Bocci creative director Omer Arbel admits his first experiment with blown-glass lighting was mostly an accident. The architect/designer was working near a glass-blowing factory in Vancouver, Canada, when curiosity got the better of him. “I wanted to see what would happen if, rather than blowing into glass, as blowers have been doing for thousands of years, you also did the opposite.”
The result was the 28 (from £465), Bocci’s famous lighting hanging “ball” concept that is all perfectly coloured imperfection: a “distorted sphere” that houses more distorted sphericals inside, which themselves house the lighting source. Now six years old, the Bocci lamp and subsequent variations – which have since featured in the V&A and Mallett’s Ely House – have helped resurrect glass lighting to a point where, says Vessel Gallery owner Angel Monzon, “glass is the zeitgeist. It’s sexy now.”
It wasn’t so until recently. When Monzon started Vessel Gallery in 1999, specialising in glass vases and lighting, handblown glass was not on the design radar. Monzon had a hard time convincing anyone that decorative Murano-made glass had a place in the modern, minimalist home. The tide began to turn thanks to such talents as Simon Moore (former design director at Salviati, Murano), who worked with designers Tom Dixon, among others, at the Murano studios, and companies like Czech Republic-based Lasvit, which creates minimal lighting installations with designers such as Arik Levy (Crystal Rock faceted‑jewel pendant, £975). Now Monzon says customers fully embrace the significance of a handblown-glass lighting piece.
“There’s been a rediscovery of glass,” Monzon confirms. “Our clients now expect their lighting will be handblown. Once someone has filled their home with furniture and their walls with art, it’s the next opportunity they have to commission a beautiful one-off design that has real impact. They know that it may take months to make, that it is expensive in terms of energy and time, and that it takes a decade of training before a blower can let loose and make larger pieces. All of this makes a statement.”
Such statements have included a butterfly lighting installation for a child’s bathroom, blown by Hanne Enemark for Vessel Gallery’s Vessel Editions, featuring digitally cut winged glass moth magnets that cling to the sides of 16 coloured-glass lampshades. The project totalled £20,000, and prices up to £50,000 are fairly common now for domestic installations, says Monzon, who is assembling a UK hub for creators to make such pieces possible that includes the young Jeremy Maxwell Wintrebert, who blows super-poetic lighting and vessels, and studios such as Paris’s Semeur d’Etoiles.
In the US, meanwhile, New York-based glass blower Jeff Zimmerman’s ever-growing reputation as a designer of glass lighting installations has meant his work – now seen in galleries alongside contemporary and midcentury design – and unique commissions generally start at about $125,000 per creation. As a blower, and not just a designer, he earns extra kudos for his swirling “snake”-themed lighting clusters (from $1,800), and his huge cloud installations of sizeable blown balls of glass (Unique Snow Crystal, $250,000).
Virtuosity and scale apart, handblown glass is easy to spot: “It is formed on the end of a pipe like a dollop of honey,” says Design Haus Liberty owner Dara Huang. It also has its own allure and cachet. “Glassblowing is a unique and beautiful experience,” Huang continues.
Sophie Ashby, a young interior designer who has watched handblown glass grow in popularity, says there is a romance to mouthblown work that can never be rivalled by machine-blown or machine-cast glass: “It is a million miles away from a factory feel because of the organic shapes that you get from the natural imperfections of blowing glass. Those are the textures and patterns and marks that we’re interested in. There’s an unpredictable quality to the material; it disperses light in this amazing way – dappled and irregular rather than a uniform glow.”
Ashby’s recent installations include a blown-glass branch chandelier in the home of Alasdair Nicholls, chairman and chief executive of Native Land property developers, which was created by Lindsey Adelman, the NYC‑based designer of contemporary glass and metal lighting branches. “They’re so sculptural and organic, a real move away from architectural linear lighting. Adelman has been very influential.”
In a new King’s Cross development by Argent, Ashby has featured individual, pretty coloured blown pendants (from £225) by Midlands-based glass studio Curiousa & Curiousa at either side of the bed, because “when something is that beautiful, you can keep the shape and form simple”. She has her eye on other pieces too – including London studio Poetic Lab’s 2013 Ripple table lamps (from £3,480) – an irregular bubble of clear glass that turns on its brass circular base – and “twizzles and disperses light like a modern-day disco ball”.
