GLASS TOWN

VENICE, OR RATHER ITS IS­LAND OF MU­RANO, HAS BEEN A GLASS-MAK­ING CEN­TRE FOR SEVEN CEN­TURIES. BUT IT TAKES SOME­THING SPE­CIAL TO MAIN­TAIN THAT REP­U­TA­TION NOW – SOME­THING LIKE WON­DERGLASS.

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - CONTENTS - STORY FIONA McCARTHY

Won­derGlass is help­ing pre­serve Mu­rano’s rep­u­ta­tion with its tai­lored pro­duc­tion of beau­ti­ful and orig­i­nal de­signs.

When you think of Venice, it’s likely you think first of gon­do­las and canals, and pos­si­bly its inky turquoise blue la­goon; but no doubt thoughts of its fa­mous hand­blown Mu­rano glass fol­low swiftly after. Yet where it was once all about great swirls of brightly-coloured glass – shaped as elab­o­rate vases or chan­de­liers like multi-tiered flower-strewn wed­ding cakes and Me­dusa heads, the ten­drils pulled like spun su­gar – to­day a new com­pany, Won­derGlass, is chal­leng­ing and rein­ter­pret­ing this time-hon­oured crafts­man­ship in the most spec­tac­u­lar con­tem­po­rary way.

Founded by fa­ther and son Mau­r­izio and Chris­tian Mus­satti, Won­derGlass launched to great fan­fare at the Mi­lan fur­ni­ture fair in 2013 with a col­lec­tion in­clud­ing de­signs by Span­ish de­signer Jaime Hayon and ar­chi­tect Zaha Ha­did, each piece crafted to re­flect an imag­i­nary jour­ney through the won­der­land that is Venice. It was Mi­lan-born Mau­r­izio’s trib­ute to his adopted city and an ode to his long-held pas­sion for glass. “Won­derGlass is about cre­at­ing a mag­i­cal world through the qual­i­ties of glass such as form, colour and trans­parency to of­fer some­thing with soul. Our ob­jec­tive in glass is that each piece must be beau­ti­ful in its own right, even when turned off. The way it in­ter­acts with nat­u­ral light is what makes all the dif­fer­ence, and ar­ti­fi­cial light can only in­crease its beauty,” says Mau­r­izio.

Rein­ven­tion lies at the heart of Won­derGlass, both for what it de­signs and for the found­ing pair them­selves who worked pre­vi­ously in fi­nance. Mau­r­izio fell into the world of light­ing through Ital­ian man­u­fac­turer Flos, first as a con­sul­tant in the 2000s, then as man­ag­ing di­rec­tor for light­ing at Moooi in The Nether­lands, work­ing with the de­signer Mar­cel Wan­ders. In 2008, Mau­r­izio joined Bri­tish de­sign com­pany Es­tab­lished & Sons as COO, then CEO from 2010 un­til last year.

Mau­r­izio was en­cour­aged to start Won­derGlass after at­tempts to ac­quire sev­eral glass­blow­ing busi­nesses in Mu­rano fell through. He’d met the New York-based Ja­panese de­signer Nao Ta­mura at De­sign Mi­ami in 2010, and two years later at Tokyo De­sign Week. With her own glass project in the pipe­line (Flow, based on Venice’s la­goon, now one of Won­derGlass’s best sell­ers), she could see the po­ten­tial of “a brand new com­pany that mar­ried ex­tra­or­di­nary tra­di­tional glass­blow­ing craft­man­ship of blow­ing glass with cut­tingedge mod­ern de­sign”, he says.

Mau­r­izio’s hope was that each piece they pro­duced would pique some­one’s cu­rios­ity, in­spir­ing them “to stop, look and ask,” he says. “I also wanted ev­ery de­sign to have the power to al­ter the at­mos­phere of a room.” Since the mere men­tion of Venice brings a spark to peo­ple’s eyes, “it was with this spark I wanted to shape the idea and de­sign of each of our cre­ations”.

