Ann Morhauser, The Glass Builder
Glass artist Ann Morhauser started her company, Annieglass, with little more than debt and determination. Today, her unique and affordable handcrafted glassware is found in stores across the country—and in The Smithsonian. How did she get here? And what can other aspiring artisan-entrepreneurs learn from her journey?
Written by PEGGY TOWNSEND
Photography by SHMUEL THALER
Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in our Winter 2018 issue. It is being republished as originally written, without new reporting.
One afternoon in 1981, when Ann Morhauser was just 24 years old, she watched a 4,500-pound carton of glass sheets dangle from a crane outside her tiny Santa Cruz studio. Holy shit, what have I done? she remembers thinking, as the queen-bed-sized package, more than twice as heavy as she’d expected, descended from the sky. The carton cracked through the wooden deck in front of her shop, sending her landlord running across the parking lot, his arms flapping as if his anger might launch him, birdlike, into the air.
When Morhauser and her neighbors managed to move the glass into her studio, the carton broke through the sheetrock wall. As Morhauser pondered the accumulating disasters, she realized that another might be coming her way: The $1,500 check she’d written for the glass delivery was probably going to bounce.
Morhauser remembers with a kind of terrible clarity the day she walked into a local bank to talk about her $3,000 credit card balance, and then watched as a stern woman in a business suit “took out the biggest pair of shears I’ve ever seen and cut the card into little pieces.”
Instead of panicking, Morhauser apologized to her landlord, and covered the check by borrowing cash from her soon-to-be husband, who could not afford the bill either. To those who know her, these were classic Morhauser moves: unafraid, adaptable, daring—even to the point of disaster, which Morhauser somehow turns into victory. “Certainly, persistence and flexibility are a requirement of this business,” says Morhauser, with her trademark smile: half-serious, half-impish. “It especially helps when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.”
At the time of this writing, Morhauser has achieved a level of success that most artisans only dream about. She turns out 50,000 to 70,000 handmade items a year, has 26 employees, 25 independent sales representatives, and owns a 16,000-square-foot studio and retail shop. Plates and platters from Annieglass, the company she founded, have graced tables from the White House to the homes of Oprah Winfrey and Jennifer Aniston. A few are even on permanent display at The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.
Any trajectory like that begs two questions: How did she pull it off? And are there any models or lessons in her journey that could help other artisans make a living in today’s highly industrialized, global marketplace?
From all indications, Morhauser’s formula revolves around passion—and the impulse to take chances, which it seems she learned at a very early age. Morhauser grew up in southern New Jersey (“Patti Smith territory” is how she describes it), with three rough-and-tumble older brothers who gave her regular lessons in never crying uncle. She attended Catholic school, and every Saturday morning would be loaded onto a bus for a trip across two towns to art classes where she spent tedious hours painting still lifes and landscapes. When she was 10, her father died of cancer and her mother, an Italian immigrant, went to work. “By the time she died, she owned three pieces of real estate, even though she never made more than three thousand dollars a year,” Morhauser says. “I was just taught to never give up.”
Several years after moving to California at age 16 to live with her brother and sister-in-law, Morhauser went to a beach party one night and noticed a glass artist working a blowpipe. The sight of that glassblower spinning a red-hot, liquid orb in the moonlight, changed her life. She was “gobsmacked,” she says, by the art form’s combination of beauty and physicality. “I was hooked,” she said years later, during a TEDx talk. “I wanted in!” Supporting herself on nothing but food stamps and scholarships to local colleges, Morhauser dove into glassmaking classes, which culminated with two years under the tutelage of renowned glass artist Marvin Lipofsky in Oakland, at what was then called the California College of Arts and Crafts.
Upon graduation, Morhauser bought a used kiln for $200 and was soon turning out a line of dramatic, “Memphis-style” plates—angular shapes in bright, starkly contrasting colors, a style popularized in the 1980s by an avant-garde Italian architecture and design company called The Memphis Group. After selling the plates at craft fairs and museum shops, Morhauser quickly found they didn’t pay the bills. She remembers with a kind of terrible clarity the day, in 1981, when she walked into a local bank to talk about her $3,000 credit card balance, and then watched as a stern woman in a business suit “took out the biggest pair of shears I’ve ever seen and cut the card into little pieces.”