Such effects are increasingly being exploited in modern designs. Design Haus Liberty recently installed a handmade raindrop chandelier called The Pour (price on request) in American financier and art collector Eytan Tigay’s Tribeca loft. It is made up of tens of “droplets” of crystal, each hung at different heights from brass caps positioned across a grid, and the beauty is both in the droplets themselves, which took a year to create, and the way in which they have been hung to “mimic how puddles ripple outwards in concentric circles”. Because the droplets are “loaded” towards the bottom, the shape affects “how the light looks when it shines through this thickness, and creates water shadows on the floor,” says Huang. “This effect was unexpected yet achieved the very best in design. It creates a life of its own.”
At Artemide in Italy, meanwhile, famed designer Carlotta de Bevilacqua has co-designed two new atmospheric lamps using mouthblown glass, including Empatia (from £524), a bulbous, clear and white shaded table lamp with an LED “candle” inside, and Incalmo (price on request), a large striped, egg-shaped glass pendant held by an aluminium cap. They have “a magic insubstantiality” and are made in Venice by trained glassblowers. “Handblown glass produces effects that modify spaces and interact with the architecture,” she says. “It makes for a complete emotional experience.” De Bevilacqua is also keen to “promote handcraft traditions”, and she is not alone.
Parachilna, a Barcelona-based lighting firm founded in 2013, is dedicated to handcrafting where possible. The first lighting collections – a mixture of wire works designed by Stephen Burks and handblown-glass table lamps by Jaime Hayon – are already garnering design awards. The Hayon lamps, Aballs (from £1,034), are sunny table or hanging lamps with spherical blown-opal-glass “heads” and glossy ceramic rounded bases, and are big on impact.
Back in Italy, Italian/English design outfit Giopato & Coombes recently launched a range of handblown lighting under its own label, Editions, utilising the skills of Venetian glassmakers. Its first designs, I Flauti (€1,740), look like elaborate candy-coloured inverted glass flutes, while its second, Bolle (£1,080), are beautifully simple transparent blown bubbles of glass joined together to make cloud clusters of different sizes. “They are so skilled and passionate about their art that it’s a joy to work with them,” says Cristiana Giopato of the artisans who are helping them realise products that are “free from industrial and market constraints. We want to find new ways to make the most of their capacities and relaunch Italian artisan production.”
Commercial design stores are also supporting the handmade. The Conran Shop features south London-based glassblower Michael Ruh’s simple pendant lighting (from £440), and Heal’s stocks a number of handblown lighting design houses, including Brokis, a Czech Republic company that produces super-modern pieces such as the balloon floor lamp (from £810), a clear-glass bulb-shaped lamp containing a metal reflector so large that only two of their blowers are capable of producing it. There’s also Capsula (£780 each) by Lucie Koldova that has a coloured capsule inside a clear outer and is influenced by seedpods and plant cells. Other Heal’s brands include Rothschild & Bickers, a UK glassworks formed by Victoria Rothschild and Mark Bickers in Hertford in 2007, whose modern-with-a-traditional-twist pendant lighting (from £320) has featured in Hilton hotels and Harrods.
Also new in London are works by Alison Berger, a Californian glass-lighting artist whose pieces have been bought by Jennifer Aniston and director Michael Bay. The bulb is at the core of Berger’s work and the blown clear glass is the perfect foil for her jewel-like lamps (from £3,988). “The handblown-crystal forms capture and magnify the light transmitted from the bulb,” she says.
Heal’s creative director Carmel Allen suspects our interest in bulbs and light sources is at the core of the rise of transparent-glass lighting. Such experimentation is one of the themes of Omer Arbel’s work at Bocci. He recently found a new ceramic-based fabric that resists colossal temperatures, and has blown glass into fabric shapes formed from it. The results, called 73 (£575), are “a weird hybrid. The pendants have the optical qualities of glass that have taken on the texture of fabric. Your mind tells you it’s made of fabric, but it’s not. What’s exciting about this piece is how it is illuminated. It has this amazing volumetric quality to it and I felt that the light source shouldn’t seem present at all. It had to fill the volume with a diffuse light.” His solution? A flat ring lamp with a diffuser beneath to push light down into the pendant “in a cloud of light that gets trapped inside the glass form. That cloud of light highlights the unique form of each of the lights.”
Similarly, LEDs make Carlotta de Bevilacqua’s lamps at Artemide possible – in fact, she sees her designs as a culmination of old and modern technologies. The work of Poetic Lab follow similar principles. It is at this crossroads that Arbel sees glass lighting’s full potential going forward. “In a way glassblowing is very conventional and conservative,” he says. “It’s been almost canonised over the years. But those ideas are being challenged. There are new ways of thinking about glass, and I don’t mean just on a technical level, but allegorically too. Glass can communicate new ideas now.”