Captivating and collectable contemporary glassware

Experimental glassblowers are creating extraordinary sculptural pieces, says Nicole Swengley

Dale Chihuly Amber Cattails, displayed at Cheekwood Botanical Garden, Tennessee
Dale Chihuly Amber Cattails, displayed at Cheekwood Botanical Garden, Tennessee | Image: Dale Chihuly/Parks Anderson

The emotional impact of glass can transform a space, painting it with light and sensuality while adding a poetic artistry to homewares and lighting. “Working with glass can be unpredictable,” says Angel Monzon, founder and director of Vessel, a leading London contemporary glass gallery. “It can collapse or crack before your eyes and you never really know how it will turn out – the results can be completely thrilling or a complete disaster.”

Hokanson Dix Glass Sails vase, £1,200
Hokanson Dix Glass Sails vase, £1,200 | Image: Ester Segarra

As an appreciation of glamorous glassware grows among homeowners, increasing numbers of designer-makers are developing innovative techniques far removed from traditional glass production in historic centres such as Venice. A pivotal figure in the development of contemporary art glass is Seattle-based Dale Chihuly. With work in more than 200 museum collections worldwide, this multi-award-winning maker, who co-founded Pilchuck Glass School in Washington state in 1971, is renowned for ambitious architectural installations in cities and gardens internationally. But his smaller-scale sculptural work is highly prized by collectors attracted to pieces such as the dramatic and graceful Fire Orange Basket Set (price on request), inspired, he says, by northwest-coast Indian baskets; and Mint Green White Soft Cylinder (price on request), an example of his ongoing experimentation with fusing intricate patterns of colourful threads, such as those seen in native American textiles, onto a vessel in its molten state. Given Chihuly’s stature, it’s a surprise to learn that he also undertakes bespoke commissions for private residences; recently these have included an elaborate two-tier turquoise chandelier, made from 933 hand-blown glass components, installed within a soaring library atrium in a private home in Mexico, and a pair of lustrous glass wall sconces whose cranberry and gold elements create a warming glow in a Californian dining room. Clients are also keen to order bespoke garden installations such as the five yellow Persians – exuberantly organic glass sculptures – set around a pond on a private estate in Belgium, and the dramatically curling Cattails, in warm tones of red, orange and yellow, for a private garden in Texas. “I’ve always tried to push the medium as far as I could in terms of shape and scale,” says Chihuly.

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Challenging preconceptions comes naturally to glass artists Philip Baldwin and Monica Guggisberg, who moved their Baldwin & Guggisberg studio from Paris to rural Wales in 2015. By combining Italian cold-worked cutting with Swedish blown-glass colour underlays and overlays, they developed a new technique that has resulted in spirited designs such as the Harlequin vase (€11,400), a joyous coming together of pattern, colour, texture and form. Baldwin and Guggisberg are also creating new typologies in glass: Aspiring Spires (€19,200) is an enchanting example from a series of contemplative boat forms filled with mini glass “amphorae”; the sculptural shapes displayed in A Cappella Notes (€21,600) and Seeking a New Code (€21,600) are hung vertically from wires attached to frames that could be used as decorative room dividers or screens.

John Reyntiens 15 Lines of Light over-door panel, commissioned for a private residence
John Reyntiens 15 Lines of Light over-door panel, commissioned for a private residence | Image: John Reyntiens

London-based glass artist John Reyntiens also enjoys experimenting with new technologies – “Glassmaking has generally remained unchanged since medieval times; to give it a fresher feel, I find ways of making new techniques work,” he says. “The process is quite anarchic, but what one can do is ever evolving.” Following a commission to create 2,000 glass “beads” for Versace’s 1999 autumn/winter womenswear collection, Reyntiens “got excited about melting glass in the kiln”. A process of continued experimentation has given his Meteorite series (from £400) – intriguing, eye-catching artworks designed to be hung singly or collectively on a wall – an elemental, textured surface “that retains the memory of glass in its molten state”, turning it golden in the kiln, then silvering or gilding with precious metals to make it self-reflecting.

From left: Maurizio Galante for Lasvit Ludwig chandelier, from £20,900, and Bruce Marks Cut Fish, £1,250
From left: Maurizio Galante for Lasvit Ludwig chandelier, from £20,900, and Bruce Marks Cut Fish, £1,250 | Image: Ester Segarra

Reyntiens’ public installations include traditional stained-glass windows for historic sites (Windsor Castle; Westminster Hall in the Houses of Parliament, for which he created a window to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee) and decorative wall panels – backlit by a computerised programme of multicoloured LED lights that causes the glass to change colour continuously – commissioned for a bar/restaurant. However, he also undertakes inventive contemporary work for private residences. For one home, he used silkscreen printing on hand-blown antique glass to reproduce a gouache sketch. He fired the glass, then worked over the design with lead oxide paint to give it the appearance of free-flowing brushstrokes, before refiring, laminating and installing it as an over-door panel.

Arik Levy for Lasvit Crystal Rock vases, from £340
Arik Levy for Lasvit Crystal Rock vases, from £340

Filtering light through coloured glass can radically alter a room’s ambience, and glass itself can act just as powerfully when containing a light source. Lasvit, based in the Czech Republic, is fast becoming the go-to company for glamorous bespoke lighting made from hand-blown glass. Leon Jakimič, who comes from a family of traditional glassmakers, set up the company in 2007 and works in tandem with art director Maxim Velčovský. “We have a 1,000-year tradition of glassmaking in Bohemia, but I wanted to set up a luxury brand with international appeal,” says Jakimič.

