Throwing Ideas at Glass Houses

New York’s most fashionable couple retreats to the Northwest.

By Laura Cassidy September 18, 2009 Published in the October 2009 issue of Seattle Met


TALKING WITH ISABEL TOLEDO outside a cedar cabin at Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, it’s clear that she doesn’t mind being known as the Designer Who Made Michelle Obama’s Inauguration Day Dress. And if she and her collaborator and husband Ruben Toledo—the Artist Whose Fashion Illustrations for Nordstrom Make Models Obsolete—were to gain recognition for influencing the style of Pilchuck’s hot-shop artisans? That wouldn’t be a problem either.

Continuing an almost 40-year tradition of visiting artists as disparate as Judy Chicago and Maya Lin, the Toledos arrived for a three-week stint at the bucolic 54-acre Snohomish County campus in midsummer—in time for that three-day heat wave in late July—without a formal plan for their next collaboration.

Ruben, handsomely buttoned up in workmanly yet timeless Carhartt gear, and Isabel, whose black and red dress complimented her large, kohl-rimmed eyes, explained how that freedom allowed them to dream up a series of gorgeously anthropomorphized perfume bottles. Ruben captured their ideas in a series of gothic, eggplant purple watercolors and presented them to instructor and master glass artist Roger Parramore, who then created one of the bottles, complete with womanly, articulated parts and Isabel-like eyes. Another collaboration evolved more subtly. Students got ahold of Ruben’s painting of the glass artists in motion—“They’re faster than fashion models,” he marveled—and, by the final day, just about every T-shirt in Stanwood was silk-screened with his interpretation of their soft black silhouettes.

For Isabel, who refers to herself as a technician rather than an artist, the retreat was less outwardly productive. She let the hot kilns and cooled vessels simply suggest ideas. Amid jewel-toned glass pieces in the studio, she contemplated gemstones and unrefined silks. Those vague notions, she says, like glass, “will solidify later.”

Will the Pilchuck-inspired ideas appear in any upcoming designs? It may be just a matter of who sports Isabel’s Northwest looks first. The Toledos return to Seattle at the end of October to serve as honorary cochairs of Pilchuck’s annual fundraiser. We’ll be watching to see if she comes back to town wrapped in silk the color of Chihuly corals and golds. Or maybe it will be Mrs. Obama who carries that torch.

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