While in Austin I visited several glass shops, an outdoor community yoga class with about 200 people in attendance, the Blind Pig Pub; where the 2000 something High Times doobie awards were held, a semi-nude beach named Hippie Hollow, a restaurant with beautiful views of the sunset over the lake and even took a self-created Austin graffiti tour! But, the thing I looked forward to the most, the thing I was most impressed by, was my introduction to the great people at Grav Labs!
I found the company years ago and like to buy their glass blunts. They are of good quality and are reasonably priced. I have seen some of their other pieces, but never really used any of them before. Because of this tour, I assure you I will be using even more of their product!
After reaching out to the company on Instagram, I got a pretty quick response. I asked for a tour while I was in town and got a yes right away. I was told they would only have about 15 minutes, seeing as they are a busy company. That was fine with me. I was appreciative to be allowed in at all!
I prepared for the tour with quite a bit of research on the company and glass blowing overall along with a few days of touring Austin and asking people about the company. Almost everyone I met said they have heard nothing but good things about the company. However, one person told me I would be disappointed in the tour because I would not see much except the shipping area. Boy were they wrong.
Upon arriving, I met my tour guide; market research analyst and social media coordinator, Sean. He has been with the company for a little under a year, but was a guru on all things Grav Labs. We started the tour in the warehouse. As we strolled through the quietly bustling warehouse floor, I noticed a Bill Murray poster hanging on the wall. “Chive on!” I thought to myself.
We left the warehouse and headed to the hot room, where all of the blowers had their setups. Grav Labs employs 12-15 glassblowers at any given time. They are basically independent contractors. Like beauticians, glassblowers rent out a space at Grav Labs for a monthly fee and in return have access to their tools and materials.
The room was hot, so hot that pretty soon sweat began to trickle down my spine. But, I toughed it out. If these guys could do it, some for hours on end, then I could do it for a few minutes. I began to snap a few pictures and take in the many pieces of art (some in-progress) around me. Sean said I could take pics, but had to ask the artists first.
Artists can be quite private, especially when they are in the middle of creating their masterpieces. So, I have to admit that this made me want to just get through this part of the tour quickly and quietly. But, I couldn’t. I saw Shay with what looked like a hookah hose in his mouth. I approached him and started talking. He instantly made me comfortable. The hose he had in his mouth is what he used to blow the glass into different shapes, he explained.
I asked him how he got into this art. He said he had a glass piece that was broken and wanted to fix it. So he took it to a glassblowing friend of his. Shay’s friend fixed the piece in front of him and he instantly wanted to learn. He visited the guy every day for weeks before the dude began to teach Shay. He said he has been blowing ever since. Talk about passion!
Shay has been at it for 17 years and says that even today, “When I wake up, that’s what I think about.” His pieces show it. Check him out on Instagram by CLICKING HERE! I snapped a couple of pics with his permission and he showed me what he was working on; a blue water pipe.
As I said my thanks to Shay, I looked over to see a guy jammin’ to something on his headphones as he used his torch to create something I’d not seen before. I kind of tapped him on the shoulder and he pulled one of his muffs back so he could hear me.
“What are you listening to?” I asked.
“Oh, Jay-Z!” he replied.
Cool dude. His name was Michael and he was making pendants. But, not the flat circle you have been seeing everywhere. He was making a lava lamp pendant. He said when he first started making them that it took him an hour or so to make one. But, now he can do two or more in that amount of time. Practice makes perfect, I’d say. These little guys look amazingly real.
I continued walking around and talking a bit before I encountered the first female blower. Her name was Tabitha. Quiet and possibly a little shy, Tabitha showed me her work. She had at least 10 glass pipes on her tray with different colors mixed in them. I complimented her on her pieces and she said they were just for practice.
I didn’t understand. They looked so nice to me. She told me she was working on size and shape regulation; meaning that all of her pipes should look identical. I asked her what she was working on at the moment and she showed me that she was making stems for some glass Sherlock’s. I couldn’t quite get the concept so she whipped out her phone and showed me exactly what they were. I think I need one. You can find her (and her Sherlock) on Instagram by CLICKING HERE!
As we began leaving the glassblowers area, I noticed a woman leaning over a drafting table measuring a bunch of little tubes. I stop and talk to her to find out what she is doing. Her name is Laura and she has been with Grav Labs for about 5 years. She used to blow glass, but now she is a supervisor. She was measuring so she could make cuts for… my glass blunt!! I was ecstatic about meeting the person who makes my glass blunts, I could hardly contain myself. We chatted about it a bit before moving into an area with some air conditioning. FYI: Texas is H-O-T!!!
We stopped and talked with the labeling girls and moved on to the Grav Yard area, one of my favorite places if I were an employee. This big bookcase has all of the products that were not perfect. When I say perfect, I mean absolutely perfect. He showed me a couple of pieces that took a LOT of looking at for me to see any kind of imperfection. Sean informed that these pieces will still last just as long, but that Grav Labs doesn’t cut corners and that, “we only sale the best product.”