Vene­tian glass­blow­ing rose to promi­nence in the 13th cen­tury as traders from the Mid­dle East flooded through the city, by then the most im­por­tant gate­way to Europe, bring­ing with them glass­ware and the knowhow to pro­duce it. Glass­blow­ing pro­duc­tion was set­tled in Mu­rano in 1291 when au­thor­i­ties moved the city’s ar­ti­sans to the is­land, 1.5km north of the busy com­mer­cial cen­tre and ship­yards of Arse­nale, fear­ing that the large fur­naces re­quired for glass mak­ing would burn down the city.

The de­mand for elab­o­rate, dec­o­ra­tive chan­de­liers and Vene­tian mir­rors in the 18th cen­tury helped to keep the in­dus­try alive; but soon after it be­gan its de­cline as com­pet­ing coun­tries learned to make glass faster and more cheaply (al­though never to the same qual­ity as Venice) and Mu­rano’s work­force shrank from many thou­sands of crafts­men to un­der 1000 in 1990. Venice needs com­pa­nies like Won­derGlass to halt this trend. “Un­like other coun­tries, Mu­rano glass is sus­tain­ably pro­duced to the best stan­dards in the world – and their sense of colour is un­ri­valled,” Mau­r­izio says.

The Mus­sat­tis know the strength of their brand lies in its niche ca­pa­bil­i­ties – what they’ve dubbed “tai­lor­made blow­ing” – and the duo’s abil­ity to gen­tly tread the fine line be­tween art and de­sign, each time start­ing from scratch with ev­ery new piece. Their abil­ity to adapt and ex­per­i­ment – “We can move fast, it’s ei­ther you meet me or Mau­r­izio and the de­ci­sion is made,” says Chris­tian – gives them the edge over more es­tab­lished busi­nesses, which are bur­dened with com­pli­cated hi­er­ar­chies and cost struc­tures that pro­hibit them from in­vest­ing in new ideas.

“Each piece must be beau­ti­ful in its own right, even when turned off. Ar­ti­fi­cial light can only in­crease its beauty.”

“Ar­chi­tects or in­te­rior de­sign­ers have been will­ing to take the risk with us be­cause we’re open to cre­at­ing be­spoke so­lu­tions. We spend the same time on cre­at­ing a ma­jor in­stal­la­tion as we do a few lamps,” says Mau­r­izio of the Won­derGlass col­lec­tion, avail­able to or­der in Aus­tralia through Liv­ing Edge. “We’re try­ing to in­spire an un­usual mix of art and prac­ti­cal­ity,” says Chris­tian. “Look­ing at light as some­thing more ar­chi­tec­tural rather than tech­ni­cal – when you walk into one of our in­stal­la­tions, the first thing you think about is emo­tion.”

Fluid, Ta­mura’s fourth col­lab­o­ra­tion with Won­derGlass, is a case in point, us­ing strange Bun­sen­burner-shaped ves­sels as the means for em­body­ing the en­chant­ing mo­ment when a rip­ple of light hits the la­goon’s sur­face. Ar­chi­tect John Paw­son’s Sleeve, de­signed in 2014, was far more per­sonal, de­signed for use at his house in the coun­try. With one hand­blown glass cylin­der sit­ting within another, and the outer cylin­der flar­ing into a re­fined disc lip at its lower edge, light is cast down­wards while its clear body glows the en­tire length.

In April, as part of Won­derGlass’s Be­tween Time and Light in­stal­la­tion at the his­toric palazzo of Isti­tuto dei Ciechi in Mi­lan, Mar­cel Wan­ders re­vealed Cal­liope, in­spired by the broad, po­etic brush­strokes of Ja­panese cal­lig­ra­phy. It took three years to de­velop, thanks to its mul­ti­ple hand­blown glass parts and sourc­ing ele­ments like the fine silk tas­sel that hangs from the bot­tom of the bul­bous glass, echo­ing the feel of a tra­di­tional lantern. At one of Mu­rano’s glass­blow­ing fac­to­ries, WISH is given an ex­clu­sive tour of the pro­duc­tion process – ar­ti­sans with decades of hand­blow­ing ex­pe­ri­ence turn out each el­e­ment of a Cal­liope piece in just min­utes, with al­most med­i­ta­tive con­cen­tra­tion, while the roar of burn­ing bright fur­naces serve as a con­stant re­minder of the hot, de­mand­ing labour of love and skill this dy­ing craft re­quires.

