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Midcentury glass

Sinuous shapes, dazzling hues and newfound cachet are attracting buyers to postwar glass from Continental Europe, says Katrina Burroughs.

October 03 2011
Katrina Burroughs

From shapely works by the celebrated designers of Murano to cased-glass pieces by a host of barely known Czech artists, midcentury Continental glass is proving compelling to fans of technically accomplished, vividly hued tableware that treads the line between art and craft.

Dickie Bannenberg, MD of superyacht design company Bannenberg & Rowell (read his personal style file in The Aesthete), is partial to the flowing forms of Val St Lambert, specifically the spiralling vases, dishes and lamp bases produced by the historic glassworks from 1930 to 1950. “I love the counterpoint of the curvy, melty shapes and colours to our tailored interiors,” he says. “I often go to my friend Marc Weaver [of Guinevere Antiques], for pieces for home and work projects.”

Examples to look out for, according to Weaver, are the larger models, inscribed with the in-house designers’ names, such as Charles Graffart or Joseph Simon. “The factory was the Belgian equivalent of the French firm Baccarat, its equal in quality, but has never been as well known,” says Weaver. Today, signed lamp bases dating from the 1930s and 1940s cost upwards of £1,400 and vases go from around £700 at Guinevere. If you want your Val for under £500, focus on later, smaller, unsigned pieces. Dealer Louise Verber sells 1950s lamps at £500 a pair and vases for £150-£500, depending on size and condition.

Midcentury Val St Lambert has been on the connoisseurs’ radar for a decade – it initially came to the UK in any quantity when glass dealer Mark West and John Smith of Mallett Antiques bought most of the contents of the Val museum in 1997 – but there are other curvilinear creations of the same vintage that are only now being discovered. “Midcentury Czech glass represents a truly great opportunity right now. If you like it, my advice is to get it while you can,” says Mark Hill, a specialist on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow and author of Hi Sklo Lo Sklo, a book about postwar Czech glass. His interest began while discussing glass with fellow collector Graham Cooley: “We’d noticed some great-quality pieces in our collections, with similarities to Murano, but we couldn’t identify them.” They investigated further, and uncovered a hidden haul of excellence.

Why had these high-quality works, which won prizes at international expositions, been overlooked for half a century? “I think the area has been ignored because, as collectors, we always want to know about designers and companies. The communist government, which was exporting these things for hard currency, didn’t care to promote individual names, and until the 1990s most pieces from the former Czechoslovakia just bore a label saying ‘Bohemia glass’.”

So what should we be buying in this exciting, emerging market? Hill says, “Aim for the unique or limited in production” – and cites the studio works of established figures such as Frantisek Vizner (from £4,000 to £40,000). A few price points down, Mallett stocks midcentury production works by Pavel Hlava, Karel Wünsch and Oldrich Lipsky (cased-glass vases at £600-£1,200). Thomas Woodham-Smith, a consultant to Mallett, marvels at the expertise of the glassmakers who excelled in this tricky technique: “It’s multilayered glass. You can put an overlay of coloured glass and cut it away to get a pattern, or add several layers for a complex interplay of coloured and clear glass. It takes very highly experienced craftsmen to create the effect.”

If you fancy Czech glass on an austerity budget, for under £100 you can find stellar works from the Skrdlovice factory, whose stable of designers included Vizner. Dealer Nigel Benson stocks Miroslav Klinger’s 1950s and 1960s designs for the Zelezny Brod glassworks, from £50 to £250.

Those Czech gems may be a taste that we are only lately acquiring, but the products of the tiny island of Murano, in the Venetian lagoon, have always attracted passionate collectors. Pablo Cal-Fernandez, a historic-building conservation specialist, is a midcentury glass aficionado who is particularly enamoured of the artistic output of the Venini glassworks. “Fratelli Toso, Barovier & Toso and Seguso Vetri d’Arte were all producing amazing stuff, but Venini was the best, absolutely the pioneer of 20th-century glass,” he says.

A collector for over a dozen years, Cal-Fernandez still has a long wish list of pieces he would like to find: “Fulvio Bianconi was at Venini in the 1950s and he did all sorts of crazy stuff. It looks simple and elegant, but fusing thin, coloured-glass squares together then forming them into a vase isn’t simple. The Pezzato (patchwork) is one of his most famous pieces – if you can find it, a large Pezzato can cost £6,000.” Other key pieces include the Venini Battuto (beaten) glass chalice, designed in about 1960 by Tobias Scarpo, which will set you back around £2,500 at specialists such as the FCR Gallery. Relatively inexpensive objects of desire, for Murano fans, include the many colourful and curvy Sommerso (cased glass) pieces made in the style of Flavio Poli’s work for Seguso Vetri d’Arte; decanters cost from £30 to £500 from Andy McConnell at Glass Etc.

McConnell, a dealer and Miller’s Guide author, says there’s an insatiable appetite for stellar pieces of Murano among both interior designers and private clients: “People are much more likely to spend money on coloured statement pieces of glass for their homes nowadays. Our homes are better lit, and we have more daylight coming in than ever before. Light and glass – that’s what works.”