“When I paint, I’m in a happy place,” says Monique Low from Toasted Glass. Her tiny glass-painting empire is run from her home in Chelmsford which is crammed full of glass, boxes, bubble wrap, photography lights and “a million and one other things”, and runs to the soundtrack of Radio 4. We talked to Monique to discover more about her work and inspiration…
Can you introduce yourself?
Hello! I’m Monique and I am the Big Boss of Everything at Toasted Glass, where I sell my hand-painted glass and chinaware. This makes me very happy as I am generally, the Big Boss of Nothing at home where my two young boys run rings round me…
Can you tell us more about your background?
I’m from Glasgow originally and I eschewed art school in favour of university which I still regret. I did study history of art though and that has probably helped influence me over the years. I came to London in the nineties and helped to run a shop in Fulham selling other artists’ and craftspeople’s work as well as our own hand-painted glass. We had big ideas and zero business sense, so ultimately we were doomed to failure, but we had a lot of fun getting there. I then attempted to get a ‘real’ job and worked for years at an advertising agency in London’s West End until I became a mummy.
Have you always been creative?
Yes, I think I have – when I was about four years old, I announced to my parents that I was going to make my living making lavender bags and charcoal sticks (I still might). My parents and I were on a cycling holiday and we were camping in a field full of lavender and burning twigs on the campfire and I loved the idea that you could make things and sell them to people. I always loved to draw, especially flowers, and I could sit for hours making detailed line drawings of foxgloves and bluebells that grew around our house. Art classes at school never felt like a real lesson as it was an hour or two away from study, just drawing or painting.
How did Toasted Glass begin?
After I left work, I found that looking after my boys was all consuming and have nothing but respect for parents who manage to juggle work and young children – I couldn’t even conceive of doing anything else until they were both at school. When I finally had space to think about what I wanted to do, the one thing that stood out to me was glass painting – when I paint, I’m in a happy place – but experience had made me very wary of going into business again. However, a lot had happened since the nineties, in particular the internet, which meant that there was a huge resource of information to help me get started. I discovered that I didn’t have to open a shop or stand in a draughty hall at a craft fair or even set up my own website as there were online selling platforms where you could open your own little shop with minimal overheads. Thus, I discovered Folksy and so began Toasted Glass.
Who or what inspires you?
Gosh, the list is endless and constantly changing – I’m a bit of a flibbertigibbet really. Growing up in Glasgow meant that Charles Rennie Mackintosh was a huge influence and I think that still comes across in some things, especially the way I write my labels on the packaging. I love that elongated style and stylised use of nature. I guess my style is definitely more retrospective than modern, covering everything from Art Deco to 1940s pin-ups. I spent several years of my childhood living with my Great Aunt in a really old house, packed full of incredible things. Her father had been a doctor in Africa and there was an old trunk full of little apothecary bottles with ornate labels that totally fascinated me. Those were definitely on my mind when I started painting label-style designs on drinking jars and bottles. In the back of my mind, when I look at anything, I’m thinking: ‘Could that work on glass or china?’ I listen to Radio 4 all day and sometimes I’ll just hear something and that will set me off – the other day, there was a piece about Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland and I was off again…
So if you could live in a different era, when would you choose and why?
I think it would have to be the latter half of the 19th Century, growing up with the Pre-Raphaelites and then spending my more mature years embroiled in the Art Nouveau Movement, possibly popping over to Austria by steam ship, to hang out with Gustav Klimt. To me, that period was when art was at its most beautiful; unashamedly embellished and fairytale fantastical. It’s also the time when the Arts and Crafts Movement was at its height so I think I would been right at home. Not sure how I’d cope without a decent wifi connection though…
Where do your ideas come from?
I honestly don’t know! Things just pop into my head while I’m painting away, listening to the radio, and I mentally file them, to try out when I next get a spare minute. In the summer I like to spend a little time in the garden, painting – it’s quite small but it’s jammed full of trees, shrubs and flowers and it’s a haven for butterflies, bugs and birds (no peacocks or flamingos though!).
