Inside Dale Chihuly’s Studio “The Boathouse”

Credit: Author

Last October I wrote a blog posting about glass artist Dale Chihuly’s travails with a lawsuit brought against him by a former associate (or employee, his status is not clear), Michael Moi, who claims that he co-authored many of Chihuly’s works over the past 15 years. Moi is suing Chihuly for copyright infringement, and (naturally) substantial damages. As far as I am aware the case has yet to be heard, although there were legal wranglings in the fall that led to the disqualification of Moi’s lawyers.

In my blog I commented that from my perspective it was self-evident that Chihuly was the true and definitive creator of his works, even if he didn’t personally design or produce every single piece. Chihuly has never claimed that he did. But he created the studio, developed the genre, oversaw the production and design, exercised quality control and conferred the ultimate authenticity on the final product by giving it his “seal of approval”, his signature. That end-to-end process makes a product a “Chihuly”, (costing up to six figures), rather than being just a pretty piece of glass. A few weeks after I had published my blog, I had a chance to see the production process up-close with a visit to Chihuly’s studio, the “Boathouse”, on the shores of Lake Union in Seattle.

The Boathouse itself has an interesting history. Although it’s a digression, the story is so interesting that I cannot resist taking you down this path for just a moment. It was where George Pocock in later years built his racing shells for rowers, and indeed there is a beautiful wooden 8 man shell hanging from the ceiling of the main reception room in the building. Pocock was the builder of the boats used by the University of Washington rowers made famous by the book “The Boys in the Boat” (with a movie in the offing) about their journey to and ultimate victory at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It was in a Pocock boat that they won the gold medal in Berlin, upsetting favoured European crews. Pocock came from a boatbuilding family in England (his father built racing shells for Eton College) and had emigrated to Vancouver, BC in 1910, originally building shells for the Vancouver Rowing Club. But he was recruited by a wily UW rowing coach, Hiram Conibear, who convinced him to move to Seattle, where he set up shop, eventually moving to the shores of Lake Union. Today Pocock Racing Shells, in Everett WA is a leading manufacturer of these specialized boats in the US, although now they are made of hydrocarbons.

But let’s get back to Chihuly. If anything, my visit to his studio only confirmed my initial conclusions about Chihuly’s role and genius, but it was a revelation to see how the process actually works. First we visited the “hot room” where several “gaffers” were engaged in melting and shaping glass according to a design they were following, operating smoothly as team, with each knowing his role. Apparently they were working on a commission for a large glass chandelier. I was told that many of these gaffers (glassblowers) have their own small studios where they develop their personal creations when not working at the Boathouse.

We saw where the supplies come in and are inventoried, and where finished pieces are stacked waiting to be assembled into larger creations. We did not see the design studio which is in a separate building with a show-room but we did see a number of examples of Chihuly’s work and collections in the Boathouse. Among these are his collection of Northwest native baskets which have served as the inspiration for a number of Chihuly’s works, his collection of trading blankets, and the “long room” containing an enormous Douglas fir table, the Pocock rowing scull and a number of chandeliers and large glass bowls. What surprised me was that some of them, finished and looking beautiful, were marked for destruction because of some imperceptible flaw or other. I would have happily had that piece in my home but it did not meet the Chihuly standard. There are no “seconds” coming from this studio.

Other memorable rooms were the swimming pool, where one stares down through limpid waters to an undersea world of shells and creatures (created by Chihuly), an operating aquarium filled with Chihuly creations, and even a unique Chihuly bathtub. Many of these rooms and attractions have been featured on the web, as the Boathouse is on occasion opened for charitable tours. One recent posting, which I think captures well the ambiance and attractions of the facility, can be found here.

The Boathouse, as I mentioned is not open to the public, but the full impact of Chihuly’s work can be viewed at the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum, located at the base of Seattle’s famous Space Needle. This is a remarkable exhibit and testament to the man who has inspired and nurtured a whole glass creation ecosystem in the Seattle area, with many other studios and the Pilchuck Glass School, founded by Chihuly himself (with patrons) in 1971.

