Written by Carolinne Griffin
Tucked behind the buildings and hubbub of Burlington’s Pine Street is AO Glass, an 8,000-square-foot manufacturing facility that keeps its doors wide open to the public. Visitors enter by way of the AO Kiosk, where they can peruse the hand-blown glassware, ornaments and the like arranged on wooden shelves. One can also watch artisans and apprentices at work beyond the retail space, rolling and blowing glass and talking over the rumbling sounds of industry. But, despite the building’s massive size, the warmth of the factory is more striking. Heat not only radiates from the 2100°F crucible of molten glass but there is also an atmosphere of warmth and welcome from people engaged in an art form and with each other.
Since they opened in 2007, owners Rich Arentzen and Tove Ohlander have modeled their business on the glass factories of Sweden where they learned their trade, workplaces that strike a balance between industry and art while serving as cultural centers for small towns. In that spirit, AO fosters a unique work environment that centers on the needs of individuals. One example of this is in the owners’ efforts to employ new Americans. “Tove and I have both been immigrants; it’s really difficult to move to a new country,” says Arenzten, who met Ohlander in her native Sweden. “It’s important and really helpful to us to better support the people that work here.”
While 90% of AO’s business is manufacturing components for lighting companies, their production of corporate gifts is also going strong. In 2020, they made 23,000 glass stoppers for WhistlePig and collaborated on projects with other Vermont brands. Looking ahead, AO will expand its line of products and hopes to bring more visitors into the space. What better way to connect people with what they make than on the factory floor? “Glass is primordial,” says Arentzen, “just raw material and fire. [It] inherently captures the imagination because there’s something about it that reminds people of our shared path.”