If Richard was a stick of rock the words through his middle would probably say Glassmaker. He has been involved with glass now for over 30 years since he set up Okra Glass in 1979 with Nicola Osborne and opened his first studio at Lightwater Valley in North Yorkshire.
Okra is fairly unique in the Studio Glass world. It remained financially successful through two recessions, rising fuel prices, an influx of imported glass, the demise of most of the country’s major glass industry and changing tastes amongst collectors. This was probably down to Richard`s unique mixture of skills - engineering, glass design, technology and science along with his passion for great design and an interest in making people happy.
Richard was born in Kenya in the mid 1950s and spent his childhood moving between countries as his father was a consultant mechanical engineer often used as a troubleshooter by multinationals all around the world. Alongside his professional life Richard`s father made furniture as a hobby and set a very early example of how it is possible to make anything you want from very limited materials, under changing circumstances if you persevere and just believe you can do it.
Richard`s mother collected bits of glass. They were magical. He can remember as a child wondering how one product could be so versatile. Glass surrounds us in a practical and artistic way and we just take it for granted.
Richard`s frequent travels made him a survivor. He quickly learnt how to get to know new people, how to adapt to different places and systems and how useful it is to have practical skills that meant you could solve problems.
He was probably an “interesting child”. Very practical. Very independent. Determined not to be beaten by things not working out first time round. Wanting to paint and capture beauty as well as make practical things. Wanting to help others. Probably a bit worrying to his parents who dreamed that their son’s ability in science would lead to a doctor in the family.
At eighteen Richard “ran away” and joined the navy. The alternative was “A” levels and a career as a doctor, or so his parents thought. He decided he wanted to learn a trade or craft and find his independence. Looking back, he had no idea at the time exactly how useful this would be. Richard trained as an engineer and then specialized in electronic engineering in the Royal Navy but soon realised that life at sea wasn’t for him.So, armed with a real understanding of electronic engineering and lots of practical skills Richard left the navy in 1977 and tried to find his vocation as an engineer, initially in Brazil then back in the UK.It was hard for him to find his way as he knew, deep down, that he didn’t want to work for anyone else. Richard was a strange mixture. Artistic, practical, independent and needing a purpose in life that mixed these characteristics.Somehow or other he wandered onto a TOPS glassmaking course. Richard has his my brother in law to thank for this. Bill challenged Richard one night, over a pint, saying “you can do anything you want - just find it and do it!” Possibly inspired by the empty beer glasses in front of them he said “you could even be a glassmaker.” Little did he know what he was setting in train.
Once Richard knew what he wanted he set about making it happen. Fortunately, he discovered the International Glass College in Brierley Hill in the West Midlands. The college had just started running a course for people who wanted to set up as glassmakers and Richard secured the final place on the 1978 course.
At that time the course was run by Fred Bridges, Colin Gill and John Davies. Fred Bridges taught the technology, Colin Gill glassmaking and John Davies the cold finishing and cutting. This gave students a real insight into the three main elements of successful glassmaking, a thing many courses now miss out on with their emphasis limited to art, design and glassmaking. This early introduction to the technology of glass, along with Richard`s existing electronics and practical skills equipped him well to succeed as a studio glass artist.
Once Richard had got his head around the basic principles of glass making he decided that he had to set up his own business and in 1979 opened his first studio at the Lightwater Valley Park in Yorkshire and Okra Glass was born.
Lightwater Valley 1979 - 1981
After finishing a year long course at the Glass Centre in Brierly Hill, Richard and Nicola Osborne set up Okra at the Lightwater Valley Amusement Park just outside Harrogate, North Yorkshire in 1979.
At Lightwater, Richard designed and built one furnace to melt clear glass, a gloryhole, a marver, a lehr and two chairs. In those days Richard used bought in cold colour that was heated into the clear glass for each piece.
Everything was sold straight to the public visiting Lightwater Valley. The range was made up of pocket money items - birds, swans and mushrooms. For those of you who have managed to hunt one of these early pieces down you will appreciate the difference to Richard`s work today. We only have one piece from the Lightwater days, this special copper ruby bowl on the left. Thanks to Ann and Bill, Richard`s sister and brother in law for the pictures we can share with you here.
Richard and Nicola could make enough stock for the week in a couple of days so had plenty of time to play and experiment. This is what Richard has lost over the years but he intends to make up for this at the Station.
This playtime has served us well. Richard started testing out a range of techniques and styles. He quickly decided that the quality and consistency of bought in coloured glass was not good enough so he started cooking up glass recipes. We still have the notebooks with Richard`s recipes from 30 years of glassmaking. One day we will write a "cookbook" mixing glass and Richard`s favourite food recipes along with some of the stories that have made Richard so special.
