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Nouvelle vase

From fabulous fine art to stylish functionality, the vases by a new generation of glassmakers outshine their cut-crystal precursors, says Katrina Burroughs.

November 01 2011
Katrina Burroughs

It used to be the standard white-elephant wedding gift; a dowdy cut-crystal dustcatcher, destined to spend more time in the closet than on display. But today’s talented glassmakers, with innovative techniques and creative forms, have reinvented the vase. And the fashion-forward glassworks, from Kosta Boda to Venini, are busy remixing their classics and collaborating with contemporary designers to turn out chic new models.

The vase is a totemic vessel for glass artists, a theme that inspires studio makers to infinite variations – many of the most creative dispensing with typical characteristics (flat base, upright form, generous aperture). Celebrated glass artist Peter Layton says, “I think they should work as objects, whether they’ve got flowers in them or not. Sometimes I take it quite a bit further, making openings so small you can’t actually put flowers in them. And I’m keen on forms that spring up off the surface. People observe that my forms aren’t the most stable, and can rock slightly – perhaps that doesn’t work so well if you fill it with water.” Layton layers fiery reds, oranges and yellows, purples and greens with clear glass to produce spectacular painterly effects, inspired by artists such as Howard Hodgkin and David Hockney. His most sought-after design, called Paradiso (from £400), combines vibrant hues with a surface that undulates like sea-smoothed pebbles.

Fellow glass virtuoso Adam Aaronson has reformulated traditional techniques to produce his mesmeric Bougainvillea series: irregular teardrops, speckled and streaked with colour (from £1,650). “I call it the late colouring technique,” he explains. “With most blown glass, you put the colour on when the glass is small then expand the volume from the inside so the colour stretches. I’m blowing the vessel with one internal colour right up to full size before I start decorating it. While it’s still on the iron, I cover it in silver leaf and a palette of powder glass lustre, which I sprinkle on like icing sugar.”

Aside from established masters such as Layton and Aaronson, a brood of brilliant younger makers are crafting their own take on the traditional form. Why this outburst of creativity now? “It’s partly because we’ve been working at it very hard for three or four decades,” says Layton. “It’s been a huge battle to persuade the British public, brought up on cut crystal, to look again at glass. But now 60 to 70 per cent of our buyers are new customers, who come in and say, ‘Oh, I had no idea you could do this kind of thing with glass.’ ” His workshop-gallery is cleverly situated just across the Thames from the City, and lunchtime walk-ins include financiers in search of something fresh to collect. “One gent turned up in his Ferrari. He had seen a work of mine in the HQ of Barclays, then Googled us. He spent £7,000 in 30 minutes.” It seems that Ferrari-man and his associates, who five years ago might have invested in contemporary art, are now discovering studio glass.

To take up such an interest is to be swiftly spoilt for choice. Names to watch out for include Katharine Coleman, who overlays coloured glass on lead crystal, cutting and engraving it into motifs of flowers or sea creatures (Camelia vase, £5,900); Lucy Alexandra Batt, who sand-carves graphic patterns onto blown-glass vases, revealing layers of intense colour (Signature IV vase, £950); and James Maclachlan, who uses the lost-wax technique to cast his Downpour vessels (from £235). Also well worth tracking down are Jane Dorner’s vases with multicoloured pâte de verre circles encased in blown glass (from £365), and Stuart Akroyd’s series of Ludic vases, decorated with rhythmic strands (from £139).

Akroyd’s Ludic vases, despite their lighthearted name, have a rather grave presence and perhaps play best in solitary splendour, but other makers create series that work as a jolly, jostling group. Louis Thompson’s Cone and Bubble vases, for example, look wonderful arranged as trios or quintets (from £175). These free-blown cylinders, in aquamarine, amethyst and topaz, are formed by an ingenious method. Thompson adds molten glass blobs to the wall of a vessel, and then sucks air from the interior to create cone-shaped or rounded indents. Similarly, Charlotte Sale creates glossy, spun-glass vessels that group together to form “still lives”. Her Lichen series (from £250) celebrates “the way life attaches itself to life”, each vase bearing sculpted adornments in the shape of fan fungus, limpets and moss.

Collectors with an eye to investment should also consider the limited editions produced by venerated manufacturers such as Venini. The Murano glassworks has been producing groundbreaking glass since the 1920s, teaming centuries-old techniques with the creativity of contemporary designers. A couple of recent vases typify that clever combination: the Lanterne Marine by Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby (£7,000) and the spectacular Fuochi d’Argento by Giorgio Vigna (£5,390) – a handmade glass vessel seeded with tiny silver spheres, and filled with glass and silver blooms.

While perhaps the most dramatic examples are unsuited to flower display, many enchanting designs are also functional. Kamini Chauhan’s Spinny vases, designed to hold a single stem, are made from blown crystal encased in a layer of opaque glass. They rock on their rounded bases, creating delicious light effects as the water ripples and resettles (£110). And some vases are intended to match precisely the needs of specific flowers. Over a century ago, garden designer Gertrude Jekyll, aghast at the meagre choice of containers to display English garden blooms, created a range of perfectly plain, clear-glass vases. Named after her Surrey home, The Munstead Collection was relaunched last year, including vessels suitable for lilies, roses and narcissi (from £27).

Like Jekyll, most of us want a harem of vessels. Florist Jamie Aston, who runs classes and lectures on how to choose and use vases, suggests you build up an “arsenal of vases, including fishbowl or cube vases, small bud vases and tall, thin spaghetti vases.” Dartington’s handmade clear-crystal Florabundance range (from £23), by in-house designer Hilary Green, are simple, shapely vessels in forms tailored to blooms from pansies to freesias, that would make an admirable foundation for such a floral armoury. And there are some new releases from the Scandinavian glassmakers to add to the collection of basics. Swedish firm Kosta Boda, whose illustrious history stretches back to the 18th century, has launched Ludvig Löfgren’s Cabana vases (from £79), mould-blown in beaker shapes, shot through with staves of purple, turquoise, orange and green. Meanwhile, Iittala’s Aalto vase – the famous wavy-edged vessel created in 1937 by Alvar Aalto – has consistently been remodelled and recoloured to reflect contemporary trends, and this year comes in light blue (£74).

Talking of taste brings us unavoidably to the question of cut glass. Can it ever be decoratively acceptable? The answer is: it’s already on its way back. “Lots of cut crystal is very staid and I dismissed it for years,” says glassmaker Sam Sweet. “The turning point came for me during a residency at the Broadfield House Glass Museum. I spent a lot of time looking around its historical collection and started to see some really lovely details in the cut crystal.” Last year she launched her milk-bottle vases, in lead crystal cut with unfussy patterns, including daisies, stars and grass motifs (£110). The combination of luxury material with lowly household object, flashy old-fashioned skills with restrained modern decoration, is irresistible, instantly offering a witty new perspective on the cliché. Wedding invitees and weekend house guests could do worse than consider giving a cut-crystal vase, after all.

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