Andi Kovel is not a competitive person, she explains. But when she saw that there was a glassblowing competition on Netflix, she knew she had to be part of it.
“I saw glass having this moment and excitement and attention; I couldn’t bear to not be a part of it,” Kovel tells me. “In my career, I ask for what I want and I’m very interested in pursuing my dreams. I did not like the idea of the glass world moving forward without me.”
Kovel has been a key figure in the glass world. She and her partner Justin Parker, of Esque Studio, were named part of Time Magazine’s “Design 100” in 2007. They have designed for companies including Ralph Lauren, The W Hotel, Nike, Anthropologie and more, and Kovel’s personal clients include Lenny Kravitz, Cindy Crawford, Kelly Wearstler, Maya Lin and Michael Jordan. No big deal.
Kovel was a contestant on the second season of Netflix’s competition show “Blown Away,” where she made it to the seventh episode. And now, the Jewish artist will be returning to the world of “Blown Away,” this time in the upcoming special Christmas season that premieres Friday, November 19.
Ahead of the premiere of “Blown Away: Christmas,” we chatted over Zoom about what it’s like to be a Jewish contestant on a Christmas show, her Hanukkah and Christmas traditions, and her design aesthetic.
This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
What was it like to return to “Blown Away” for this holiday special?
It was really exciting and fun. And it was nice, because I already knew how to do it, so a lot of the nervousness or unsureness [disappeared].
I went in feeling more confident and sure of myself. And it felt more fun and playful this time. It was kind of an all-star five people from two seasons, so to be chosen to be on it — whatever place everyone comes in felt less important this time around.
Did you ever think you would be on a reality TV show about glassblowing?
When I was asked to apply to be on the show, I was like, if I say no, I’m gonna think the whole rest of my life what would have happened? So I felt like there really wasn’t an option [to say no]. I wanted my business partner to go, but he prefers me to do interviews. I thought he would have been great, but he doesn’t like to talk as much.
It was actually really good for me, too, because we’ve worked together for 20-plus years, and we don’t usually work with other artists. To be thrown out of my comfort zone, and then to have to stand up and do the work without him and his support, was really a challenge and gave me a lot of strength in like, oh, OK, I actually do know what I’m doing.
What was it like as a Jewish person on a Christmas show?
They were putting out promos [calling it] “the Christmas special,” and I was like, you guys should really call it a holidays special! [Fellow contestant] Alexander Rosenberg’s Jewish too.
I didn’t want to make a big thing of it, but I was like, hey, just a suggestion for a rebrand. And I think that you will see people commenting. I get it that [Christmas] is a category, but I think that it seems less inclusive than it could be. I feel like the challenges were not specifically Christmas, they’re definitely open to interpretation of holiday experiences. But some of them were specifically Christmas. The set was totally all Christmas.
Being Jewish, I can’t say that I love Christmas. It’s busy and crowded and on Christmas, everyone’s with their families and I have no one to hang out with [laughs]. And I think the colors are horrible — the red and green, I really wanted to have a chance to reinvent [Christmas] and pick some different shades of red and green. I was like, I’m gonna update Christmas.
Nobody ever says “happy Hanukkah” to me! But on Christmas, everybody says “merry Christmas” to me. I’m not going to walk around saying that to people, because no one says “happy Hanukkah” to me. Why am I so grumpy about that? [Laughs.]
No, it is totally fair to be grumpy about that. Do you have favorite parts of Hanukkah, or traditions you love?
We used to always get together at my grandparents’ house. They were German Jewish Holocaust survivors and very traditional. We’d have the the whole appetizing plate, with lots of pickled weird fish things and meat pastes, liver paste and latkes.
And then we would just sit around and talk and have cocktails and open gifts. It was really just more of being present [together]. I really miss getting to celebrate the holidays. My parents are in Florida and my brother and sister are here, so we do Hanukkah, but not necessarily on Hanukkah. Just whenever we’re together. So we’ll do it over Thanksgiving.
Absolutely, my family too! It’s like, oh, we’re all gonna be here on Thanksgiving? Time to do Hanukkah.
Where are you from?
[Quick Jewish geography interlude where Andi and I realized we were both from Westchester, New York, and tried to figure out if our families knew each other.]
Were you one of the only Jewish families growing up in Rye?
There were not a lot of Jews in Rye. My best friend growing up and my brother’s best friend growing up were brother and sister, and they were Jews from Rye. And then there was one other family, maybe two? Maybe four Jewish families?
How did you get into glassblowing?
It was completely by accident. I learned when I was about 28. I went to school in Colorado, and I stayed there for a while, and then I came back to New York to study museum education. I wanted to teach art at the Museum of Modern Art. I was working there while I was getting my degree, and I saw a class in glassblowing by Thor Bueno. I was doing sculpture as an installation artist; I thought it would be cool to add another material to my toolbox. So I took his class, and I became really good friends with him and all of the best glassblowers in New York, and within six months, I was making work for Robert Rauschenberg and Kiki Smith… It was crazy! And that’s where I met my business partner, Justin.
What are your favorite types of glass items to make?
I love pure design. I like making functional objects. My design manifesto is: I want to make things that I would put in my own house. I’m into minimalism.
I also love just working with the inherent aspects of the material; how the glass holds light, or how it’s drippy, or how it’s thick. I like to stop traditional techniques mid-process, which you would never do — everyone’s like, you can’t do that! And I’m like, wait, it’s so cool.
Because I learned later in my life, and I’m left-handed, a small woman, and I was almost 30, I never aspired to be the best goblet maker. There’s a million people that are amazing at that. I want to be able to use the material and explore some new fresh aspects, and present glass in a way that you haven’t seen it before.
My aspiration is to advance the field of glass and design. A lot of people get really caught up in the right way to do things, and there’s certain techniques and it’s very rigid. There’s a large history attached to it, which I’ve learned, and I appreciate and I understand, but I think you’re making craft if you’re just replicating forms that have already been made.
What do you think the general public should know about glassblowing?
What people don’t understand is that it is technical to do something really minimal and clean and organic and simple, because everything has to be perfect. And that can be just as detailed as making something really extravagant and decorative.
Do you feel like you brought a Jewish sensibility or aesthetic to “Blown Away: Christmas”?
Well, I did say “happy Hanukkah” at some point! I was telling stories about my experiences with Christmas — going to my best friend’s house, they would invite me every year. It was really nice to be included, but it was still this outsider experience for me. But my family also had stockings every year. Did yours?
Your family had stockings? Like, Hanukkah stockings? Oh no, we did not.
We had a ski cabin, and we had stockings and they were shaped like ski boots. My parents put them up on the mantel. There was always a tangerine and a chapstick. I think it was their way of having us experience that. We’d wake up and be like, oh, a tangerine!
As a Jew on Christmas what do you do these days?
I usually go skiing! Christmas still makes me feel like a misfit. But my sister-in-law celebrates Christmas, so my nieces do, so they invite me over.
My family’s a big skiing family, too — Christmas is the best day to ski because no one is on the slopes.
Christmas and the Super Bowl! So I’ll be skiing on Christmas. And yeah, I love that Hanukkah is getting more attention. I’m seeing a lot of people designing items for Hanukkah that are really fresh and inspired.
I actually had a menorah design I was hoping I was going to incorporate into the show, but it didn’t happen that way. I was like, I can make the best menorah ever.