The history of glass is a history of technological innovation. The Phoenicians invented glass-blowing to make beakers and bottles, the Romans introduced manganese oxide into the mix to make it clear enough for windows, and in the 17th century an Englishman called George Ravenscroft devised a formula to prevent “crizzling”, the tiny cracks that lead to cloudiness, thereby inventing crystal.
Today glass is ubiquitous, but designers are still coming up with new ways to stretch its aesthetic potential. Bocci, a company based in Vancouver and Berlin (www.bocci.ca), recently launched 76, a range of lamps and lights that look like glowing sea urchins. Its founder, Omer Arbel, patented a technique in which a layer of copper mesh is sandwiched between white and clear glass. The white glass is pulled through the wire in a vacuum, leaving sparkling fronds inside a transparent dome – almost-organisms which emit a soft, patchy light. Another of Bocci’s designs, 84, is made by dunking a copper-mesh basket containing a glob of white glass into molten clear glass. Air is blown in to push the white glass through the mesh, resulting in burnished orbs with the fragile look of crumpled paper bags.
Nicholas Collins, a British designer, favours the mathematical precision of digital technology. He makes exquisite dishes whose appeal is in their patterns, which have the dizzying effect of paintings by Bridget Riley (available from William & Son, www.williamandson.com). The surfaces of his plates, which often appear to undulate even though they’re smooth, would be impossible to create by hand. So he makes digital drawings in a computer-aided design program. A water-jet cutter follows these designs, slicing through sheet glass to the nearest micrometre before Collins arranges the pieces in a kiln and fires them until they’re fused.
Elsewhere old techniques are being reinvented. Karen Gilbert and Paul Pavlak named their studio SkLO, the Czech word for “glass”. The Czech Republic has a history of hand-blown glass stretching back to the 13th century, and Gilbert and Pavlak use the same method to make knotted tubes which on their own look like abstract sculptures in the manner of Anish Kapoor (available from William & Son, www.williamandson.com). Drop a lightbulb inside and you have a lamp that resembles a mass of neon noodles. Ini Archibong, an American designer, plays with the liquid look of blown glass (www.designbyini.com). His tables, Orion and Galilee, consist of marble tops supported by glass legs like columns of water. “It is as though the marble could splash through them at any minute.”