Glassmaking: American Studio Glass Movement

The success of glassmaking in the United States can be attributed to a constant blending of two cultures: the Venetian and the American. In fact, Murano was a closed-off reality, and the secrets of the art practiced on this island were kept within the factories, which could only be partially visited. Venini, on the other hand, was open to all.

The openness of Venini

Paolo Venini, the founder of the company bearing his name, firmly believed that external contributions could lead to enrichment. Consequently, from the late 1930s onwards, he began regularly inviting Italian and foreign designers and artists to visit the factory, experiment with glass, and collaborate with the craftsmen. The first artist to be invited was a Swedish artist, Tyra Lundgreen, in 1938.

The American reality

In the United States, many believed that glassmaking belonged exclusively to the realm of large factories. However, the tradition and history of this craft, combined with the difficulty of shaping this challenging material, piqued the curiosity and subsequently captivated many American artists. It was Harvey K. Littleton who effectively initiated a movement. In 1957, he traveled to Venice, where he visited nearly 60 furnaces and small studios. It was there that he realized this art could be brought to small workshops. He also encountered a diverse and exciting design that had nothing to do with monotonous and repetitive American production. Littleton began working in a garage at the Toledo Museum of Art, which marked the beginning of the American Studio Glass movement. They organized courses and workshops, including at universities. The passion of Americans grew even stronger when glass artisan Roberto Moretti, who, together with his brother, was already well-established in the American market, performed live at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

American Artists in Venice

As part of a marketing strategy to conquer the American market, Paolo Venini invited many American artists to collaborate with his factory. Once these artists discovered they could express themselves through glass for their works and had no local references, they went to the place where the technique had been perfected. One of the first was Thomas Stearns, who went to study glass for a commission from Peggy Guggenheim for a bronze and glass gate. After the collaboration, Stearns achieved particular success thanks to the innovative forms and unusual colors of his projects.

yellow glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly

Dale Chihuly’s Glass Sculpture “The Sun” at the “Gardens of Glass” exhibition in Kew Gardens (London.) Credit to Adrian Pingstone

 

Subsequently, Dale Chihuly, with the help of a scholarship, managed to secure the funds to go to Venice. Despite facing closed doors at many furnaces, Ludovico Diaz de Santillana, the then-director of Venini and the founder’s son-in-law, welcomed him. In fact, he did much more: he granted Chihuly access to all areas of the company and even allowed him to film the craftsmen at work. Between this experience and extensive study through art books, Chihuly returned to America with numerous new ideas and founded the Pilchuck Glass School, one of the most important artistic communities for glassmaking.

 

 

 

American Flag capsuleAnother significant American representative, Richard Marquis, arrived at Venini and, contrary to his predecessors, immediately began familiarizing himself with glassblowing. He studied Venetian techniques meticulously, taking careful notes. He was amazed by the array of colors the Venini artisans achieved with glass and followed in their footsteps. His striped works became emblematic of the fusion between the two cultures. Furthermore, his murrina containing the Lord’s Prayer is still considered a masterpiece today.

One technique that quickly spread in America was tabletop modeling, brought over by James Carpenter upon his return from Venice, along with the necessary tools. Over the years, there was a wide production of glass objects in America, especially at Pilchuck, using the rudimentary training they had received and then developing it on their own, blending glass with other materials.

The Venetians in the United States

American glass artists who had never seen Venetian artists believed they could learn all the techniques from their compatriots who had returned from Italy. However, when they witnessed the Murano artisans at work with their own eyes, they were fascinated by the ease with which they molded the material. Among the Italians who left their mark on the American movement was certainly Gianni Toso, an expert in both glassblowing and lampworking. He had a lasting influence on American artists, teaching courses at universities and art schools.

Checco Ongaro, a long-time collaborator of the designers who visited Venini, went to teach in America, especially at Pilchuck. He was the one who suggested to his brother-in-law, another artisan named Lino Tagliapietra, to also teach at Pilchuck. When Tagliapietra arrived, he found truly rudimentary techniques learned from other students rather than masters. Both he and the students were amazed: he was delighted by the enthusiasm he found, while the students finally saw a true master at work. Tagliapietra taught them everything he could, forever changing the American glassblowing landscape. The new generation of American artists learned quickly, surpassing their predecessors by assimilating and making the techniques their own. The last technique to spread from Murano was solid glassworking. It gained popularity in the 1980s and allowed young artists to make great leaps forward in terms of quality.

The success

teal Murrine Foglio by David Patchen

Teal Murrine Foglio by David Patchen. Credit Photo to David Patchen

Many artists went to Murano to experience and immerse themselves in the true tradition of glassmaking. However, collaborations with Venini, although highly fruitful—some visiting artists even became artistic directors of the factory—drastically decreased in 1985 when the factory was sold. The success of the American movement initially stemmed from Venini’s openness to collaboration in the name of creativity, the continuous drive for experimentation, and the desire to conquer this challenging material that allows for boundless exploration of forms and colors. In fact, in the 1990s, people in Murano wondered why the American evolution of this art had surpassed the quality of local production.