Second Time Around: A Light Post Conversation

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The next time you’re at a party and you see a bunch of empty beer bottles around the room, you’re going to think of Nick Paul. The 37 year old glassblower from Chicago’s Rogers Park community has made a living on turning what most people view as trash into one of a kind glassware for people’s homes and kitchens. His talent and vision for what he does will change the way you think about what you throw away. We sat down with Nick in his studio for a Light Post Conversation.

Light Post: So, Nick, how long have you been blowing glass?

Nick Paul: I’ve been blowing glass for about 20 years. I’ve been making the beer bottles for about the last four years. I’ve been doing it seriously, full time, for the last two years. Before that I had a ‘real’ job, but the economy kind of swallowed that all up. And I kind of stumbled across this, and as its gotten bigger and bigger every year, we’ve started offering more and more stuff. And with the addition of my daughter, I’ve taken the time off from that real job to do this and be home with her.

LP: What gave you the idea to do this?

NP: So it was sheer happenstance...what happened was that we were throwing a party at my studio and we used to give out handblown glasses. And at this one particular party, we didn’t have enough drinking glasses. So where we lived in the city, people would keep dumping off cases of empty bottles on our front lawn, like every day. They were probably driving around drunk and said ‘Shit, let’s get rid of the evidence.’ So me and a buddy went outside and got this 24 case of Corona off the front lawn and we were gonna cut them and do the polishing thing, but we said, “Let’s see if we can do it hot.” And of that case of 24, I was the only one who was able to get any of them to work out. So I didn’t think much of it because I’m not a huge drinker, but soon as the doors opened those were the first glasses that went. And I was like ok cool! I had a show coming up in two weeks and I figured I’d make a couple more. So my girlfriend at the time, now my wife, were packing up for it and she just put them back in the six-pack holder and she said they could sell as a set, and I wanted to sell them individually because I thought we could make more money -- no one is gonna buy six at once. But then as soon as we got to the show someone said, ‘Oh I want the set of Corona, those are awesome!’ And I was like ‘Ahhhh!’ So as more and more shows came up, I started offering more and more brands, and that branched out to doing this full time.

LP: So how many times have you been caught stealing people’s garbage?

NP: Every once in a while I’ll get someone saying, ‘Hey! What are you doing?’ But then I whip out my business card and tell them what I’m actually doing, and I always get the coolest responses, like, ‘Oh, really? What else do you do?’ So I’ve never gotten anybody who was like ‘get outta here you goddamn kids, get off my lawn!’ But really, first I was worried about the beer companies being like hey we don’t appreciate you doing this, but I’ve never gotten that. Honestly, every beer company I ever met, microbrew even up to some of the bigger brands thinks its awesome what I’m doing. They love the recycling aspect of it and the fact that I’m turning it into art, and basically the free advertising and publicity they’re getting off it. But what was funny is that I got this trolling email from a lawyer, and I don’t even know if it was real, saying ‘Corona makes these as well, cease and desist, blah blah blah.’ So I wrote this email back and just said, ‘No.’ That was it! And then they wrote back demanding all my product, and I replied again, ‘No.’ And then about six months later I met the head distributor of the entire northeast of the U.S. of Modelo, who bought Corona, and the guy was like, ‘Oh my God these are amazing, I love these!’ He ended up giving me a ton of free beer, and I gave him a bunch of free product and every once in a while I’ll see him at a show, and he says, ‘Hey can I get some of those to put in my booth, and I’ll send people over your way.’ And I get so much of that now, and I think a lot of people are happy to get rid of the empties so they don’t have to pay to throw them away. And since we recycle everything its kind of a win-win for everybody.

LP: So what’s the process of creating these?

NP: Well, we heat up everything. All the glass is heated up and then transformed into its new shape, and then it cools down slowly over time so that it can be dishwasher and freezer safe. That’s the most important thing. I want it to be safe and functional and cool looking. So all the bottles we use to make glasses or vases are either painted or embossed. We don’t actually take the label off and put it back on. We feel that’s kind of like cheating the system. So all the labels that get taken off, we make other products with, and all the bottle caps get reused. We do everything from make our own paper out of all the extra labels and cardboard boxes. I make about 40 different items from all of the recycled products that comes from local bars. And this whole thing actually kind of developed into...what if we could start a business that could turn bars into zero waste businesses? So what we’d like to do in the future is get a couple of smelting kilns, that we can literally toss in aluminum cans, and then start casting aluminum from all the recycled aluminum. All the food product and organic waste and be turned into mulch and organic fertilizers, and all the paper products can be reformed into seed paper or packaging material and all the glass can be recycled into other forms of useful objects. So imagine if you owned a business where you didn’t have to pay for someone to take your garbage away...you can have another business take all that garbage and reform it into another business. That puts more people employed, and thats the whole idea. Plus everyone likes to drink!

