by 7 feet,” states Charest. These counters are suitable for both indoor and outdoor applications and increasingly incorporate bright coloured patterns. The same technology is applied to commissions for glass floors and stairs. “The addition of a glass tile floor,” he continues, “brings a sense of openness and light into any space as well as serving as a structural element that is anti-skid and very resistant to impact.”

Mailhot and Charest’s road to Think-Glass wound quite different tracks. The first is a graduate in art from the University of Trois-Rivieres who first turned his talent for drawing and sculpting to jewelry design. When an attempt to fuse ceramics with glass failed, he became intrigued with the properties of the latter. “I have an artist’s heart with an engineer’s mind,” he jokes in French. What

he uncovered, continues the largely selftaught glass artist, was a distinctiveness of matter that gave him near total freedom to “explore and create textures, movement, and natural and organic vibrations; all of which are at the basis of my own emotions.”

The future partners met while working for another glass company. Charest, a mechanical engineer, had previously used his management skills to rebuild the Women’s National Ski Team. The skills honed in this brutally competitive world, however, are now applied to client relations, product quality, timeliness of deliveries and marketing. Major Canadian work has included a huge thermoformed glass mural, one of the largest in the world, at Montreal’s Palais de Congress, as well as a 10-foot-high glass sculpture at Gatineau’s Lac Lemay Casino.

Three recent projects illustrate the firm’s growing role in interior design projects.

Tribe Hyperclub, Montreal

Located in Old Montreal, Tribe Hyperclub is a hip DJ bar that must compete with Montreal’s larger international dance clubs. The owners asked Montreal designer Paolo Viera to produce an interior that signalled the club as “everything hype in Montreal,” and he in turn approached ThinkGlass to design four illuminated glass bars for the facility’s two levels.

The result is glass bars – including counters and aprons – made from Strata glass, a type of glass whose surfaces and edges could be textured and then back lit with bluish LED lighting to give the effect of luminous ice. While Mailhot typically uses 1-inch-thick glass for such counters, at Tribe the glass is two inches thick on a stainless steel plate. “Such thickness,” he maintains, “allows for a deeper and richer texture effect.” Like moths to a flame, customers are drawn to the bars, not a negative outcome for the owners’ bottom line. While customers are known to dance on the durable glass decks, I was not told if recent guest Paris Hilton was so inclined.

ThinkGlass also provided two large glass panel walls forming the corridor leading to Tribe’s washrooms that, the designers believe, “create the effect of being inside a mysterious, if well-lit, cavern.” Enigmatically translucent, the walls permit light to filter through to the washrooms but are not so transparent as to compromise privacy. Finally, a large, brightly coloured glass mural fills a large window onto Saint-Jacques.

Duvet Restaurant, New York

At Manhattan’s Duvet Restaurant, known for its high-end sushi, designer Andres Escobar also made use of Think-Glass’s eclectic glass skills. At its heart is a Mailhot glass bar inspired, he says, by the ice bar at the Hotel de Glace, just outside Quebec City. This tri-dimensional sculpted structure stretches 120 feet and has been combined with LED lighting that frequently changes colour. XS Lighting & Sound, of Syosset, N. Y., used a variety of Color Kinetics products, including roughly 840 feet of iColor Cove (digital, colour-changing light strips) encased in the glass bar to create the effect of an even wash of coloured light.

In addition to the totemic bar, Think-Glass developed a 50-square-foot underlit crystal glass floor, as well as a 17-step glass stair. Again, the idea has been to invoke the idea of clear water carving its way through a glacier. Mailhot also created and produced 150 individually molded plates, each 3/8-inch thick and utilizing high-end crystal glass from Germany, to serve the restaurants menu of caviar, sushi and seafood.

One South Dearborn , Chicago

ThinkGlass’s latest major installation is two cast-glass walls located in the lobby of Chicago’s new One South Dearborn commercial tower (Destefano Architects).

Measuring an imposing 40 feet long by 18 feet high, the 1-inch-thick textured walls are the largest of their kind in the world. “This is among our most striking architectural installations,” Charest states with some pride.

To construct each wall’s 24 10-by-3-foot panels into a single wall, ThinkGlass worked with chief architect Kevin Schellenbach to devise a simple supporting and linking technique, ensuring a light and diaphanous aesthetic as well as a sense of a floating wall. “The 600-pound glass panels are held in place by biscuit-type braces, attached to a thin and discreet stainless steel structure placed behind the wall surfaces,” Charest explains. The smooth polished surface faces the lobby, he observes, “to ensure a very modern and sleek look that echoes the building’s textured curtain wall.” cI