Clear new directions

Subtly seductive screens, sofas, baths, desks – even beds – are now being rendered in glass, says Nicole Swengley.

April 12 2010
Nicole Swengley

Glamorous and eye-catching, strong and sophisticated, glass exerts a special magic and will always be a desirable material in the home. Its allure can be attributed to more than its sparkling (and oh-so practical) transparency: it is intrinsically aesthetically pleasing. Now, just as architects are using glass in dramatic, structural ways, so homeowners are responding to technological advances that allow virtually any interior furnishing – baths, basins, kitchen hobs, work surfaces, sofas, bookcases, desks, room dividers and even beds – to be made in glass.

“Glass is now being used in a much wider context and in places you’d never have seen it before,” says Tina Mahony, co-founder and director of the online furniture retailer Go Modern. “Clients are becoming braver,” confirms artist Jeff Bell, whose London-based company, Glasscasts, makes bespoke baths, basins and even lavatories in glass.

“The contemporary, all-glass buildings shooting up in every city worldwide are having a huge influence on what people want inside their homes,” says David Applebaum, founder and managing director of glass furniture specialist Greenapple. “We all want more light in our interiors and transparent glass furniture and fittings provide that. Glass also has other qualities. It’s very soothing to live with. I’ve got one of our Vienna coffee tables at home and often catch myself just staring at it. There’s something very relaxing about looking at glass.”

No one would agree more than top French designer Jean-Marie Massaud, whose sofas and armchairs in shaped, tempered, transparent glass were a success story for Glas Italia at Milan’s Salone de Mobile Internazionale last year. Italian architect Piero Lissoni, who has created a contemporary glass bathroom suite for Boffi, is a fan and so is designer Karim Rashid, whose eye-catching pieces are made by Italian glass furniture specialist Tonelli. French manufacturer Ligne Roset, meanwhile, recently added a new design by Gino Carollo (Brooklyn, £625) to its chic collection of contemporary glass occasional tables.

“Glass is a very pure, minimal look,” says Cheryl Gurner of Bathrooms International. “It appears delicate yet is very durable.” Transparent yet solid, fixed yet apparently fluid, glass offers intriguing design possibilities. “The idea of design being present and yet invisible is redefining the relationship we have with interior and exterior spaces,” observes Carlo Santambrogio, owner, founder and director of Italian glass design company Santambrogiomilano, with showrooms in London and Milan.

The development of superior stratified glass has also increased the design potential. “The possibilities are limitless,” says Santambrogio enthusiastically. “We could build you a glass house and make everything inside it in glass. The furnishings become a seamless part of the structure because we take a very visual, architectural approach, and the fixings are integral. A bookcase, for example, becomes part of a glass wall or ceiling and a kitchen hob blends into a worktop. Glass has been around for a long time but our way of using it is quite different.”

Extra-clear, low-iron Diamant glass, chosen for its extreme transparency, is used by Santambrogiomilano. This is the same material, produced by Saint-Gobain Glass, from which the pyramid of the Louvre museum in Paris was created. To meet safety requirements, two tempered glass sheets, each 15mm thick, are stratified with a PVB film. Placing film between transparent or coloured glass sheets allows designs to be offered in more than a thousand colours. Add Santambrogiomilano’s patented Plexiglas joint and the technical possibilities increase further, not least because the supporting and joinery elements are seamlessly integrated into individual glass sheets to maintain a purity of line.

Santambrogiomilano’s Simplicity collection, designed by Ennio Arosio, includes a glamorous kitchen hob so transparent that its desirability rivals that of the finest copper saucepans. Yet it is also highly practical: spills and splashes are easily wiped clean. Add a run of glass worktops, with clear glass shelves underneath if you like, and you’ve got a kitchen space that’s hygienic and practical yet extremely chic (hob with 2.5m worktop, £16,800). In the bathroom, meanwhile, the transparency of a rectangular glass tub (from £12,000) creates the illusion of space. Easily cleaned, it sparkles at night in candle-light or low-level electric lighting.

