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.
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