Sean then took me to meet all of the creative geniuses that do all of the behind the scenes work. As we went from department to department, Sean knew everyone’s name and greeted each one and promptly introduced me each time. I met the marketing and advertising team (including the VP!) who are responsible for new product design, advertising and newsletters.
They had two dogs in their office. One big, lazy guy who greeted me a bit and then went to find a quieter space to chill in. And, there was a little Pug puppy that had just gotten up from a nap. Brighton carried the tiny pup out for a bathroom break. Behind her was a large, white board with a collaborative drawing of a weird looking dog thing. I chuckled and commented on it. These guys were right up my alley. They think a lot like me. Outside of the box.
Next, I visited the procurement peeps. Their job was to water the plants with the water pipes. No, not really. Another fun group of people, they are responsible for the procurement of all of the materials that Grav Labs sources from all over the world. They also have trophy pieces in their area, or should I say product that has been spray painted gold. Why? Because someone feels like a winner, or so I was told.
While walking out of the room, I saw that there were sticky notes covering one guy’s entire desk. One of the notes read, “My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard.” I laughed out loud. When inquiring further, I found out he was out of town and I think this is what everyone did when he left. I texted Sean and asked him for a pic of the whole desk. His response was, “Ah, well he is back so no more post it notes on his desk.” I lol’d again. That just shows what I call, co-worker love.
After meeting all of the wonderful staff of Grav Labs, I asked about the company’s most prized possessions and was shown a few really neat things. One, the gold series. Sean called these pieces the, “Mercedes of glass.” The Grav Labs sticker is gold and the pieces are limited edition.
Next, I saw the inspiration for the original Upline. First created by Mike Evans, the Upline took a more sensible approach in order to reach the masses. Taking out the fancy curvature and colored glass, Grav Labs made this product more affordable for its general audience.
Then I spotted what looked like an insect covered Upline. It was awesome! Created by Scot Bennett and his mother through his company Cherry Glass, the two create water pipes with real insects covered in some kind of metal and somehow given a patina. You can find them on Instagram as well by CLICKING HERE! These were spectacular pieces and got my undivided attention for quite a while as I studied every detail.
Last, but definitely not least, I saw the Gravitron, the piece that brought Grav Labs into existence. This device uses water and gravity to work and has been recreated in college dorms and garages everywhere. But, this device is the real deal. All glass, it now comes with a fitted mouth piece. Now, let’s be clear. I didn’t just see a Gravitron. I saw the ORIGINAL Gravitron; labeled and everything. I was completely awestricken.
Feeling slightly overwhelmed by all I had seen, Sean and I sat down in the conference room. I asked him about his favorite Grav Labs product. He explained, “Personally, I like the Upline, but my most used piece is the spoon.”
Leaning back in my chair, I began to ask him some of the harder questions. Are your raw materials safe? Where do you get all of the semi-finished materials? Are the semi-finished materials safe? What percentage of your product is produced at this location?
He remained calm and answered each question openly, without any hint of annoyance. He said that Grav Labs uses borosilicate as their raw materials and assured me that anything they source in from around the world is safe. He reiterated that Grav Labs does not cut corners. Last, and most profound Sean added, “We are a customer oriented company and we pride ourselves on customer service. We are caretakers by nature. Someone getting sick would be terrifying.”
After these answers to these probing questions, we cooled it down a bit. We chatted some about the places I’d been and the places I should visit before I left Austin the next day. As the tour came to a close, I looked at my watch. Two hours had passed. It felt like 15 minutes.
I stood in the parking lot and shook Sean’s hand before heading to have a long overdue lunch. I sat in the restaurant and began to think about the entire experience. The sticky notes covering that guy’s desk, the bong watering chicks, the sleepy faced Pug and the headphone wearing, glassblowing dude is what really makes Grav Labs unique. The more I thought about it, the more I began to compare the company’s culture to the likes of Google.
The working atmosphere was inspiring and everyone was happy and talkative. The work spaces are open and welcoming, with different, unique, eye-catching things to keep the creative juices flowing. There were couches in hallways, encouraging interaction and all the office doors were open and ready for me to come in. I imagine this is what it is like to work at Google, minus the volleyball courts.
Ideas can come from anyone in the group at Grav Labs and they are taken seriously, regardless of the employee’s title. I notice their website even invites its visitors to offer any ideas as well. This is what makes them as creative as Google.
My opinion of Grav Labs remains a positive one. Grav Labs is the Google of the glass world. This company is innovative and unique. The employees all appear to love their job and no one has a problem doing a little manual labor when it is necessary. This group really works as a team, a well-oiled team, or as the saying goes, a well-oiled machine. Almost autonomously. I believe their uniqueness and outlook will keep them relevant among the glass giants of the industry for years to come.