Glass shelving and room dividers (from £22,000) perform a similar, space-enhancing trick, letting natural daylight and sunshine pour through. Depending on their location, they can also provide a connection between interior and exterior spaces. Cushions, of course, are a prerequisite for Santambrogiomilano’s minimally styled sofa (from £10,500) and glass bench (from £3,000), while a deeply comfortable mattress is essential for its barely-there glass bed (£20,000). Still, each design creates the perception of floating serenely in space. And for anyone nervous about sleeping on glass, Santambrogio says: “I’ve tried the bed myself and love it. It appears delicate but is extremely strong and really appeals to our design-conscious clients.”

The sensory qualities of glass are highlighted by Roberto Gavazzi, CEO of Boffi, which recently introduced a contemporary glass bathtub (£15,650), basin (£5,125) and open shelving (from £799) designed by Italian architect Piero Lissoni. “The angular shape of our glass bath might look hard-edged but, with water inside, it feels very comfortable and the transparency gives you a sensation of weightlessness,” he says. “Glass is a very clean and hygienic material, so it’s ideal for bathrooms.”

Still, working with glass posed challenges. “The basin is quite heavy so it was engineered with a hanging system that would be strong enough to support it, yet remain hidden,” says Gavazzi. “We faced a similar challenge with the bath in keeping the structure and material below the tub to a minimum while sustaining the weight of the water and user.”

Other bathroom designers are following suit. West One Bathrooms offers the clear glass Le Cob (£18,903), internally fitted with a curve of white Corian, plus Briolette (£699), a faceted glass basin, and Liaison (£1,181), a hand-basin formed from a sleek curve of azure green glass.

“Glass can look very modern but some styles owe much to the art-deco period with their echoes of Lalique,” says Gurner. She cites the three most popular glass basins at Bathrooms International: the contemporary, faceted Honeycomb (£2,200), the more classical Spitzsteindl Salad Bowl (£2,200) and the deco-style Clamshell (£1,882), for which most buyers also purchase Lalique crystal taps (from £1,110 a pair). “People enjoy the artistry of these designs,” says Gurner. “They want a piece of sculpture that’s beautifully hand-cut from the purest lead crystal. More often than not these basins will be installed in cloakrooms where guests will see and use them.”

“People like the sculptural aspects of glass, not just the functional ones,” confirms Glasscasts’ Jeff Bell, who recently made a glamorous, silvered-glass chaise longue (£6,462) for one client. Other commissions have included a trough basin in polished glass for a house in Bloomsbury, and a bath made from laminated, slumped (heat-processed then shaped) glass, standing on solid glass blocks, for a house in the City. (Bespoke basins from £588, baths from £7,050.)

But it’s for living areas that some of the most covetable pieces are being created. Greenapple’s glass fireguard – a simple curve of heat-treated 6mm glass – sells like toasted muffins at Graham & Green (£309) while other stand-out Greenapple designs (available at Harrods and Selfridges) include Wave, an oval dining table with S-shaped glass base (£955), Fiocco, a coffee table whose folded, origami-like sides offer magazine storage (£695), Abbraccio, a seat set within a shield-shaped curve of glass (£675), a minimal glass pedestal desk with integral storage (£675) and a handsome, circular dining table with a swooping glass pedestal (£895).

Greenapple’s rotating multimedia tower (£395) houses DVDs and CDs, while other multifunctional designs, such as combined tables/magazine racks, are also popular. “The pieces are hand-worked with seamless joins and people like that – they often say they are like works of art,” says Applebaum.

