Loretta Yang Hui-shan (楊惠珊) and Chang Yi (張毅) are inseparable. They have done everything together, including giving up stardom 18 years ago to pursue a career in contemporary glass art. With two Golden Horse awards and a prize from the Asia-Pacific Film Festival for her acting, Yang shocked movie fans when she left the industry at the height of her career, taking with her the renowned and then married director, Chang Yi. Their unexpected career shift and scandalous relationship shocked the public, but as time passed they regained admiration and respect with their thriving cultural enterprise, Liuligongfang (琉璃工房).
Founded in 1987, Liuligongfang was the first glass-art workshop in all of Taiwan and China. Without any training and with no precursors to imitate, their early stages were limited to trial-and-error. The only conviction they held was, regardless of profits, this venture would highlight traditional Chinese culture. For Yang and Chang, traditional Chinese art was missing from the world of glass art and they aimed to fill the gap with pieces of liuli.
Liuli (琉璃) is the archaic Chinese word for glass artwork. The couple chose liuli in place of the more commonly used word for glass (boli, 玻璃) because, in Yang's words, "Everyone knows what glass is, and when you hear it you immediately think of a material, like bottles, glasses ?. Liuli is more refined and embodies Chinese culture and history."
"Our goal is to develop the art of Chinese glass art so we want liuli to have aesthetic qualities but also promote feelings of respect for our history and culture," said Yang at an interview at the Liuligongfang Taipei International Gallery in Tianmu.
Since its launch, Liuligongfang has held exhibitions in Asia, Europe, South Africa, and the US, and has become part of the permanent collection of many museums at home and abroad. In terms of making a commercial success out of an art form, Yang and Chang have become to glassware what Georg Jensen is to silverware. Their enterprise has grown from two craftsmen operating a workshop in Danshui to a team of 900 employees and 56 stores worldwide.
Liuligongfang is slowing becoming a recognizable brand name. Working under the motto: "Create art, good for the human heart," Yang said whether it is a Buddha stature or a wineglass, she wants every liuli piece to convey "the richness and beauty of traditional Chinese culture." Their showrooms resemble galleries in the way each piece is displayed. Among the sparsely placed sculptures is a collection of jewelry and tableware that reflect a simple, understated refinement that has become Liuligongfang's trademark. Their time-consuming craftsmanship is reflected in the prices, which range from NT$3,000 for a necklace pendant to more than NT$500,000 for a sculpture. The recently opened TMSK restaurant in Shanghai is decorated with a liuli interior that draws from a rich cultural tradition, yet maintains contemporary style.
The company's popularity and pecuniary achievements have earned Yang and Chang the title of founders of contemporary Chinese glass art. "Not only did we introduce it, but we built up the market for glassware and created a demand for the products. There are now more than 100 large factories and individual workshops in China and all of those can be traced back to Liuli," Yang said.