From the 13th to the 18th century Murano 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.
It is no secret that since then Murano has been through sad times. When the recession of the 1970s and 1980s hit Italy, many of the furnaces turned to making cheap touristy objects, while at the same time crude copies from China and eastern Europe debased the whole notion of Murano glass. This led to the closing of many furnaces, the loss of many jobs and even a fear for the survival of this ancient and noble craft.
But Murano knows how to triumph over the hard times – in the 15th century it was saved by Angelo Barovier’s invention of crystal-clear glass, while three centuries later it was the development of luxurious Venetian mirrors and chandeliers that saw off the competition from Bohemia. And while today it is still too early to say that a complete renaissance is under way there are, fortunately, philanthropists and patrons, latter-day Medicis and Gonzagas, who have a deep love of the finest Murano glass and want to ride to the rescue.
Luca Berta, who runs the Venice Art Factory Project with co-founder Francesca Giubilei, is in no doubt as to what has gone wrong and what needs to be done. “The furnaces have completely failed to renew themselves. They stick to traditional techniques and traditional designs. Almost none of them invests in any research and development – and with science advancing so fast today, there are lots of exciting innovations they should be embracing.”
Take serial entrepreneurs Shirley and Vernon Hill (Vernon built US Commerce Bancorp into a top US bank and is the man behind Metro Bank) who have long been collectors of glass, mostly from the 600-year-old family firm of Seguso Vetri d’Arte. It was through collecting that the Hills met the Seguso family and began to see that many furnaces were closing down and skills were being lost. “I have antique pieces in my collection that can’t be made any longer because the glass master died without passing on the techniques,” says Shirley Hill. So two years ago, the Hills decided to make it their mission to raise Seguso Vetri d’Arte to world-class status. “I was not just going to give money,” says Shirley, “I wanted to go slowly and build a brand.”
Among the first things the Hills are doing is starting an apprenticeship scheme so that techniques can be passed on. They also believe that Seguso Vetri d’Arte isn’t just about selling glassware – “we are also selling the emotion and the history behind it”. So while Seguso Vetri d’Arte sells some of its products online, the firm encourages buyers to visit the furnace in Murano and become immersed in the brand, its history and its philosophy. Elsewhere the Hills are opening a few, very select small spaces where they can engage customers in the full story of the brand. There is a showroom-cum-salon in the Bauers hotel in Venice and they are actively looking for suitable locations. The idea is to furnish them entirely with Seguso Vetri d’Arte glass – furniture, tableware, lighting and so on – and to make the experience special. They also plan to organise private tours (with Bellini Travel) of the furnace that will take in visits to the Giampaolo Seguso Artist Atelier, which is usually closed to the public. “We want to show what happens behind closed doors and give our guests an experience utterly different from the brutal commercial tours touted round St Mark’s Square,” says Giampaolo’s son Gianluca Seguso. (Tours can also be booked directly through Seguso Vetri d’Arte.)
As to the glassware itself, historically much has been for private commissions (from €20,000). A glass table and a collection of wine glasses were made for Princess Diana, and precious door handles have been produced for many LVMH boutiques. Other special orders include tables, chests and chandeliers. Now creative director Pierpaolo Seguso (Gianluca’s brother) is pushing the creative boundaries by producing stunning washbasins (€3,000) in brilliantly striped glass, and chandeliers (€6,000) that use entirely LED lighting with a choice of interchangeable lights. Giampaolo has a kingdom of his own at the furnace (the aforementioned Artist Atelier) where he creates one-off pieces of great beauty, and upon some of which he engraves his heart-rending poetry (€20,000). A small selection of Seguso tumblers and barware will be available at London’s Fortnum & Mason in time for Christmas, with the new year bringing a small area in the store devoted to a specially commissioned larger range – including some pieces inspired by the archive. While most customers want to commission specially for their houses or yachts and much of what is produced is art glass, there is also a more accessible end with some enchanting handmade tumblers (€100) and wine glasses (€160) to buy online.
Salviati is another Murano company benefiting from recent investment. Founded in the mid-19th century to counter the competition from English and Bohemian glass, it was bought by the Umana group in May with the specific intention of reinvigorating the brand. At this year’s Milan Salone del Mobile, Salviati gave some intimation of where it is heading. In its Breaking the Mould exhibition, a team of seven international designers, collaborating with a materials scientist, produced a series of experimental one-off vessels (from €1,960 through Venice Future) formed from blown glass combined with 3D printing and refractory materials (non-metallic materials capable of withstanding incredibly high temperatures). Looking forward it will also be bringing video artists and communications experts on board, hoping to collectively “push the boundaries of traditional craft”.