Improbable Waveform by Graham Muir, £2,500
Improbable Waveform by Graham Muir, £2,500 | Image: Ester Segarra

Lasvit installs its contemporary pieces in hotels, restaurants and private residences internationally, often working with architectural designers such as David Collins Studio. Among pieces installed in homes are Facet (from £2,450), designed by Moritz Waldemeyer, whose diamond-like hexagonal glass components can repeat endlessly to build any size of chandelier; Maurizio Galante’s Ludwig (from £20,900), a contemporary chandelier made from industrial glass tubes; and Boris Klimek’s playful Lollipop lights (table and pendant from £1,840; floor from £1,920) – colourful, slumped glass plates that slot into metal holders.

From left: Fin bowl by Laura Birdsall, £1,500, and Anima chandelier by James Lethbridge, £20,500
From left: Fin bowl by Laura Birdsall, £1,500, and Anima chandelier by James Lethbridge, £20,500 | Image: Ester Segarra

Lasvit plans to open flagship stores in Prague and London within the next few years, and is currently working on widening its homewares collection too. Collaborations with prominent designers include Humberto and Fernando Campana’s playful Candy collection of hand-blown glass tableware and lights (from £360), Arik Levy’s faceted, light-reflecting Crystal Rock vases (from £340) and Patricia Urquiola’s intricately cut Radiant vase (£1,470), with works by Kengo Kuma, Zaha Hadid Design, Ed Ng & Terence Ngan and Yabu Pushelberg just launched in Milan. As Jakimič puts it: “We want to turn functional objects into art.”

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Transforming humble homewares into beautiful artworks is also the speciality of Bengt Hokanson and Trefny Dix, whose Hokanson Dix Glass is based in East Hampton, New York. Colourful, layered patterns flow alluringly across the surfaces of their sculptural glass forms, such as the Sails (£1,200) and Purse (£425) vases, in a vibrant palette reminiscent of the abstract paintings of Howard Hodgkin and Mark Rothko that inspire the work. It is this interaction of colour, shape and material that gives their distinctive pieces an engaging presence. “Our work is a contrast between the flash of modern life and the serenity of quiet forms,” says Hokanson.

French designer-maker Lise Gonthier goes further in treating glass as a pictorial medium. After studying painting at the Beaux-Arts in Besançon in eastern France, she discovered glassblowing in the Czech Republic and now works from her studio in Beaucaire, near Arles. Using smaller, hand-blown pieces of glass to compose her “paintings”, she places the final configuration in the kiln, where all the sections fuse together. The results are seen in painterly vessels such as L’Ecartelée and Quand la Reine Part (£3,950 each), with their graphic monochrome stripes, and in Perdition d’Automne (£3,950), whose oblong yellow and grey glass “beads” are bonded into the vessel.

The sculptor Brancusi is the inspiration for South African-born, London-based Bruce Marks, who works at London Glassblowing. “I love Brancusi’s work – how he simplified everything, distilled it, retaining the very essence of the subject,” Marks says. His deceptively simple abstract forms, exemplified by Tall Cut Bird (£1,450) and Cut Fish (£1,250), allude to wildlife in his homeland, with colour overlays on the glass surfaces worked away to produce abstract patterns and tonal variations.

Nature’s tiniest details, such as a seedpod or fish’s fin, often provide a starting point for Laura Birdsall, one of very few artists selected for four of the past six British Glass Biennale exhibitions in Stourbridge that have been part of the International Festival of Glass since 2004. Her exquisite vessels have form as their focus. “There’s always a link between interior and exterior and the use of texture within this context,” says Birdsall. Many pieces feature a highly worked rim and exterior as “the edge defines the difference between the inside and outside”. This can be a very laborious process on sizeable pieces, such as the Fin bowl (£1,500), with “a lot of hand-cutting to create different textures. I like to make the work very tactile, with a soft matte finish on the outside achieved by sand blasting and acid dipping.”

Turning studies of organic material into sculptural glass objects and lighting comes naturally to James Lethbridge. “My sources of inspiration could be twisting vines, pollen or air movement,” he says. “A fascination with the natural world lends power to the making.” Since graduating from London’s Royal College of Art in 2007, Lethbridge has gained a reputation for creating eye-catching chandeliers whose flowing glass resembles otherworldly flora. One of his latest lighting sculptures is Anima (£20,500), a magnificent 2m chandelier whose twisted glass rods spiral into dazzling tendrils. “I wanted to capture a sense of energy and movement within the material,” he says. Now based in Antwerp, Lethbridge also creates innovative sculptural objects such as the gilded glass Urchin (£500), characterised by spiky glass shards.

The force of nature is dramatically captured in glass by Graham Muir, who works from a studio in the Scottish borders. His Wave series, including Improbable Waveform (£2,500) and Golden Sunbeam Ocean vessel (£2,200), exploits glass’s quick transition from molten to solid to retain a sense of fluidity, using techniques involving blown and carved lead crystal. “I wanted to capture the excitement of a wave at its most dynamic, just before it breaks,” he says. “As the sculpture is heated to a point where the previously cut glass form flows once more as a liquid, I rapidly open, fold and twist it. As the piece cools, it instantly takes the form you see, with the wave’s power and energy reflected in the dynamism of the process.” It’s this visual tension, contrasting the fragility of glass with the strength of the sculpture’s impressive form, that gives Muir’s pieces their power to elicit emotion.

Talent, tenacity and dedication: they are the hallmarks of a new generation of independent glassmakers who, as Angel Monzon notes, “are creating exciting, mesmerising and unique works, taking glass way beyond the traditional vessel form”.

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