Once upon a time, milk was delivered in glass bottles, peanut butter came in glass jars and beverages were served in clear drinking glasses instead of foggy plastic tumblers. Today, glassware feels like a luxury, and handcrafted pieces seem extravagant. But James McLeod aims to make handblown glasswork both affordable and accessible for anyone with an eye for style.
“I think that the object you use multiple times a day, like a glass, should be something you care about and think about,” says McLeod, owner of CLEOD Glassworks, located at 3 Broad St. on the southern tip of Charleston. To this end, the modern-day artisan has created a series of original drinkware designs, ranging from playful to elegant, as well as a line of handblown barware, vases, sconces and pendant lights, all available in the retail shop and online store.
Each item is carefully handcrafted by McLeod and his team at a 6000-square-foot studio in Essex, Massachusetts. “The process we learned is passed down from only a couple generations behind us, using Italian techniques that came to the United States,” says McLeod of the skill and artistry that goes into making every piece.
A Bay Area native, McLeod originally majored in illustration at the California College of the Arts before turning his attention to glassworks. “I took one glassblowing class and thought, ‘This is so much more exciting than sitting at a table by myself drawing,’” he recalls with a laugh. After graduate school, McLeod honed his craft at studios across the country before moving to Boston in 2006 for a tenure-track position at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, where he still teaches.
In 2017, he took the plunge and opened his own glassblowing studio, hiring on several former students. “In the beginning, we had one big wholesale account that carried us, and we taught a lot of classes to keep things moving,” McLeod recalls. He soon conceived his own line of glassware, however, and started selling it out of the showroom. When given the opportunity to open a store in the nearby tourist town of Rockport, McLeod rebranded the business as CLEOD Glassworks and found the ideal niche.
The new brand quickly secured a loyal following with McLeod’s signature glassware, which includes drinking glasses in a half-dozen creative styles. The Classic series features clean lines inspired by mid-century modern Scandinavian design, for example, while the more whimsical Disco series is named for its glittering bubbles encapsulated in translucent crystal. Many of McLeod’s creations incorporate intricate patterns achieved with special tools and metal casts. The Ribbon series, for example, is created by blowing molten glass into a starburst-shaped optic mold before forming it by hand and turning the tumbler to create dynamic swirls.
“I was taking a lot of existing techniques and putting a twist on them, making them consistent and tightening up the dimensions of the pieces,” says McLeod of his design concepts. Many smaller glassblowing studios create a hodgepodge of wares, he notes, but he wanted to design goods that were both practical and attention-grabbing. “Part of this is elevating the objects you have in your home, and part of it is putting a spin on timeless designs,” McLeod says.
With business booming in the Northeast, the master glassblower decided to open a second storefront in the South in order to reach a different demographic. His wife, Elizabeth, had lived in Charleston after college and the couple were married at Middleton Place, so they had a strong connection to the area. The Broad Street location, run by store manager Penn Anderson, opened in May 2021 and soon did steady business, as locals discovered the shop by word of mouth.
This spring, CLEOD Glassworks will be converting a third of its Charleston retail space into a lighting showroom, where customers can shop for handblown pendants, sconces and table lamps. McLeod also works with clients to design custom lighting for their homes or give existing fixtures a fresh look with new handblown shades.
Right now, McLeod says he has 12 lighting projects he’s working on, from simple sconces to elaborate chandeliers. He meets with clients one-on-one to discuss their space and review any source imagery, then presents his design concepts for custom fabrications. Clients enjoy having input on the finished product, and it’s exciting for them to understand the process, he says.
McLeod is likewise excited that visitors to the Charleston store are so supportive of the arts. Handblown glasswork appeals to a particular type of audience that recognizes its distinctive beauty and value. Says McLeod, “Everyone in Charleston gets it, and they really appreciate what we do.”
Leslie J. Thompson is a Dallas-based freelance writer with a passion for interior design and international travel. Read more of her work at lesliejthompson.com.