Then there is Oikia 3, owned by Rinaldo Invernizzi, which in June bought 95 per cent of Barovier & Toso, one of Murano’s oldest furnaces. It is too early for any new strategy to have emerged, but Invernizzi is full of hope, “convinced that the company’s several-hundred-year-old success story, strong artistic aspects and ‘Venetian-ness’ are values to build on.” Another one to watch.
Studio Berengo, based in Murano, has long tried to lift the glass industry to higher artistic endeavour, and during the Venice Biennale its Glasstress exhibition, in the Palazzo Franchetti, always features the work of highly acclaimed artists as well as architects and designers, most of whom have never worked with glass before – Tony Cragg, Dinos and Jack Chapman, Matt Collishaw, Olafur Eliasson to name just a few. Much of the work is extraordinarily innovative, and those who want to buy such one-off pieces have to track down the artist and/or their gallery. Wael Shawky’s wonderful glass marionettes (from $65,000 each), for example, are for sale through the Lisson Gallery in London.
Another hopeful sign is that some serious artists are fired up by the possibilities of glass and still turn to the Murano studios to bring their dreams to life. Jean-Michel Othoniel, for instance, became enchanted with the romantic propects of working with glass in 1993 and since then he has hugely expanded its vocabulary, giving it what he calls “an architectural dimension”. Most notably he created a wondrous fairytale glass bed, entitled My Bed, that was showcased at the Fondation Cartier in 2003, as well as another that was shown at Galerie Perrotin in 2008. His work is collected by the Arnault family (of LVMH) and he currently has two exhibitions – one at the 836M Gallery in San Francisco (which runs until January 2016) and another permanent feature, Les Belles Danses, in The Water Theatre grove at Versailles. Othoniel mostly works to commission and can be contacted at his studio in Paris or through the Perrotin galeries in Paris, New York and Hong Kong.
Glassmaker Venini has long collaborated with the great designers of the day, including, in 2010, the Campana brothers, who produced wall-light sculptures from fragments of glass (from £16,800), and Studio Job, whose Mae West Tits lights (£1,150 each) created something of a sensation that same year. This year, Japanese architect Tadao Ando has fused metal with glass into an extraordinary hourglass (£7,600). Venini is also developing initiatives with other companies such as Maserati, for a limited‑edition luxury car, and Ermenegildo Zegna interiors. Meanwhile, some of its most beautiful classics – in particular Tapio Wirkkala’s series of Bolle glass containers (from £1,100) and Napoleone Martinuzzi’s reinvented Doge chandelier (£10,5000) are being sold through Vessel Gallery.
Luca Berta hopes his Venice Art Factory Project will revive the status and quality of the products coming out of Murano and believes the glass masters and factory owners need to embrace science and art if they are to have a future. “Fresh ideas from international artists and designers often imply a challenge on a technical level, which many can’t meet. As a young designer put it to me: ‘Glass is too clean – we must contaminate it with other materials.’ They also need to think about 3D printing.” He and his co-founder Giubilei are independent consultants who broker relationships between furnaces and artists. “We know most of the glassmakers, their skills and their limitations,” says Berta. “We also know many artists who are willing to experiment with glass. We have no vested interest in any particular furnace but merely want to put together the right artist with the right glassmaker.”
Together with Didier Guillan, Berta and Giubilei curated TheDialogue of Fire, a recent exhibition at Venice’s Palazzo Tiepolo Passi. It showed what is possible when imagination and technical skills come together. Silvano Rubino, an artist who became fascinated by the potential of glass, took several conventional objects (Chinese vases with cherry blossom, porcelain sculptures, engraved crystal bottles and wall lamps) and reimagined them in an unconventional manner. The results were enchanting. The Chinese vases (€25,000), for instance, re-emerged as blown-crystal vases with transparent glass branches; the wall lamps as “illuminated ladders” (€25,000); and blown-glass bottles as white satin bottles with black glass caps (€16,000). Berta’s declared ambition is “to make more art happen in Venice”. That exhibition is yet another sign things are stirring and that Murano may once again become a source of great innovation as well as great beauty.