In Iowa’s Backcountry, This Duo Crafts Handmade Kaleidoscopes

Tucked deep in a valley in northeast Iowa is Peggy and Steve Kittelson’s farmstead. But this isn’t an ordinary farm. The Kittelson’s live in the barn, which they outfitted with salvaged materials and a wood-fired baking oven.

Steve does his wood working in the corncrib that overlooks a small pond. The couple converted a machine shed into a studio, where they make wood and glass kaleidoscopes.

“We learned very early on that we each have different strengths, and that together we are able to create something much better than we could have separately,” said Peggy Kittelson.

For more than 35 years, the duo have been working in glass, but it wasn’t until a friend asked them to make some fused glass wheels for a kaleidoscope he was working on that the Kittelson’s shifted their focus. Their friend taught them the basics, and the rest was trial and error.

“We get notes from collectors who say that our kaleidoscope is the last thing they look at before they go to sleep,” Kittelson said. “It allows them to let go of the stuff of the day and be transported to another place.”

“Kaleidoscopes are music for the eyes.”
Peggy Kittelson

“We work together on the initial design, and problem solve to make things come together,” Peggy said. Steve works on the exteriors. He either fuses glass to create a design on the barrel, or turns a wood barrel. Steve also works on the mirror systems that keep the images symmetrical when someone rotates the kaleidoscope. Peggy flame-sculpts the tiny glass sculptures that float in the oil-filled chamber that create the images you see when you look in a kaleidoscope.

“We are inspired by things we see in nature, especially flowers,” Peggy said. For their flower series, she flame-sculpted miniature flowers to put in the object cell (the tiny sculptures in the object cell create the images you see when you turn a kaleidoscope). Peggy picks complementary colors and shapes to make “music for the eyes.”