Two years later, Morhauser was earning $5 an hour working at a tiny glass gallery near the beach in Capitola, CA, and wondering how she and her husband were going to make their mortgage payment. While flipping through the Sunday paper one morning, she noticed a photo of a simple white plate edged in gold, and something clicked. Days later, she stopped by a local glass company, scavenged all of its scratched window glass, found a terracotta saucer, and fired up her kiln.
In concept, there was nothing new about making fine glassware rimmed in precious metals like silver. At the time however, these designs could only be achieved with a two-step firing process, which caused the glittering metal to eventually wear off. Not only did this approach cause obvious problems, it also struck Morhauser as a waste of time. “I was lazy,” she says. “It seemed stupid to do it twice.”
What would happen, she wondered, if she painted a plate’s edges with the gold luster used in the ceramics industry, then fired it only once? “I talked to my gold supplier in Germany, and they said I couldn’t do it,” she says. “‘Well, just watch me,’ I said.” Morhauser then started experimenting. Sometimes the piece came out of the kiln too thin or misshapen, sometimes it stuck to the mold; sometimes it contained air bubbles (“It looked like a chip-and-dip bowl”), and sometimes the gold became “crusty,” as she puts it. (“I think it looked cool, actually.”)
Eventually, Morhauser found a formula that worked. Suddenly, her plates looked Bohemian and elegant at the same time; more importantly, the gold was now baked into the glass—permanently enough to earn Morhauser the FDA approval for food safety, and a patent. This meant that her plates could become dinnerware, capable of going in the dishwasher just like a $7 plate from Pottery Barn. Why hadn’t anyone else figured this out? “I’m using gold and platinum,” she replies. “Who the hell is going to experiment with that?”
To demonstrate her plates’ durability to reluctant buyers, she even dropped them on the showroom floor. “It works if it’s carpeted,” she says, “with a pad…”
As practical as it was, Morhauser’s new line, which she named Roman Antique, did not begin as an easy sell. “We got thrown out of so many stores because it was too ‘crafty.’ It didn’t fit in a niche,” she says. In those days, “Nobody got the whole idea of wabi-sabi”—the Japanese concept of imperfection, which involves accepting roughness and asymmetry.
Once again, Morhauser would not take no for an answer. When she was invited to training for Neiman Marcus managers, she arrived playing the part of a Neiman Marcus customer: “I dressed up in a gold lamé raincoat,” she says, “and put on a New York accent.” As she trudged from one sales call to another, she forced her glassware into buyers’ hands so they could feel its texture and see the hints of brushstrokes in the edges’ wide gold bands. To demonstrate her plates’ durability, she even dropped them on the showroom floor. (“It works if it’s carpeted,” she says, “with a pad…”.)
Slowly the department store orders started coming in—first from Neiman Marcus, then Barney’s, then Bergdorf Goodman. The first of these coups produced a classic Morhauser adventure.
In 1984, somewhat out of the blue, Morhauser got a call from a Neiman Marcus representative asking for a business profile number because the company wanted to send her a check. “What check?” Morhauser replied. It turned out that a Neiman Marcus buyer, impressed with her work at a New York show, had been trying to find her for years; now she wanted to order 24 pieces for the company’s new store in San Francisco. Morhauser found the request somewhat ironic: “Her predecessor had thrown us out.”
Thrilled nonetheless, Morhauser worked at her kilns almost non-stop for two weeks. When all the plates were ready, she packed them into orange crates (harvested from a nearby organic market), loaded up her Volkswagen Beetle, and headed to San Francisco. “I got all dressed up,” Morhauser recalls. “I had this asymmetrical haircut and this swirly outfit.” The impression she made was apparently not reassuring. “I showed up on the loading dock and they yelled at me to get out of there. I yelled back that I was making a delivery.” Feeling put out, Morhauser just handed off the boxes, unsure whether her plates would ever make it into the store. “I learned a lot about what I didn’t know that day,” she says, now able to smile about it.
Within a year, orders started rising, and Annieglass was finding its way into high-end establishments such as Bellagio Hotel and Casino, in Las Vegas, and California’s Post Ranch Inn. In 1985, Morhauser hired her first employees and the Roman Antique glassware became her cornerstone line.
A decade later, in early 1995, a letter arrived at Annieglass studios with an unusual return address: The White House. Figuring that one of her brothers was playing a practical joke, Morhauser promptly chucked the correspondence into the trash. Aghast, her office manager fished out the letter and ordered Morhauser to open it.
