Brass stamping of a miniature Empire State Building.

Brass stamping of a miniature Empire State Building.

A MINIATURE SKYLINE/RISING FROM THE GARDEN STATE

Profile in Success: Karen and Geoffrey Caldwell

by Eileen Watkins    CRAFTS REPORT AUGUST 2005

You won’t see any skyscrapers in rural Stockton, New Jersey - unless you stop by the Sunflower Glass Studio. There, you’ll find a whole glittering metropolis. These skyscrapers are all beveled and textured glass, and the tallest stands three feet high. Still, they tower over the other glass structures such as miniature lighthouses, churches and cottages created by Karen and Geoffrey Caldwell.

A photo of skyscrapers and  miniature buildings.

Building a skyscraper, full-scale or in miniature, takes a special combination of artistic vision and hardheaded practically - the same traits it takes to create a successful crafts business. The Caldwells represent the fusion of those qualities. At the start, Karen designed all the Sunflower Glass pieces and Geoff fabricated them. This is still true of their larger projects, although Karen now constructs the smaller ones herself.

"We’ve depended on our business to support us 100 percent for the past 27 years," says Karen. "With the downturn of the economy lately, it’s amazing that any of us still can make a living working with our hands. But we find that people are still seeking a personal connection with objects for their homes."

The Caldwells maintain a positive cash flow by marketing their skills in three different ways: custom commissions, a wholesale line and retailing from their studio.

The most lucrative part of their business, in contrast to the modern-looking skyscrapers, consists of producing more traditional, custom, stained glass and hand-beveled windows. Geoff executes these projects for residences, churches and commercial clients."Our work is not the traditional church art seen in most places, but designs taken from nature," says Karen. " It’s nice to be able to blend our own personal beliefs with those of a congregation in order to achieve a spiritual place for all to enjoy.

"She adds that the custom work goes a long way toward keeping the business financially healthy, since it provides a "big job" every six months or so.

Second, the Caldwells produce a wholesale line that emphasizes beveled-glass objects and encompasses more than 200 different designs. Besides the lighthouses and other scaled-down dwellings - some of which function as miniatures greenhouses - they create boxes, picture frames, decorative hangings, candleholders, vases and bedroom and bath accessories.

"We just do the Buyers Market of American Crafts shows twice a year to book our production," says Karen.

Their third marketing venue is selling directly from their studio, a 3,500-square-foot, one-story structure adjacent to their 1872 stone farmhouse in pictureesque Delaware Valley. It includes several small showrooms that display their production line for clients and visitors. "Our line runs the gamut of pricing from $20 to $3,000," says Karen. "We respect our galleries, and mark up accordingly in our studio. We also have in-studio work that’s priced differently, since the labor might be a bit more time-consuming.

The Caldwells are fortunate to live in the touristy New Hope-Lambertville region of New Jersey, surrounded by 32 bed-and-breakfasts within a 20-minute-drive radius of their studio.

They distribute their brochures to all of these establishments and participate in an annual tour of area studios.

"As founding members of the Covered Bridge Artisans, we’ve mapped out a driving tour of six studios and a stone church," says Karen. "We’ve invited guests to tour during the Thanksgiving weekend for the past eleven years. This cooperative effort has grown from a small idea to a spectacular event for the public. We divide the work of publicity and mailing among the group members, and as a group we can get better publicity for the event than as a solo exhibitor."

The Caldwells also plan to start teaching in their studio, holding glass workshops for students twice a year.

The couple developed all of this business savvy gradually over the years. They started out in the mid-70s, when crafts experienced a vigorous revival in America. Both graduated from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. Afterward, Geoff started a leather shop making handbags and Frye boots, while Karen, who had studied art and photography, went to work in a glass factory. Once she began freelancing in glass, Geoff joined her in that business.

They discovered a shared fascination with the prismatic effects of glass and the designs of the Arts & Crafts movement. They married in 1980, the same year they bought their first beveling machine. "We had counseling from local business advisors, and purchasing the machine allowed us to develop our ‘signature’ in the glass world," says Karen.

Coordinating their work and personal lives rarely posed a problem, even after their three children came along, because the Caldwells always have lived next door to their studio. "Working back and forth between the two aspects just goes with the ebb and flow of life," says Karen. "I have always felt I could pick up the work at any time. Even spending an hour early in the morning before the morning chores are done can help make the workday go smoother.

Professionally, Karen and Geoff complement each other well. While she provides the artistic vision, he contributes the mechanical and engineering savvy necessary to construct a large window or a complex skyscraper.

"Just soldering one of the skyscrapers is a challenge," says Geoff. "They’re made in three or four sections, then assembled, because you need to solder them level."

"In 3D, you run into a strength problem. You can’t rely on just solder and foil, or the structure will fall apart. A three-foot piece needs interior girders, bracing and supports."

Geoff inserts steel bars up to a half-inch wide at each level, sometimes also adding miniature copper I-beams, and tacks them to the soldered seams at each end. He also figured out how to light a skyscraper realistically from within, using a "light rail" of the type seen in casinos, with many small bulbs along its length.

Karen notes that in 2004 they sold a record number of skyscrapers, and have greatly expanded their line. "[They represent] a quarter to a third of my production. I’m still the only person doing anything like them." For a long while after 9/11, she avoided creating any image resembling the World Trade Center, but recently she accepted a commission to replicate the Twin Towers for a woman who lost her husband in the tragedy.

So far, Karen’s sculptures have been fictionalized composites of existing buildings, but now she plans to try copying real structures such as the Chrysler Building and the Sears Tower. Although these days she constructs the skyscrapers herself, so that Geoff can concentrate on his custom work, Karen knows she can turn to him whenever she ‘gets stuck’ with a mechanical problem.

"I still call on his engineering brain," she says. "It’s great that we can always bounce ideas off each other."

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Eileen Watkins is a free-lance writer based in New Jersey who specializes in art, fine crafts, architecture and interior design.
 She covered these subjects for more than 25 years for The Star Ledger, New Jersey’s largest daily newspaper.

 

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