Designer Deborah Ehrlich’s quiet aesthetic speaks volumes

Crystal Clear

By Anna Carnick

Just an hour or two north of New York City, in Accord, New York, glass designer Deborah Ehrlich lives and works in an 18th–century stone farmhouse. Wisteria twists around the entryway, a wood and rope swing hangs from one of the tall trees framing the house, and, on days such as this, one finds a well-fed cat lazing nearby in the sunny yard. A partially renovated old barn-turned-studio stands to the east. It’s a peaceful setting, to be sure.

“It reminded me of the south of France when I first saw it,” Ehrlich recalls. “The house had clearly been loved for awhile, but then abandoned—until I found it.” Ehrlich shares her picturesque Hudson Valley home with her husband, artist Christopher Kurtz, and their young daughter. The couple met years ago at a diner not far from their present home, and both agree it was love at first sight. Together, they’ve sparsely decorated much of their comfortable home with pieces they’ve made collaboratively and independently—the wooden furniture we sit at in their bright kitchen, the exquisitely simple, crystal glasses from which we sip.

Glassware is what Ehrlich is known best for—beautifully balanced, paper-thin pieces that include drinking glasses, stemware, vases, lighting, sculptural works, and even, in the past year or so, a custom-designed decanter collection for the lauded Hudson Valley restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Her pieces are flawless, crystal clear, and imbued with a delicate nature that can turn an everyday gesture like drinking from a glass into a more mindful, elegant act. One wants to drink from her glasses.

Ehrlich finds inspiration in this idyllic setting; it fits perfectly with her quiet aesthetic. Reflecting on the graceful lines that form much of her work, she also points to her older brother Jon—a composer and pianist—as a major creative influence. “I feel like he does mostly silence, punctuated with notes. I definitely picked up elements of his compositional style; my work also tends to be pretty quiet.”

For each of her designs, Ehrlich sketches on layers of white tracing paper, then passes the final drawings along to a master glass blower in Sweden, with whom she has worked for years. Every one of Ehrlich’s glass objects is hand-blown, hand-cut, and hand-polished.

My process is both highly purposeful and also driven by gut instinct. Deborah Ehrlich and her husband, artist Christopher Kurtz © Giada Paoloni for L'AB/Pamono
Ehrlich’s method is highly intuitive; perhaps the result, she says, of a less conventional artistic education. Born and raised in New Jersey (Passaic and then Clifton), “hovering somewhere between the country and the city,” she earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology at Barnard before studying under Mike Skop, a master sculptor, in Kentucky. Afterwards, she travelled through Europe; while abroad, she took on a variety of creative projects (including, notably, helping to restore the stained glass at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna and creating large-scale installations in Provence) and studied at the School of Design at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. It was there that Ehrlich first encountered blown-glass production. Upon returning to New York, in the late nineties, she designed her first glass—a stemless champagne flute—for her own private use. Someone from the Japanese department store Takashimaya saw one of these glasses and immediately placed an order. Ms. Ehrlich was in business.

Describing her creative process, Ehrlich explains that as she’s sketching, she knows she’s on the right path for a particular piece if she experiences “a sort of ringing sensation; that’s how I know where to put the line. I love that feeling.”

She goes on, “When I’m drawing, if I go off a little bit from the expected, if I think I may have made a wrong step, that’s where it usually starts to get interesting. Because something’s telling you to do something that you don’t understand, and you just have to go with it. That’s actually the point when it’s starting to get really beautiful. There’s something intuitive happening there; it’s almost like something else is taking over. So, my process is both highly purposeful and also driven by gut instinct. And that’s what makes it fun.”

Later, laughing (Ehrlich laughs a lot, and her laughter is contagious), she confides that despite her home studio’s tranquility, on occasion, she finds she can be more productive in less conventional settings. “After my daughter was born, I found I had trouble focusing at home sometimes. So I’d get in my old car (a grey, 1983 Mercedes) and drive, say, to the nearby Office Depot parking lot and just sit and sketch in my front seat. Before you came today, in fact, it was a joke with my friends: ‘Yeah, people are coming to photograph me at work; should I get back in the car now?’”

She smiles. “I’ve designed quite a lot in the front seat of my car, actually. A friend recently sent me a picture of Nabakov writing Lolita in the front seat of his car, so I wouldn’t feel so bad.”

She looks around us at the subtle glass pieces dotting the farmhouse’s living-dining room. Clean, elegant glassware and models stand on a long, wooden table before us; a display case hosts glasses of all shapes and sizes; layered hurricane lamps rest on the windowsills; and a deceptively simple sculptural work composed of a basic wooden rod and pixel-like, glass rectangles hangs from the ceiling’s exposed beams, its glass dancing before us as a soft breeze wafts in through the screen door. Ehrlich’s gaze is knowing, steady. “I guess my concern is a more humble interest in some ways,” she says, “but I certainly wouldn’t want to design something bigger just so that it’s bigger.”

  • Text by

    • Anna Carnick

      Anna Carnick

      Anna is Pamono’s Managing Editor. Her writing has appeared in several arts and culture publications, and she's edited over 20 books. Anna loves celebrating great artists, and seriously enjoys a good picnic.
  • Images by

    • Giada Paoloni

      Giada Paoloni

      Giada is an Italian-born photographer and stylist with a passion for travel, food, and art.