“Come on, this is bullshit,” Morhauser protested. To humor her employee, she opened it anyway, only to discover it was an actual invitation from then-First Lady Hillary Clinton. Would Morhauser care to attend a lunch and reception, celebrating American artists and the opening of the 20th Century American Sculpture Exhibition?
Indeed she would, and did. Today, two of her gold-edged oval platters remain on permanent display at The Smithsonian American Art Museum. They are part of the Luce Foundation collection of American Craft, an exhibit assembled for the study of American folk artists and contemporary craft.
Amy Stavis, the publisher of Tableware Today, has known Morhauser for 30 years, yet Morhauser keeps surprising her. “It’s really amazing how her company has grown into a mainstream business, given how she started,” Stavis says. “She does most of the designs, and she runs her company like a small shop, even though its reputation in the industry is far greater than that would imply. She is absolutely one of the first artisan entrepreneurs.”
One morning, Morhauser takes a moment to tour me through her operation, housed in a cavernous studio in Watsonville, CA, that once served as a Seventh Day Adventist warehouse. A tall, striking woman of 60, Morhauser is dressed in dark pants and an artfully torn T-shirt, her dark hair a tousled mop of curls, her lips painted raspberry red.
“Watch your head,” she warns, as we climb a rough wooden staircase to a cramped and dusty space that most business owners would keep hidden. This is the Boneyard: the place where mistakes, flops, and discontinued items go to die. From a metal shelf, she pulls out a triangular-shaped nut tray punctuated with three round depressions. “This looks like one of those nuclear fallout signs, right? And this”—she grabs an oblong appetizer tray streaked in hues of baby blue and gold—“I loved these, but the reps said nobody would want these colors.” She clangs the tray back into place. “Oh well.”
She moves on, past a dusty stack of angular plates, a discarded bowl that was supposed to resemble a dahlia but looks like some weird jigsaw puzzle, then a set of intricate molds inspired by Indian art that never quite worked out. For every great design, she says, there are probably 10 flops.
Growing up with three older brothers, Morhauser learned that “failure wasn’t the worst thing in the world. I love that expression, that success is running from one failure to the next without the loss of enthusiasm.”
This is part of what Morhauser enjoys about working with glass—how mistakes give you a chance for reinvention. That axiom also has given her a credo for life.
A stiff test of that credo occurred in 1996, when Morhauser and her former husband divorced (expensively), just as she needed to find a bigger studio to keep up with her growing business. As a newly single mom, she found herself having to hustle her two small children out the front door one morning to an early meeting with bankers. “I told them, ‘just get in the car, Mommy has to borrow a million dollars,’” she recalls. Impressed by her growing customer base, the banker gave it to her. Later, as she walked through her newly renovated warehouse and realized the enormity of the step she’d taken, she promptly threw up.
Then there was Morhauser’s decision to open a retail store in Silicon Valley’s trendy Santana Row in 2014, hoping that the land of Teslas and instant millionaires would support a luxury glassware shop. It didn’t, and two years later, Morhauser had to close the doors. In both cases, Morhauser figured out how to turn obstacles into opportunities. The warehouse gave her a workspace, shipping center, and retail store all in one place; after the Silicon Valley store closed, Morhauser turned her energies to a whole new enterprise. In a section of the warehouse called Craftbar, aspiring artisans could take weekend workshops in creative endeavors like ceramics, macramé, and glass-painting—a maker-inspired break from a world filled with technology.
“I think people need to know they might fail, and go ahead and do it anyway,” Morhauser says. “You learn a lot from failure. You develop better instincts. You’re ready for the next challenge.” Growing up with three older brothers, she believes, taught her to never shirk a challenge. “I had no choice but to follow them and to be fearless,” she says. “I learned failure wasn’t the worst thing in the world.” She pauses. “I love that expression, that success is running from one failure to the next without the loss of enthusiasm.”
Like the time her recycler went out of business and she was left with eight huge bins of broken glass sitting behind her studio.
To avoid throwing the piles of scrap glass into the landfill, Morhauser decided to reuse it herself. When she reheated the glass, however, she discovered that it couldn’t be shaped (or “slumped,” in glassmaker lingo) into curved objects like a bowl. “There’s no elasticity in it anymore,” she says. “You only get a big flat blob, or it breaks at the bend. It’s like it’s done.”
Frustrated, she locked herself in her conference room (a decidedly inelegant space cluttered with worn office chairs and a scuffed table), and told her staff she wasn’t coming out until she’d figured out what to do. Four hours later, she emerged with yet another new idea—melding stacks of the old glass into blocks flecked with gold, and carving them with a water jet. “I just had to throw everything I learned out the window and look at it from a different angle,” she says.
