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Author: Chris Yeo

Date: 2nd November, 2017


Glass Act

Dancing with light and alive with colour, mid-century art glass makes a bold statement, just try not to get too hooked says “Antiques Roadshow” expert Chris Yeo.

When I tell people I work in antiques the question I’m invariably asked (after “When do you hope to get a real job?”) is “What do you collect?” and my answer is absolutely nothing. Although I’ve lived, eaten and breathed antiques since childhood the idea of amassing a collection of any one thing or group of things has never held any appeal. With one exception, that is. Roughly twenty years ago, on a typical Saturday morning mooch around an antiques market (remember them?), I came across something that stopped me in my tracks. It was a glass vase, a sleek, weighty number in rich shades of blue and turquoise. It was love at first sight and, of course, I bought it. About a month later I bought another piece of glass, shortly followed by another and another – you get the picture. For the next few years I hoovered up every piece of studio glass I could find. It was a labour of love and an obsession which bordered on an addiction. Put a piece of studio glass in front of me and I would find it near impossible to ‘just say no’. I won’t be too hard on my younger self. There is, after all, something undeniably seductive about mid-century art glass: a perfect marriage of art, craft and design that melts the hearts of even the most ardent minimalists. Richly coloured and beautifully made, fine quality glass introduces just the right note of luxury, colour and sophistication into any interior.

The Europe that emerged from the Second World War was a grey and dismal place. War-time shortages and rationing of “luxury goods” meant that people had been starved of colour for years. There was a huge demand for anything bright, fresh and modern, especially amongst young people setting up home for the first time. Ceramics, textiles and wallpaper manufacturers all ramped up the colour quota but nowhere was this appetite for colour better nourished than amongst makers of studio glass. And, when it came to glass, no one understood colour better than the Italians.

Italian design came of age in the post war years with a welter of colourful designs in both glass and plastic, materials which share the same malleable qualities. The magical process of transforming a bubble of molten glass into a vessel or piece of sculpture is a test of skill and artistry but the Italians took up the challenge with gusto and, of course, style. Highly individualistic designers celebrated colour for its own sake, applying it in ever more bold and dramatic combinations.

Italian glass is more properly Venetian glass. Venice has always been the heart of the Italian glassmaking industry with a history of glass-blowing unparalleled anywhere else in the world. From the thirteenth century onwards Venice had held a monopoly on glassmaking in Europe, and its products—often extravagantly coloured, enamelled, and gilded—were treasured luxuries. Originally, Venetian glass was made – as you would imagine – in Venice, but the workshops were moved to the small lagoon island of Murano in 1291, in part because their kilns constituted a fire hazard to the city, but also to keep the glassmaking process a secret by isolating the makers on their own well-guarded island.

Now, I think it’s fair to say that for many of us our idea of Murano glass will have been “coloured” by a trip to Venice. You’ll have done the circuit of St Marks, paid through the nose for a coffee and then, along with ten thousand others, you will have been funnelled off into the narrow alleyways that lead off the square. You shuffle along passed shop after shop – each one dedicated to relieving you of as much money as possible – crammed with all manner of gaudy clowns, fish, dolphins and more Mickey Mouse figures than even Disneyland would want – all sold under the banner “Murano”. If this has been your only encounter with Italian glass you’d be forgiven for wanting it to stay that way but there really is so much more to Murano.

From the 13th to the 18th century Murano glass was one of the wonders of the world with an unrivalled reputation for innovation, its glassmakers having developed, among other things, ways of incorporating threads of gold into their creations and techniques for the famous millefiori (multicoloured) and lattimo (milk) glass. Amongst the myriad workshops that make up the Murano glass industry the most highly regarded and arguably the best known is Venini. The firm was founded in the early 1920s when an enterprising Milanese lawyer, Paolo Venini, founded a new glass company on the island with a Venetian antiques dealer, Giacomo Cappelin. Their breakthrough innovation was to copy the French fashion industry’s tradition of appointing an artistic director to create new designs and then drive them forwards. This was a stroke of genius which instantly put Venini at the forefront of fashion. The firm collaborated with artists who transferred their skills from canvas to glass, combining bright vibrant colour with flair and confidence that’s the very essence of Italian style. As a strategy it took glassmaking to new heights of excellence and kick-started the Italian studio glass movement. By the early 1930s, Venini was attracting the cream of Italian designers including Carlo Scarpa, Gio Ponti and Tyra Lundgren. The post-war years were Murano’s most dazzling and creative period. With its bold palette Italian glass of the 1950s and ‘60s is instantly recognisable. Shapes have an easy asymmetry and a looseness of form reminiscent of folded fabric. In fact one of the most popular shapes was the ‘fazaletto’ or ‘folded-handkerchief’ vases first made by Venini in the 1940s.

With its vibrant colour combinations and top quality design credentials, the Italians dominated the glass scene but they weren’t the only nation on the colour spectrum. In the UK the prestigious London based firm of Whitefriars had been making glass since the 17th century and had a centuries old reputation for restrained and elegant glassware but in the 1950s its fortunes changed when, like Venini, it engaged the services of an artistic director. Geoffrey Baxter (1912-95). Baxter was a young graduate fresh from the Royal College of Art, at that time a powerhouse of ideas about art and design. At Whitefriars Baxter took the forms of Scandinavian glass – thickly-walled, with curving organic shapes and highly sculptural vessels – but, unlike the Nordic versions which used either clear glass or subtle, muted shades – Baxter used bright, rich colours to create something youthful and very British. Colourful things were also coming from behind the Iron Curtain. In Czechoslovakia the glass industry was nationalised in 1948 and continued the centuries old tradition of glassmaking in the Bohemian region. Bohemian glass had a reputation for excellence and the new Communist government did not deem glass to be an art form that was ideologically threatening meaning that designers could work largely free of official control. This resulted in the creation of highly innovative modern designs that updated traditional methods of glassmaking and put Czech glass on a par with the best that Italy had to offer.

Following on from its 1950s heyday, studio glass is once again riding the crest of a wave of popularity. If you’ve never thought of having glass on display, think again: the allure of light playing on coloured glass can be just as compelling as a strikingly painted canvas. That said, some people remain a little nervous about living with glass – “It’ll get knocked over and smashed!” Truth is, most glass is more robust than you think and, so long as you’re not flinging it against the wall, it’s no less durable than pottery. Striking forms and colours make piece a work of art in its own right and a real talking point. Art glass, displayed as a single statement piece or grouped together, brings warmth and colour to an interior as effectively as any painting and can also be a good way of introducing an accent colour into a room scheme. The sinuous, organic shapes and jewel-like hues so beloved of mid-century glass artists work as a counterpoint to the tailored interiors of today. Arranging collections of glass in groupings of similar colours and shapes creates a strong visual impact. Remember, when it comes to glass, less is always more, don’t clutter shelves and tabletops with pieces. Instead, give each one space to breathe. You’ll find your art glass a source of inspiration as well as beauty.

Image Credits:
Ken Stradling Collection