Lee Rhodes turned life-threatening adversity into a gift of beauty and hope through her company glassybaby. Inspired by the ‘baby’ glasses her then-husband made, Lee studied the craft of glass blowing herself and began to give them as gifts. Then came 3 bouts of lung cancer over 7 years, and Lee learned first-hand the loneliness and despair of such a battle. She revived glassybaby — at first only to raise money for cancer charities and to warm the hearts of those fighting for their lives. But demand grew, and Lee now operates a large studio and retail stores in her native Seattle where fans flock to pick out their own “humble in spirit but not beauty” glassybaby.
Yours is really the quintessential story of finding a spark of light out of the depths of darkness and despair. After your then-husband came home with his baby glass creations, when did the idea of turning this into a business first come to you? Was it a single moment of inspiration or did it dawn on you more gradually?
The glassybaby business model grew organically, not instantaneously. Seeing and lighting the original glassybaby was love at first sight, not business at first sight. A large impetus to grow into a business was the resonant joy glassybaby brought me, my friends and family. Coupling beauty with the notion of giving to cancer related causes emerged as an exciting business model.
How did you pick the name glassybaby? Was it simply a reference to the size of the glasses, or did this name carry an element of nurturing in this endeavor?
Yes, the name glassybaby somewhat references the size. Ten years ago many of my friends were having babies, and the vintage, original glassybaby were often given as baby gifts.
One of the most beautiful things about glassybaby is their lack of perfect conformity and the many nuanced and brilliant colors they come in. Besides being a very soulful design, is there a human metaphor at work here?
Yes, I think people connect with this aspect of glassybaby. One of the things that really seems to resonate with people is the individuality of each glassybaby — that they are made by individuals, and that each one is unique. In fact, early on we began describing glassybaby with the phrase: “Every piece as individual as you.”
You encountered some naysayers early on who warned you not to base your business on a single product. What gave you the confidence to go for it anyway?
Somewhere between confidence and fear lies the truth. I think that glassybaby guided me. It is truly uncanny that this simple, beautiful, candlelit vessel makes the heart soar. And giving to cancer related causes became a passion for me.
You leave it up to the customer to decide how they want to use their glassybaby, but do you feel they reach their highest use being lit from within as candle holders?
Their highest use is really something defined by each individual. There are no rules. One of the most rewarding things about being involved with glassybaby is that our customers bring their own stories to it. They define what it means to them. And we hear from them often about how it touched their lives in a very personal way.
With over 400 colors to choose from — including colors like taxi, studio 54, and wet dog — this must be one of the design aspects you have the most fun with. Tell me about your process of picking colors to produce.
Picking colors is a very intuitive process. We can sample 5 colors and within seconds of seeing the 5 choices, I know which colors are contenders. Naming glassybaby is a great part of the creative process. I usually find inspiration while dining upon sushi and sake with friends. We call this time together ‘the naming ceremony.’
What sorts of artistic leanings did you have growing up, and is this testimony for others that being without a specific art background, talent or training shouldn’t stop them from pursuing something creative?
I truly believe that everyone has their own creative voice. Glassybaby is really just something that we tapped into. I have just been shepherding it along. The power of it is that everyone brings their own creativity to it.
I understand that the lung disease you experienced made it so you can no longer blow the glass yourself. Was there a sense of loss about this, or does the sharing of the work with other glass artisans make up for it?
Having learned the process of glassblowing and making a glassybaby is a connection to our product that is immutable. I get to marvel at our glassblowers as they make beautiful glassybaby and know what it took to get there.
Your son Hector wrote the description of glassybaby that you use on your website, and he certainly seems to have a deep understanding of what this is all about. What has this glassybaby journey meant for you and your family?
As you can imagine, after 10 years of glassybaby, my children prefer their lacrosse. But they are immensely supportive of this ongoing glassybaby journey.
Glassybaby goodwill is a big part of your operation. What charities are you working with, and how do you designate specific colors for those partnerships?
Giving to cancer care and research organizations is a core part of our business mission. We give 10% of gross sales from select colors and stores to a number of partners. To name a few: Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Seattle Veterans Hospital Cancer Center, University of Washington Hospital Cancer Center, M.D. Anderson, Sloane Kettering, The American Cancer Society, and The Humane Society.
The decision generally is born out of a soulful connection to a person or event. As far as cancer related giving, we tend toward giving to unrestricted care, to help cancer patients with a lot of the indirect costs and burdens of receiving cancer care.
I see you have a new glassybaby of the month and seasonal glassybaby bouquet program to ‘give the gift of glow.’ It sounds so simple, but there’s something very powerful about color, light and beauty, isn’t there?
Yes, this is a glassybaby truth… memory building with color, light, beauty and simplicity are elemental in life.
Where do you see glassybaby going from here?
We are growing organically as our customers grow through word-of-mouth. We are opening new stores, and we are seeing a lot of growth online as glassybaby makes its way to customers all over the United States and abroad. With growth we want to stay true to our origins…which means ever-expanding giving and more color in the world.
Update: Congratulations to Lee and the crew at glassybaby for opening their first shop in New York, located at 555 Hudson Street! Here’s the photo of the newborn shop…
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