The Hol­low floor­lamp, by Is­raeli-born, Paris-based de­signer Dan Yef­fet, blurs the lines be­tween func­tional light source and sculp­tural art form. Tak­ing the pro­file of a buoy float­ing on the wa­ter, he has repli­cated its shape in light with tech­ni­cal trick­ery from within. Mean­while prod­uct de­vel­op­ment has con­tin­ued to work on per­fect­ing Luma, the late Zaha Ha­did’s sculp­tural com­po­si­tion of tubu­lar seg­ments which dif­fuse light through or­ganic shapes.

“We can be so pre­cise,” says Mau­r­izio, “but of course it takes time and trust. So far, we’ve been good enough to in­spire the cre­ativ­ity of these de­sign­ers and good enough to gain the con­fi­dence of the ar­ti­sans we work with – be­ing able to work in the mid­dle, re­spect­ing all these dif­fer­ent roles, has no doubt helped our suc­cess so far.” They pro­duce high-qual­ity hand­cast glass too, col­lab­o­rat­ing in a part­ner­ship that pro­duced glass bricks for the Chanel show­room in Amsterdam, along­side work­ing on Qwalala, a curved­wall sculp­ture made of more than 3000 solid hand­cast glass bricks con­ceived by Amer­i­can artist Pae White for this year’s 57th Venice Bi­en­nale. Com­mis­sioned by Le Stanze del Vetro (a non-profit foun­da­tion pro­mot­ing the im­por­tance and use of glass) and shown on the is­land of San Gior­gio Mag­giore, half the bricks were clear glass, the other half hand-in­jected with a stormy swirl of one of 26 colours.

For Chris­tian, Won­derGlass has been an ad­ven­ture in “re­turn­ing to my Ital­ian roots and work­ing on some­thing more per­sonal than ever be­fore”, he says. They will need to gen­er­ate enough sales to stay afloat while stay­ing small enough to keep work­ing with ex­tra­or­di­nary peo­ple and bring their de­sign dreams to fruition. Fa­ther and son share the re­spon­si­bil­ity for dayto-day op­er­a­tions. “We have to do a little of ev­ery­thing ... but we’ve been very lucky so far, the busi­ness seems to have come to us,” says Mau­r­izio.

This month, Won­derGlass has col­lab­o­rated with Sin­ga­porean ar­chi­tects WOHA on a glow­ing glass bead light for a pavil­ion show­cas­ing their new prod­ucts at Mai­son et Ob­jet in Paris. A new col­lec­tion with Bri­tish ar­chi­tect Amanda Levete is un­der way, and plans to work with “some in­ter­est­ing de­sign­ers” (all top-secret for now) are in the pipe­line for the next two years.

“Even though we some­times have doubts now and then, I think we’re go­ing in the right di­rec­tion. The fact that such ex­pe­ri­enced ar­chi­tects and de­sign­ers want to work with us, even though they could eas­ily go to Mu­rano in­de­pen­dently, is very en­cour­ag­ing,” Mau­r­izio says. Now, says Chris­tian, “we just have to keep turn­ing our world of art and emo­tions into some­thing tan­gi­ble”.

“We’re try­ing to in­spire an un­usual mix of art and prac­ti­cal­ity, look­ing at light as some­thing ar­chi­tec­tural.”

Mau­r­izio Mus­satti, above, and glass blow­ers at work

Clock­wise from top left: Nao Ta­mura’s Fluid, Cal­liope by Mar­cel Wan­ders and Luma by Zaha Ha­did

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