"I enjoy making practical things," says Simon Pearce. "That's the difference between art and craft: craft you use; art you look at." But here in his showroom in an old brick-and-stone mill on the Ottauquechee River, I'm happy just looking at the glass glistening in the Vermont sunlight--stemware, vases, pitchers, lamps, candlesticks, footed goblets and bowls that beg to be touched and are touched so much that one staff member does nothing but polish the glass. Which is fine with Pearce. "People must feel the pieces--both the glass and the pottery--to understand the quality of the work," he says.
Like his father back in Shanagarry, Ireland, Pearce, now 50, trained as a potter. Then he began collecting old pub glasses. "I was buying them in junk shops for 50 cents," he recalls. "Suddenly I wondered why no one was making glass like that anymore, glass with individuality and character. Thirty years ago, you could buy well-designed glass, but it was all too perfect. It lacked vitality. Everyone told me, 'That's how it is nowadays. You can't do it the old way.' But I was young and stupid, and I kept going."
After a stint at the Royal College of Art in London ("College is no place to learn a skill"), he apprenticed in Europe; then in 1970 he set up a workshop back home where, he says, "I basically made seconds for a couple of years."
In 1980 he and his American wife, Pia, decided to move to the States. "I was looking for three things," he explains. "Somewhere beautiful to live and work, somewhere with hydroelectric power and somewhere we could do a good retail business. I came over for a month and drove around upstate New York, but I found the mill by pure chance--a friend in Ireland knew someone in Woodstock, Vermont, who knew a real estate agent who had a brochure. So all my driving around was for nothing."
Today the mill in Quechee houses a restaurant as well as the showroom and studios where I watched glassblowers and potters at work. Opened as a showplace for Pearce's designs, the 120-seat restaurant is now a thriving business thanks to its honest, straightforward food, from brown bread made according to an Irish recipe from Ballymaloe to updated country-style dishes created by executive chef James "Shadow" Henahan.
A winter lunch at Pearce's home has the same satisfying simplicity--a goat cheese salad followed by New England cod and crab cakes or lamb pies and apple crisp, on a table set with his own stoneware and glass and lots of candles. In everything he does, I realize, this quiet Irish craftsman is true to his philosophy: "Keep it simple and get the basics just right."