The island of Murano is not what it used to be. For centuries this dot of land 2km from Venice was the centre of the global glass industry. Its densely packed furnaces churned out chandeliers, vases, goblets and gewgaws, from colourful clowns and twirling dancers to prancing horses and pouting fish. As recently as the 1970s, there were more than 800 furnaces doing a brisk trade on the island.
But times have changed. An influx of cheaper glass from China put many Venetian companies out of business. And many consumers no longer wanted the elaborately shaped, lurid pieces that many Murano blowers specialised in. Today there are fewer than 80 furnaces left, and many of the island’s old industrial buildings wear for-sale signs.
Necessity, though, is the mother of invention. “Murano seemed to be in terminal decline,” says David Landau, a Swiss collector who lives in Venice, where he founded Le Stanze del Vetro, a museum dedicated to Venetian glass on San Giorgio Maggiore, another of Venice’s islands. “But Murano people have realised that if they close themselves off, it’s not going to work. There has been a slow but inexorable reopening of Murano to the world.”
One morning in December I took a water taxi to the island with Maurizio Mussati and his son Christian. Italians who are based in London, they founded a company called WonderGlass in 2013, which commissions international designers to create pieces in collaboration with Murano’s glassblowers. The first person they turned to was Nao Tamura, a young Japanese designer who they hired as WonderGlass’s first art director. Tamura was an unlikely candidate for the job: she had never worked with glass and had never been to Venice. But her inexperience proved valuable. “I had a fresh eye for it,” she says.
Her eye was drawn to the city itself. “I was in Venice for the first time, you know, and there’s the water and the reflection. It was like there was another city under the water, and I was like a child, it was so beautiful.” She set about synthesising that atmosphere. “I made colour charts of Venice, and I asked a blower to make that kind of subtle colour. Venice has a beautiful palette of colours and I wanted to use the colour of the lagoon, that beautiful blue-green, and also the gradation, which to me was very beguiling.” The result was Flow[T], a range of glass pendants resembling water droplets at different stages of their fall, with a horizon line running through their centre.
The restraint and subtlety of Tamura’s work set the tone. It has been followed by pieces such as Zaha Hadid’s “Luma”, an elegantly fluted pendant in pale grey which hangs from the ceiling like a giant upturned wine glass, and Cristina Celestino’s “Physalis”, a beautifully organic bud made from sunset-pink Pulegoso glass, with a distinctive rough surface created by thousands of tiny bubbles. More recently WonderGlass has moved into objects and furniture, cast in a factory near Venice, like the series of candy-coloured vessels and ornaments by the French designers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, launched in 2018, and “Melt”, a range of transparent glass furniture by the Japanese firm Nendo, unveiled at this year’s Cologne furniture fair. WonderGlass has put the ancient skills of Venice’s glassmakers to new uses.
Most of Murano’s remaining glassblowers now make tat for tourists. The importance of outside influence is not lost on those who want to do something different. Dario Stellon spent two decades as a blower at Salviati, one of Murano’s oldest glass companies, before being laid off. In 2016 he started a new venture called BTM, which stands for Break the Mould. The firm’s mission is twofold: to make its own products, and to collaborate with companies such as WonderGlass. Without the input of foreign designers, Stellon fears that local skills will atrophy. People from the world of design “push you to your limits”, he says: “If you close yourself off and do fish all day, that’s all you can do.”
Arguably, the person pushing these limits furthest is Adriano Berengo. He arrived on Murano almost 30 years ago, bringing local artists to the island to work in glass. More recently he has been working with “blue-chip artists”, as he calls them, such as Jake and Dinos Chapman, Ai Weiwei, Tony Cragg and Thomas Schütte. Like Tamura, many of them have never worked in glass before. Instead of transferring their ideas from one medium to another, Berengo says, they have to “begin to think in glass”. Some have failed. Tracey Emin’s “Docket”, a feline sculpture made in 2013, could have been crafted from anything. Others have adapted beautifully. Cragg’s “Untitled” (2015), a series of quirky abstract sculptures in transparent glass, captures the liquid quality of the material. He has followed it with a collection of totems formed from glass blocks, like tottering towers of ice cubes.
Having imported designers and artists, Murano is now beginning to export their creations. Berengo has exhibited their work in London, New York and Stockholm as part of an exhibition of glass art called “Glasstress”. In 2020, it will travel to St Petersburg, Istanbul and Beijing. This year Venice will host its third Glass Week, a jamboree of exhibitions and events organised by David Landau, among others. “What is unique to Murano is the richness of its tradition, and the ability of its glassblowers to command almost any technique,” Landau says. “The spirit of experimentation that had gone astray ten years ago seems to have come back.”