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LP: That’s very cool...so are there any limitations with what you do?

NP: Um, sure. I mean, I can only reform the bottle into so many shapes. I can melt it down into a glob and reform that into other things as well. But I guess the total limitation right now is my imagination. I’m always learning new things, I’m always exploring new product ideas. My biggest limitation right now is taking a small grass roots business and trying to turn it into a bigger business. I’ve tried to recently get a bank loan, and I’ve found out that I’m so small potatoes that most banks won’t even talk to you unless you make at least a half a million dollars a year. That’s what you need to make to get a small business loan...which is kind of crazy to me because if I can make a half a million dollars a year why would I need a small business loan? So right now I’m looking for some micro-lending so I can start to develop stage two of the business.

LP: Do people give you special requests?

NP: All the time! So what happens is if someone calls up and says hey do you have this one beer that my brother micro-brewed back in the 1980’s and only six people have ever had it, I tell people no, I don’t have that! But if you want to drink the beer and send me the empty bottles, then yeah I’ll make ‘em for you. We charge the same amount if you send the bottles or not. One of our number one requests is for weddings. We do a lot of glasses for weddings. We’ll take the champagne bottles for weddings and we’ll reform them into vases and other objects and we give back to the married couple. We do everything from sandblasting their vows into a vase that was their champagne bottle, all the way to making bracelets and picture frames. So yeah, we do a lot of special requests.

LP: Is there a particular piece you’ve made that you’re most proud of?

NP: The one that I’ve kept is a Grey Goose bottle that I’ve cut the top of it off and reformed it into a human arm and attached it to the back of the bottle as a handle. Out of all the glasses I’ve made, that’s the one I’ve kept. But I don’t have it here.

LP: How often do you experiment with different ideas?

NP: Every time, all the time. I’m constantly making new stuff. I’ve made everything from wind chimes to sculpture pieces to drinking glasses. The one thing I do know is that I don’t know what is going to sell. I try to make things that I would like to buy, but I’ve found out that there is tons of stuff that other people buy that I wouldn’t. So I try to make a dozen of something and I’ll take them to a couple shows and if it moves than I know. Being so small potatoes as I am right now, I have the luxury of being able to field test new items in different markets so that gives me an idea of what will move and what won’t.

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LP: What is the biggest challenge for yourself?

NP: Finding six-pack holders...and, well actually the biggest challenge is getting enough shows. For me to make this successful, I need to do at least two shows a month. So right now I can only do Midwest shows, cause I’m based right here. But phase two is to make a portable setup that we can travel across North America blowing glass at beer events and different festivals. The whole idea is what if we could roll up to any bar in any town, and for just a weekend, recycle all their labels and all their bottles, build a bunch of product up, and then hit a beer festival in Arizona, and then two weeks later hit one in California, and so on. So I’d like to branch out across the United States.

LP: So when people hear the name Nick Paul, what do you want them to think about?

NP: Oh, God. You know, there’s so many Nick Paul’s out there that I’ve found out recently. My doppelgangers have been anything from a British executive for a train company to a magician in Florida. There’s two Nick Paul’s here in town, I’m actually doing work for one of them! He’s nothing like me...he’s good looking and rich. I mean, I didn’t want to grow up to be the bottle guy, but that’s what I’m turning into being, and people see me and say hey aren’t you the guy that does the thing with the bottles, and I’m like, yeah. But the thing is I went to school for animation and cinematography, and when I first moved to Illinois, I worked as an exhibit designer for ten years and I owned a painting studio and I would paint these large format oil paintings of the city, so for a long time I was known as a painter and an artist, and I was like YEAH! I loved that! And now I’m the guy who recycles beer bottles. I mean its a good thing, but if you can be famous for something would you rather be the most famous plumber in the world of the most famous athlete? Well...there’s Mario! I wonder if he goes home at night and says ‘I trained to be a soccer star!’

** To purchase some awesome glassware from Nick, visit his website at www.nickpaul.com.

** Don't miss the exclusive video of Nick making glasses in his studio! Click here to watch!