Whether it is his works abroad, such as those that were installed in Venice a few years ago, or in Kew Gardens in London, or those inspired by Pacific Northwest culture and gardens, it is clear that Chihuly has put his personal stamp on this genre in many ways. Today the Boathouse is a hive of productive creativity, with the works being produced and assembled by many craftsmen and women, responding to commissions and also creating new works for public consumption. It is a well-oiled operation from design to production to assembly. And, at the end of the day, the works that emerge are truly worthy of being called “Chihulies”.

As I noted above, some of the members of “team Chihuli” produce their own creations on their own time, a good outlet for their talents and a way to develop their individual persona. Rather than trying to assert ownership by alleging co-authorship through the courts, one wonders why Michael Moi did not do the same.

© Hugh Stephens, 2018. All Rights Reserved.Chihuly-Boathouse

3 thoughts on “Inside Dale Chihuly’s Studio “The Boathouse””

  1. Hi Hugh, Dean Marks here (from Warner Bros./Time Warner until 2015 and then MPAA from 2015-2017 and now on my own as a consultant and sometimes adjunct Professor).  I have been meaning to write to you for a long time to tell you how much I enjoy your blog.  But the entry below on Dale Chihuly’s studio pushed me over the edge.  I have always loved his work and visited the Museum and garden at the base of the Space Needle a couple of months ago when I was up in Seattle for INTA. I had no idea that his studio was in George Pocock’s former boathouse.  How fascinating and how great that you received an inside tour!  I loved the “Boys in the Boat” and it is one of my favorite books from recent years.  Aside from the wonderful underdog story and all the interesting personalities, including George, it gave such an insightful view to the Depression era and the daily struggles of individuals.  And was the writing compelling!  Even though I knew before reading the first page that the Seattle boys won the gold medal, I found myself literally cheering them out loud “Go, Go!” when reading the passages about the various races. Where are you living these days?  Back in Canada?  I am still in L.A. and enjoying having my garden patio as my office.  Do you ever get down to L.A.?  If so, it would be great to see you.  I know the Copyright Society meeting was in Toronto in June, but I couldn’t attend because I was teaching a course at the Munich IP Law Center. In any event Hugh, it was always such a pleasure to work with you.  You are the embodiment of “gentleman and scholar.”  Hope all is well. Best regards,Dean

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  2. Writing from just slightly to the north of you (Bellingham)… and all too familiar with both the nobody-really-comes-out-looking-very-good Chihuly situation and the UW rowing dynasty…

    I think a large part of the problem here is a combination of egotistical and legal pressure to designate a single author for all purposes — especially, but not only, copyright control. Before I read Mr Marks’ comment I was going to make snide remarks about film-studio ownership of copyrights versus auteur “theory” versus the kinds of things exposed in the Garcia fiasco versus the claims of screenwriters (and I won’t even get into whether a “polish” is meaningful). I suppose I just did, but my point was a bit more abstract: All too often, everyone acts like the 1976 Act here in the US left the preexisting indivisibility of copyright alone. There’s some lip service offered to ownership of specifically separable independent components (e.g., the design of Star Wars stormtrooper helmets), but that’s really all it is.

    The truly collaborative effort — either simultaneous, as in formal coauthorship of a novel or article, or sequential, as in the Chihuly situation or novel-to-screenplay-to-film — is at best a kludge and most often a default to “who had the economic power to force designations into the contracting process?” Consider, for example, a hypothetical studio-with-creative-oversight system that explicitly granted equal rights in copyright revenue but a disproportionate share of (but not complete) copyright control to the studio overseer — that is, what a hypothetical Chihuly/Moi agreement might have looked like if there were no egos involved and no disparate original positions, and the agreement were negotiated behind a complete veil of ignorance. The subtlety here is that it depends upon there being ENOUGH copyright control left to the line-worker that he or she has an enforceable interest, both practically and legally. And I don’t pretend to be able to draw such a line… but, in the fine tradition of Justice Potter Stewart, I think I know it when I see it (after having worked on behalf of authors/composers/artists/musicians for many years, with some interludes on the dark side of the editorial desk).

    So in the end, I suspect that the Moi/Chihuly situation is at least as much about contract law and ego as it is about copyright.

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