November 28, 1994 12:00 PM

HALF A DOZEN GLASSBLOWERS are gathered tensely around the glowing furnace in the Boathouse, a huge former racing-boat factory in Seattle. The gaffer, or master glassblower, is breathing down a 5-foot pipe to shape a hot-glass bubble. But clearly in charge is a short, pudgy man with a piratelike patch over one eye. “I don’t want it,” says Dale Chihuly, 53, peering at the big yellow orb being pulled from the fire. “Get rid of it.”

The Tacoma, Wash.-born sculptor may want to abort this Chihuly in progress, but the art-buying public can’t get enough of him. The fact is, Chihuly, like his furnace, is red-hot. His fantastically colored, complex sculptures replete with optical dazzle have been shown in places as diverse as the Louvre and Manhattan’s Rainbow Room. Chihulys sell for as much as $40,000, and the White House has one, as does Elton John.

“Chihuly is an unquestioned genius,” says Robert T. Buck, director of the Brooklyn Museum, which will be exhibiting Chihuly’s The Brooklyn Wall through next September.

Curiously this modern-day Tiffany, once a fine glassblower, no longer makes the pieces himself. In 1976 Chihuiy was thrown through a windshield in a London car crash. The accident destroyed his left eye and stole his depth perception. But six months later he was back at work, embracing the master-team approach of the Venetians.

Today, Chihuiy, who married in 1987 and divorced three years ago, lives and works at the Boathouse. His operation—with Chihuiy employing a crew of gaffers to execute his designs—draws comparisons to Andy Warhol’s Factory. But there’s no question whose vision is being expressed in the finished work. “I was always more interested in the product than in glassblowing itself,” says Chihuiy. Then he adds, without a hint of braggadocio, “This is the way artists like Michelangelo worked.”

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