Within 6 months of setting up Lightwater Valley Richard built his first colour furnace and experimented until he got the colours, quality and consistency of glass he wanted. This was just the start. He is still experimenting now.
It was at Lightwater that Richard started using iridising on his work. He was inspired by the glass of Tiffany and Carder and determined to develop this technique as a hallmark of his own work. When we look at his recent work we can see exactly how far he has taken it- so far! The Station will give him time to play with techniques even more.
Broadfield House Glass Museum 1981-1986
In 1981 Okra moved to Kingswinford in the West Midlands when Richard became the first Resident Glassmaker at Broadfield House Glass Museum.
Richard was close friends with Charles Hajdamach, curator of Broadfield, who wanted to establish an artsist residency at the museum. As Richard and Nicola were ready to move from the theme park it all worked out. At Broadfield House Richard had space to expand his studio and start supplying the retail trade.
Richard has plenty of stories about his years at Broadfield. One that particularly jumps out was the day that he wanted to do a pale green melt. As he didn`t have any pottasium dichromate he decided to use green cider bottles. The problem was that Richard and Nicola drank the cider- 4 litres- in order to get empty bottles. The resulting glass was too runny to work so it all began again the next day - without the excess drinking.
Richard continued his experiments with different techniques and glass recipes and started building up a following of glass collectors. Broadfield eventually became too restrictive for Okra, so Richard upped sticks again and moved to an industrial unit in Kinver, a beautiful village not too far from his home in Wall Heath.
Richard was at Kinver for about 2 years. Sales built up sales so that eventually Okra had to employ 5 glassmakers to keep up with demand.This brought rewards, challenges, a lot of laughter and some interesting glass
Richard first started experimenting with lighting whilst at Kinver. The lamp on the left was one of his early designs. He made it for his sister Ann who, very kindly, gave it back to Richard and Sandra a while back along with a decanter from his student years. Both have brought back memories and have pride of place at home.The Kinver glasshouse has now reverted to a garage but there is still a sign of the Okra era - the space on the wall where a pipe went through to pass spare heat to the neighbours.
Richard was happy at Kinver but the challenges of managing a workforce, keeping on top of the ever increasing orders and a being there for his very young family made him think about what he really wanted. To make great glass that he was proud of, have time for himself and his family and to keep pushing back the boundaries in furnace design. Time to move again?
Queen Street One 1988-1994
Just before the recession bit in 1988 Richard moved Okra into a "shed" at the bottom of the garden at his home, 12 Queen Street, Wordsley. Richard saw the possibilities and transformed the shed into Okra`s 4th home.
His children were very young at the time so it was a perfect way to keep the business going and spend a lot of time with Sam and Sophie whilst they were growing up.
Without the burden of massive overheads or large trade orders Richard started experimenting again. Business was good and interest in Okra high. Then, at the NEC Spring Fair in 1994 Richard met Peter Hughes and invited him to become a business partner in Okra. Time to move studio again!
The Enterprise Estate 1994-1997Richard and Peter became business partners and moved Okra to a much larger industrial unit near the Merry Hill shopping centre. It was soon equipped with purpose built lehrs, gloryholes and furnaces which were designed and built to Richard`s specification. All very expensive but the orders kept coming in. Not always enough folk with the right skills to complete the orders, but!
One afternoon Richard met Hugh Edwards from Moorcroft at an event at Edgbaston Cricket ground. Hugh was fascinated by glass and saw the business sense of amalgamating one of one of the country`s best studio glass businesses with Moorcroft. A lot of wonderful glass came out of this studio and many people discovered the beauty of glass for the first time when they became Collectors of Okra.
After much soul searching Richard agreed to sell Okra to the Moorcroft group and take on the role of Design Director. This brought in a much needed injection of cash to expand the business and allow, as he thought at the time, Richard time to train other glassmakers to do production work giving Richard the time and space to push back the boundaries of his design. Things didn`t work out exactly to plan but the "Moorcroft years" brought Okra to the fore in terms of marketing to collectors. Many lifelong friends were made during these years.
It was at the Enterprise estate that the first real cameo work started emerging. When we look at how far Richard has taken cameo, cutting and fire polishing today we can see exactly what he has achieved over the past few years.
Despite Richard`s dreams and hard work for Okra as part of the Moorcroft Group things didn`t work out. The Ruskin Educational Centre was being set up and appealed to Richard`s principles in life. So, with a lot of learning and a bit of regret Richard "bought" Okra back from Moorcroft and got the forklift trucks in to move the furnaces and set up his next glasshouse. Okra was back in Richard`s hands and it was up to him to make it work.
Ruskin Mill is special.