I find that one idea tends to beget another 20. If you paint something and people like it, you’re encouraged to try something different, but in the same vein. Other people influence me too; those around me and the ones I love. Sometimes they will suggest things and sometimes I want to paint things that I think my loved ones will like. My customers are great too – they will often commission me to do things that I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of doing and then I put my own spin on it.
Can you talk us through your creative process?
Before I start any new design, I have to think about what it is going to be painted on to as the shape of the glass or china will often dictate how the design evolves. Some designs, I just start painting straight off, but often I draw it out, first in pencil and then clean it up by going over it in fine liner pen. Everything I do has to be broken down into a simple line drawing that can be filled in with colour. I do try to keep a sketch book so I have an original to refer to, but more often than not it’s on a scrap of paper which I keep in the most chaotic filing system, vaguely organised by type and stuffed into envelopes in an old filing drawer. I keep promising myself I’ll organise it better, but never seem to get the chance…
What’s your most popular design or range?
The most popular design overall has to be the ‘There may be gin in here’ range, which began as a little joke. I had joined a group of tea-loving ladies called The Secret Tea Society and we would meet up to take tea in lovely places in and around London. As I also enjoy making cocktails, I created one for the society and we joked that it should be served in our fine china to avoid detection, Prohibition-style. From there, I took the notion to paint a bone china teacup in a vintage style with little roses. After that, I started painting teapots and then I discovered the drinking jars and painted a version on those too. I was surprised and delighted to find that lots of other people seemed to find it amusing too.
Which has been your most fun product to design?
The Flamingo Champagne Flutes were definitely one of my favourites. I took one look at the shape of the glass with its extra long stem and just knew it would be perfect for the flamingo’s long legs. I love them – they’re kind of elegant and incredibly silly at the same time.
Can you describe your workspace?
The Toasted Glass studio occupies what was once our front room as it’s the biggest room in the house. I have a big wooden table to paint at, which faces out on to the street but I’m slightly obscured by shrubbery. I have a packing area and a photography area with a little white tent to take my product shots in. Either side of the fireplace are alcoves with floor-to-ceiling shelves that are groaning with glass and china, ready for painting. I try to keep them screened off as I find it all a little chaotic, but I have so much packaging that I’m fighting a losing battle…
What are the best and worst things about being a designer/maker?
I genuinely feel fulfilled doing this, in a way that I never did when I worked for someone else. I get such joy from creating things that people seem to like and from a purely selfish point of view, I just love painting. I feel very calm and focused when I’m painting and then there’s the satisfaction of having a finished product in your hand at the end of it. The downside, I suppose, is that it all relies on me and the busier I get, the harder it is to juggle family life and my business. Also, I used to go to the gym all the time and have other interests, but now there really isn’t time.
What’s your proudest achievement so far?
My children, of course. (They made me say that – I told you I was browbeaten at home.)
You have a blog dedicated to mixology. What’s your cocktail of choice?
Well, with pretty much a fully stocked cocktail bar at my disposal, it’s hard to choose. If I’m out, I often go for a Negroni as it’s hard to mess up. It’s just gin, red vermouth and Campari in equal measure, over ice and given a bit of a stir.
What would be the perfect cocktail for a cold February evening and how should it be served?
The New York Sour is an unusual take on a traditional Whiskey Sour that has the addition of red wine. It sounds terrible, but it’s actually rather wonderful, even if you wouldn’t normally go near a bottle of bourbon. Even though it’s served over ice, it feels like a winter drink and it will certainly bring a flush to your cheeks! Here’s the recipe…
New York Sour
1oz freshly sqeezed lemon juice
1oz simple syrup (1 part sugar, 1 part water)
1/2oz Shiraz or Malbec
Shake the bourbon, lemon and syrup over ice for about 20 secs and strain into an ice filled rocks glass or small tumbler.
Float the wine on the top by pouring it in gently over the back of a spoon and serve.
When drinking, stir to mix first.
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