The 2017 Pipe Classic marked the 12th year of the nationally renowned glassblowing competition. Hosted annually by Tito and Mikeala Bern, owners of the downtown Burlington glass production and retail shop, the Bern Gallery, The Pipe Classic brings together some of the biggest names in the industry for a grueling competition that results in some of the most sought-after art in the glass market today.
While the first Pipe Classic kicked off in 2006, the idea came to Bern when he worked as a production glassblower from 1999-2002. I had the chance to speak with him at the lakeside party he hosts each year for glassblowers and friends of the event (many of whom traveled from out of state, some even as far as Alaska) — a Pipe Classic tradition.
“To keep things interesting in the shop, we competed against each other,” Bern recalled. “Everything from who could finish a piece the quickest to whatever little challenge we could think of. I’ve always been a fan of healthy competition you could say.”
Around the same time, Bern hit the road with his wife, Mikeala, selling the glass they created. “I spent five years on the road, 1,500 miles a week with my wife just selling glass,” he explained. “At that time, we were in the process of opening up the Bern Gallery.”
Once the setting was established, all the completion needed was a name. “I’m a fan of the cheesy 80’s flick North Shore. There’s a surf competition in the film (and it actually exists in reality) called the Pipe Classic. Unbelievably, no one had ever trademarked it.” And just like that, the Pipe Classic had found a new home on the East Coast.
Year in and year out, spectators from around the country flock to see extraordinary glass works produced by their favorite local artists, and some of the country’s top talent. “The Pipe Classic has been and always will be an All-Star Game,” Bern said.
The event has also carved out a defining reputation for itself — consistency. Found both in the quality of work, as well as the competition’s structure; the Pipe Classic’s “Four Rules” have never changed throughout the history of the event:
1) The entry must be made from scratch
2) The work has to be made within 12 hours
3) The piece has to be made in-house
4) The finished product has to be functional
Bern also incorporated a discreet judging system to maintain fairness for the competitors. “If one person runs it, corruption is inevitable. I created the Pipe Classic Committee to define and enforce the four rules of the event. They are clandestine but they are there watching,” he explained.
If the price tag is any indication, both artist technique and public appreciation have developed with time. “The first year we never broke $800 a piece,” recalled Bern. “Two years ago a piece auctioned for $14,500.” In previous years, local artists Hickory and Kurt B have been Pipe Classic winners. “One of the best parts about this is watching these amazing artists grow and develop over the years,” he said emphatically. “Pipe Classic is a celebration of this…that and we wanted these glassblowers to feel like rock-stars.”
The Pipe Classic is a Vermont tradition that continues to gather and roll together high art with industry awareness and inclusive community ideals. Bern surmised, “It’s a celebration of pipe making and our glass family, but we work hand in hand with the cannabis community as a whole. A lot of blowers do start as growers.”
Twelve years on, the event shown no signs of slowing down. Bern laughed, “If I didn’t throw it one year people would just show up and have it without me. It could be twelve dudes in a room making and talking glass and it would still be the Pipe Classic.”