This is particularly true of larger pieces. Take the Transmit room divider designed by Marc Krusin for Glas Italia (bespoke, price on application). Almost poetic in its airy opaqueness, it comprises strips of tempered, reflecting, grey glass suspended from the ceiling by two steel wires. The company also makes glass shelving, bookcases, cabinets and tables plus the Crystal Lounge collection of modular sofas (from €7,524) and armchairs (€4,104) designed by Jean-Marie Massaud in extra-light, 19mm glass and the Triennale bench by Michele de Lucchi in laminated, acid-etched, 30mm glass (from €1,311).

Meanwhile, Haîku, a stunning smoked-glass screen designed by Jean-Marie Massaud, the solidity of which is rendered delicate by the tracery of deeply engraved flowers (€1,168 per door) was shown by Glas Italia at the Maison et Objet show in Paris in January.

There’s no doubt that the Italians handle glass brilliantly. Bonaldo, for example, makes a large, swivelling bookcase with a chrome-plated steel base called Cubic Glass (£2,025 transparent, £1,845 in smoked glass, from Chaplins), and Mille, a minimally styled dining table with a fixed, clear-glass top and slim, chrome-plated legs (from £1,985 at Chaplins). Just as appealing is H2O, a cheeky little round table with a clear, plate-glass top and chromed steel frame (£1,850, from Chaplins).

Meanwhile, Fiam Italia’s extensive collection includes Ron Arad’s Onda Corta, a bedside table with corrugated glass sides (€660), Tord Boontje’s Rialto Deco low table, which is covered with a graphic, floral pattern (from €1,110), and Christophe Pillet’s chic, linear, C&C coffee table (from €1,290). Highly practical pieces include Cobra, a snaking glass umbrella stand (€820), and Elix, a minimal yet shapely coat-stand (€1,180).

Turning heads at the Cologne furniture fair in January was Inori, a versatile, modular shelving system/TV unit whose uprights can be individually adjusted, via sliding rails and a fixing device, to create dozens of different combinations. Available free-standing or as a wall unit (from €1,364), the shelves come in a choice of extra-light, transparent or smoked glass.

Tonelli, a highly experienced Italian glass specialist, offers a comprehensive furniture collection embracing shelving (including a simple span of stepped wall shelves called Chicane, €1,070), multi-purpose media units (check out Scenario with its patented, revolving base, from €920), bookcases and tables. Its desks include Strata (from €1,430), a Karim Rashid design with a transparent glass top and pull-out, white lacquered wooden laptop surface, which proved an instant hit when launched last year.

Lotus, an egg-shaped glass shelving unit also designed by Rashid for Tonelli (£3,770), is available to order online from Go Modern. This design-conscious company opens a showroom in London’s King’s Road in May and offers Tonelli glass including the Mondovisione glass wall unit (mounted on a steel frame, from £2,200), Trasparenza glass bookcase on three metal legs (from £880), Bacco tempered glass dining table (from £1,000) and Birillo, a quirky glass side table with a single leg in cherry, wenge or bleached oak (£590). There’s also the Naked armchair, with a black or white leather seat and glass sides whose oval portholes double as armrests (£2,550).

Go Modern also retails designs by Bonaldo, including Blox, a tall cabinet in smoked glass or transparent extra-light glass with a mirrored base and three glass shelves (£2,250). “Big display cabinets are becoming very popular,” says Go Modern co-founder Tina Mahony. “Previously you’d have had to buy a shop-fitting to get something like this.” Also very popular are the Italian-made, wall-hung cabinets with coloured, lacquered glass doors which can be custom-built in various configurations and colours, from £410. These are also available as chests of drawers, bedside cabinets and TV units. “It’s very unusual to find glass-fronted bedroom furniture but it looks extremely chic,” says Mahony.

“Glass now comes in so many wonderful shapes and amazing finishes,” she adds. “You can get acid-washed glass that looks like suede, very clear extra-light glass or coloured, lacquered glass. Etched, patterned, smoked and mirrored glass is also available, prompting people to become much more daring in their use of glass.” Glass, it seems, is boldly going where it has never gone before.

See also

Glass, Baths