The carved blocks turned into a new line she called Elements, a collection of organically shaped trivets and appetizer trays that came out in 2016. Morhauser promptly applied for a patent on the process.
One afternoon, Morhauser is standing in the small retail shop she maintains in a corner of her warehouse, when several clumps of visitors push through the door. Morhauser immediately excuses herself. “Hi, my name is Annie,” she says to two women who are browsing over a table of heart-shaped plates and votives. Before long, the women are regaling her with stories, and Morhauser is pointing out items they might like.
“I think Annie does two things brilliantly,” says Nathan Shedroff, founding chair of the MBA program in design strategy at California College of the Arts (which Morhauser helped start, and now serves as an advisor), and co-author of “Making Meaning: How Successful Businesses Deliver Meaningful Customer Experience” and “Blind Spot: Illuminating the Human Value of Business.”
The first is to develop, and maintain, relationships with customers at an unusually deep level. Not all value is financial, Shedroff says, and by all indications, Morhauser understands this principle intimately.
“Annie is just an amazing example of customer service,” says Nancy Taylor, sales manager and buyer for the Plaid Giraffe tableware and bridal boutique, in Wichita, KS, which sells hundreds of Annieglass items each year. She says Morhauser regularly flies 1,600 miles to her store, and pulls out an engraving tool to sign and date wedding gifts for customers. People sometimes bring in their grandmother’s china and Morhauser will show them how to pair it with Annieglass items, or she’ll jump up to demonstrate a way to set the table for a holiday party. “Our customers love her,” Taylor says.
Morhauser’s second great talent seems to be her ability to interpret customers’ desires artistically. “She can see someone looking at a color or a material, or at a theme like seashells, and not just do a knee-jerk seashell,” Shedroff says. “She’ll consider what is it about seashells or a reference to the sea that is intriguing to people.” An example: In Morhauser’s studio shop, a line of platters that resemble the graceful leaves of a banana tree were inspired by the view from Morhauser’s second home in Kauai, HI. The platters suggest tropical vacations and warm breezes, but Morhauser also knew the design would allow the plates to be stacked, and easily shipped.
“The pressure to have something new and exciting every six months requires that we push the envelope of our process,” Morhauser tells me one day. “The big sculptures, the thicker glass, the chipped edges, the giant clamshell (bowl).” She shakes her head. “I didn’t know I could even slump a piece that big until I did.” But innovation, she says, is why she wakes up in the morning. “It’s always been hard to keep me paying attention. If it was too easy, I would have been done with it.”
There’s a quote from Steve Jobs that Morhauser loves, enough so that she brings it up in each of three meetings with me. “Technology alone is not enough,” Jobs famously said in 2011. “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our hearts sing.” That’s exactly what happened to Morhauser’s heart when she bought her first high-tech cutting tool—a computer numerical control (or CNC) machine that hulks in one corner of her shop.
Her reasons for the purchase were one part artistic, one part economic survival. By 2000, fed up with having to compete with cheap goods manufactured overseas, Morhauser knew she had to find a way to reduce costs. With the aid of Adobe Illustrator, the CNC machine employs a combination of water and garnet sand to cut glass shapes with 90,000 pounds per square inch of pressure. The result: faster production, and a step closer to a company goal—zero waste. “The water jet also allows me to do designs I could never do before,” Morhauser says. “I felt like I was in art school again.”
Later, as the studio quiets and her workers head home for the day, Morhauser sits and ponders how far her business has come. A lot of what she knows about customer service, she says, she learned in that little retail shop by the beach. She’s stayed in the relatively expensive Monterey Bay area partly because it’s a beautiful spot to have a studio, but also because the coastal environment speaks to the value of craftsmanship—of goods that aren’t mass produced, that are made to last.
And every so often, Morhauser gets some feedback that her values pay off. One instance occurred in late 2005, during the clean-up of Hurricane Katrina, when some homeowners in New Orleans found one of their china cabinets washed up on a nearby street. Everything inside it had broken, except their Annieglass pieces. Around the same time, Morhauser got a call from the Post Ranch Inn. The Inn’s restaurant had been using her dinnerware every day for 13 years, and the dishes were starting to look a little shabby. Morhauser told the restaurant to send them back and she would see what she could do. “We just re-frosted them, by sandblasting them, and they came right back.”