Matt Hanson meets Merve Araslı, the founder of 1200 Derece, one of Turkey’s leading independent glass-makers.
By Matt A Hanson
Wearing an apron emblazoned with her company logo, and flustered, Merve Araslı is overwhelmed with work. She sits at the edge of the glass-making design house she founded, 1200 Derece (in Turkish, “derece” means degree), and calls out to a friend working in tourism. He passes by with a group from Europe, and asks where she’s going next. “To hell,” she jokes. Her sense of humor is as rich and sharp as the vivid character of her glassworks.
In the neighborhood of Balat, part of the historic peninsula of Istanbul, Araslı opened what has become a little café and workshop complex close to where her mother still resides, baking apple cakes for the many and constant guests who come from near and far to admire their latest creations while drinking coffee out of multiform, tinted cups. 1200 Derece has become a destination amid the rapidly gentrifying district’s vibrant, contemporary cityscape.
The amount of degrees required to heat glass is only matched by the volume of visitors at 1200 Derece, where, on weekends, Araslı teaches classes in Turkish with fellow masters. She offers lessons in English on Thursdays, advertising via Airbnb Experiences. At first she also used the café space for serial productions, but interruptions increased to such an extent that her team established a separate factory to meet their demanding commissions schedule.
Learning her craft at Turkey’s only department dedicated solely to glass-making at Eskişehir’s Anadolu University, Araslı furthered her studies at the famed Novy Bor Glass School in the Czech Republic, later confirming her rite of passage among fellow Turkish glass-makers at The Glass Furnace in Beyköz, Istanbul’s northeastern municipality bordering the Black Sea. She studied under Rob Stern from America and Petr Novotný from the Czech Republic.
“In Turkey, since the beginning of the pandemic, everything is changing a lot. My brand became more commercial, not really artistic,” Araslı said, reflecting on her initial studies in engineering before turning to glass. “I had no experience or education in management. I have to take care of the finances [for 1200 Derece], which is not easy for me at all. I was always interested in growing something. I wanted to find something between engineering and design.”
While at Anadolu University, she glazed over her focus on industrial design and discovered traditional glass-making techniques like lamp-working and glass-blowing. As is common to popular crafts, most people who pass through 1200 Derece expect to be able to produce professional work on the spot. Araslı, while accommodating, imparts a deep, pedagogical appreciation of glass-making, based on her degree of international training.
“Our professor at [Anadolu University] was a romantic from a British school. He would tell the class fairytales with his beautiful accent,” Araslı said. “The professor knew my tendency to the arts. He took me to the fine arts faculty to show me how to make glass, blowing, lamp-working, sculptures. I took classes in the glass department. I came back to Istanbul and went to The Glass Furnace.”
Learning often begins with a bead, as she explains to questioning passersby. But even simple works, like a keychain or bracelet, can take over two hours to make, and stained glass, much longer. The quaint offerings, samples of her studio’s talents, dangle and stand on display, nevertheless, enticing so many big eyes with time to kill, after a memento from one of Istanbul’s most revitalized of ancient quarters.
Since Araslı graduated from Anadolu University in 2008, Eskişehir dedicated a section of its Odunpazarı neighborhood to glass crafts. Renowned for the award-winning architecture of its modern art museum, the small city between Istanbul and Ankara has become a nexus for Turkey’s youngest generation of glass artisans. Bursting from its flames, Araslı returned to Istanbul as a teaching assistant at The Glass Furnace, specializing in lamp works.
In 2015, Araslı established her brand, “1200 Derece”, as a manufacturer, later moving to Balat four years ago out of a first-floor studio below her apartment. She began, fortuitously, contracting with Paşabahçe, a company that has essentially monopolized the glass trade in Turkey. Propelled into the highest rung of the commercial sphere in her field, references led to commissions with The Doğuş Group, one of Turkey’s biggest conglomerates.
“I began with different ideas, but it changed,” Araslı said, laughing. “The front part is a café. We have coffee, tea, and sometimes a cake. It’s for advertising. You can see me, or other masters here. You can see us making our production on the weekdays,” Araslı said. “We use that café for customers to experience our cups. The display part is for inspiration, tableware and decoration. We use different techniques, like stained glass. We make custom work.”
After the pandemic restrictions eased, Araslı opened an annex manufacturing space for larger productions. The slower yields of the open café space hurt profits. In order to meet higher demands, Araslı and her company of masters often work off-site for weeks on end. Yet, even at the café, her glass creations all adhere to a house vision of quality industrial design. Her cups are resistant to 200 degrees Celsius and seven times stronger than market products.
“I cannot say I’m doing art. It’s between craft and art. My figurines are better than the traditional master’s figurines, anatomically,” Araslı said. “We don’t have crystal glass anymore, but in the Czech Republic they make semi-optical glass, which is close to crystal glass. I use Czech glass for figurines. I use different glass for jewelry, with more color options. We call it long glass, because the glass takes longer to melt. So we can make more details with that.”
Drawing from her engineering background, steeped in the cultures of European glass, Araslı is faced with the challenge of being a woman in the patriarchal Turkish business society. She is a made entrepreneur, despite the challenges of her success. Looking at her inbox of new requests, she confidently says she could open two factories, despite economic crises in Turkey. The problem, however, is that there’s no one else who can keep up with her.
“I made a good enterprise, but I cannot find the right people to work with. I should only be producing. And this market is really male-dominated,” Araslı said. “As a woman, they don’t take you seriously. I became successful in a very short time; now they want to work with me. This is not even close to my dream. I cannot tell about my future plans. I’m not thinking about going to another country, but maybe another city, maybe making it smaller.”
All photos by Matt Hanson