Kelly blown away by Corning Museum of Glass experience

Jul 17, 2017

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By Aaron Garland

All photos by Amanda Sterling of the Corning Museum of Glass. 

When Michael Kelly initially locked his eyes on a piece by Lino Tagliapietra in the Corning Museum of Glass, it was love at first sight. The large sculpture, Kelly said, is comprised of 20-30 pieces of glass, with each being a masterpiece in their own right. Together, they form a breathtaking design that can’t escape Kelly’s memory.

As an undergraduate student at Cornell University, it wasn’t uncommon for Kelly to visit the nearby museum or take a class there. He’s always been charmed by the awe-inspiring work in the space.

So you can imagine how he felt when he stepped into the museum last week and made glass products alongside a pair of talented CMoG artists.

Right: A product that came out of Michael Kelly’s recent visit to CMoG.

Kelly, who graduated from RIT’s MFA industrial design program in May, completed a two-day session experimenting with glass-blown furniture under the guidance of hot glass professionals from June 20-21 at the revered institution. As the 2017 CMoG GlassLab Design Fellowship winner, Kelly worked with gaffers George Kennard and Dane Jack. For the last five years, RIT’s industrial design department and CMoG have teamed up to deliver a graduating senior — either BFA or MFA — the opportunity to “explore glass as a medium for rapid prototyping of ideas” at the museum that sits about 100 miles outside Rochester.

“I’ve been going to Corning for a long time,” said Kelly, from Morristown, N.J. “It’s a place that I love, so to get the opportunity to make work there was an honor. And then to be able to draw on the expertise of these craftsmen and artists was incomparable.”

Above: Recent RIT graduate Michael Kelly, left, works with CMoG gaffer/narrator George Kennard in June. Kelly explored glass as a design material at the museum as this year's GlassLab Design Fellowship recipient.

Kelly said the trio made nine furniture pieces (seven tables, two pitchers). It enabled him to apply his woodworking background, which includes a four-month stint working in the Scottsville studio of RIT artist-in-residence and art furniture icon Wendell Castle. Kelly also incorporated “pretty novel uses of copper” into the works.

“I was able to explore, to play,” Kelly said. “It was just great, from the standpoint of trying to execute the things that I understand and their ability to help me edit and refine my designs.”

“During his two years with the MFA program, Mike showed a great desire to deliver impactful solutions to the problems he was faced with,” said Josh Owen, the RIT industrial design program chair. “He was an excellent choice for the CMoG GlassLab Design Fellowship because of his intellect, commitment to our community and demonstrated application of his talents.”    

Kelly has studied design from myriad angles, and worked with many materials.

Left: Michael Kelly, left, with CMoG hot glass artists Dane Jack, center, and George Kennard.

He graduated with a BS in human factors and ergonomics from Cornell (2013) and was a research fellow at furniture manufacturer Herman Miller before enrolling in RIT’s graduate ID program. His thesis at RIT was creating Welcome Home Rochester, an organization that pairs refugees entering Rochester with trained mentors and guides. Kelly is now designing apps and UI/UX branding in the University of Rochester Medical Center Obstetrics and Gynecology’s research lab.

“In terms of the broader context, in my career, it’s just such a fantastic opportunity,” Kelly said of how his learnings at Corning might help him professionally. “It just opens me up more to the possibilities of this material and allows me to develop something I wouldn’t normally think of or wouldn’t normally do. It definitely gives me a little bit of legitimacy when it comes to putting this body of work out there.”

Above: Michael Kelly designed nine pieces of glass furniture over two days in Corning.

Kelly’s embrace of the flexibility his degrees offer comes from identifying with the “design is one” idea famous Italian designers Massimo and Lella Vignelli supported. It’s a limitless field, and he’s made a conscious effort to survey as much of it as he can.

“I think the pursuit of a career in design is, maybe not a meandering path, but there are a lot of opportunities and a lot of things I want to chase down,” said Kelly, who also does sculpture work. “There is no reason to be hemmed in by one idea or by one material.

“I’m still in a place where I’m exploring, and glad to be, geographically, in a place (Rochester) where that’s very possible, and in fact encouraged. … The sheer number of artists, sculptors, craftsmen we have in this area — some of the best in the world.”

Kelly sees glass as a great metaphor for what design, as a whole, is.

Design, Kelly said, is a creative inquiry process that is fundamentally the same in just about anything that is made. The path to finished products and services regularly involves learning, prototyping, testing and rolling out.

And how might that connect with glass?

“Glass is so fragile,” Kelly said. “It requires such specific handling and care. In order to take its shape, it just requires so much knowledge and work.”

Kelly gained some of his design knowledge at RIT, where he said “felt like the right fit for me from the beginning.”

Kelly first got connected with RIT industrial design through Dan Rucker.

The two worked together at Holland, Mich.-based Herman Miller, which partnered with RIT’s ID program for the 2013-14 iteration of Metaproject, an annual product design course that pairs students with an industry professional. When students and Owen, Metaproject's leader, displayed the projects at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York City, Rucker, an RIT ID graduate program alumnus, introduced Kelly to Owen.

“I was just incredibly impressed by the quality of the work of the students and my conversations with Josh,” Kelly said.

Before long, Kelly was excelling in the program. His focus will soon be to help others do the same. In the fall, Kelly is slated to teach two RIT ID courses at — one undergrad and one at the MFA level.

“RIT is a really special and supportive community, the likes of which I really haven’t seen before,” Kelly said. “I’m really excited to be part of it again.”