A First glass honour

November 29, 1996

Sunderland and Dan Klein share a passion for glass. And, as one of the first professors in the subject, he tells Harriet Swain about his love of collecting and the new National Glass Centre being built in the city.

It is a sunny day in Sunderland but the wind blowing from the mouth of the River Wear and across the earth mound marking the city's new National Glass Centre is sharp. Dan Klein, recently appointed professor of glass at Sunderland University, draws his pink cardigan closer.

Klein, a former opera singer and Christie's director, has come to Sunderland from Venice, where he was launching the first glass biennale this century and helping to fill St Mark's Square with some of the seriously rich. His new job, teaching students in an area extricating itself from past economic blows, will be a little different. "I like glamour," he admits. "But I don't feel that coming up here will diminish that."

But if Klein likes glamour, he loves glass. And Sunderland has shared his passion for the last 1,300 years. In the seventh century, specialists were brought to the city from France to manufacture glass for the new monastery at St Peter's. They produced the first stained glass ever seen in England and the tradition of innovative glass production has continued ever since - from medieval stained-glass windows, to engraved glass in the 18th century, pressed and bottle glass in the 19th century and souvenir glass and Pyrex in the 20th century.

The aim of the Pounds 16 million National Glass Centre, being built close to the old monastery, is to crystallise this tradition and draw on the fact that, according to Klein, "glass is now a hot subject", attracting increasing attention from collectors, with British artists at the forefront of the new talent.

Glass-lovers include the American President Bill Clinton and rock stars Madonna, Elton John and the late Freddie Mercury.

"There is a great deal of excitement about glass and it is high time there was a central outlet for it," says Klein. "The feeling now is that it isn't ridiculous to spend Pounds 1,000 on a piece of glass whereas when I first looked at collecting 25 years ago I wondered who would pay Pounds 200. Glass has its own magnetism. People don't collect oil paint but they collect glass for its own sake."

English art is admired as having a "strong, clear voice - very English, beautiful and lyrical", but glass work in this country is also making breakthroughs into industry with artistic experimentation in colleges increasingly being incorporated into practical uses. "We are not just looking at pretty little objects but at something which impacts on people's lives," he says. "I believe very firmly there is now a new industry in glass about to be born because of the extent of its use in many of the new decorative and structural areas. It would be wonderful if the glass centre could be in some way at the forefront of that. It will attract people from all over the country - perhaps all over the world."

A joint Pounds 16 million project between the Tyne and Wear Development Corporation, the University of Sunderland, Sunderland City Council and public and private sector partners, the centre will open in 1988, helped by Pounds 7 million of National Lottery funding. It will provide exhibition galleries, commercial factory space, studio workshops and specialist equipment needed for high-quality glass production. It also aims to provide a meeting place for glass experts and a permanent visitor attraction telling the story of "The Wonder of Glass" - all under a huge glass dome.

"It isn't going to be a kindergarten for glass artists," says Klein. "The university is the landlord of the site and the new school of art, design and communication will be adjacent but I doubt there will be room for undergraduates. It is for established glass experts."

But the centre is not intended simply as a glass museum. Students will still benefit from witnessing the work of top artists at first hand or from hearing them lecture.

Klein has been collecting glass for the past 25 years. After leaving Oxford University in 1961 with a BA in greats, he became an opera singer, performing as a soloist for Sadlers Wells and later as a member of Benjamin Britten's English Opera Group.

"You cannot sing all day so I had to find something else to do," he says "In those days there were junk shops all over the place. I used to rescue these bits of junk and take them home." Soon he had such a large collection that he began to sell it from stalls in London's Camden Passage and Bermondsey market, proving so successful that he later opened a gallery specialising in 20th-century decorative arts. His interest turned into a book after he bumped into an old girlfriend from his Oxford days who needed someone to write about art deco. "I started writing and found myself writing about glass," he says. He has since written numerous articles and books including the All Colour Book of Art Deco and The History of Glass.

"The girl who asked me to write a book then married the director of Christie's," says Klein. "He came into the shop one day to buy a present for his wife and as he was leaving asked whether I would like to work for Christie's." He worked there for ten years as director in charge of 20th-century decorative arts, becoming a highly respected expert in the subject, and for five years was also vice-president of Christie's, Switzerland. But he left the company last year because he felt he was becoming too detached from his subject. "I had to give up my passion, which is the art of glass, and I wanted to return to it," he said.

The perfect outlet emerged with the chance to organise the Venice Biennale, earlier this year with more than 400 pieces of contemporary glass, crafted by more than 80 artists from all over the world. While Klein says the Venetian public was somewhat shocked by the modernity of the glass pieces on display in their city - which prides itself on its glass pedigree - the tourist industry was thrilled.

"They were delighted to have their best hotels filled with people attending the exhibition. It augurs well for mounting a major glass centre in Britain."

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