Seeing through modernism at Corning

Beginning in the 1930s Finnish glass manufacturers were remarkable for their willingness to explore new forms in functional glass objects. “One of the marks of modernist glass is that designers were interested in the possibilities of the material—to see what glass could do,” says Oldknow. “Previously, glass forms had been interpretations on forms that had first been worked in metal.” In 1936 the Finnish company Karhula-Iittala glassworks produced a biomorphic glass vase—now a modernist classic—designed by the architect Alvar Aalto (1898–1976) for the dining room of Helsinki’s Savoy restaurant. The Corning collection’s postwar Finnish glass is even more striking. It includes a bladelike 1957 plate by Tapio Wirkkala (1915–1985), a designer best known for his furniture of swirling laminated wood, and a frosted glass vase made in 1956 by Timo Sarpaneva (Fig. 8). That sculptural vessel, pierced by a round hole, was part of a series that Sarpaneva said was inspired by the work of the English sculptors Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.3

Italy—or, more specifically, the small island of Murano in the Venetian lagoon—is another part of Europe where the story of modernism and glass was written, though Venice is central to the entire Western history of glass craftsmanship. The city’s first glassmaking guild was established early in the thirteenth century. By the end of the century workshops became so great in number that the city expelled them to Murano for fear that the furnaces might start a catastrophic fire.4 Bravura construction and ornamentation became the keynote of Venetian glass—a style wholly at odds with the zeitgeist of the twentieth century. But a renaissance in Murano glass came about in no small part due to the efforts of an entrepreneur named Paolo Venini. An attorney from Milan, Venini began operating glass manufactories in Murano with Giacomo Cappelin in the 1920s. His initial move was to hire the painter Vittorio Zecchin to design clean-formed classical wares modeled on glass vessels depicted in works by old master painters such as Titian, Veronese, and Caravaggio (see Fig. 2).5 But Murano glass changed utterly when Venini hired the architect Carlo Scarpa (1906–1978) as his design director in 1933. Scarpa revived the use of age-old techniques such as murrhine—or mosaic glass, made by fusing together colored disks or squares—and “canne,” a composite cane made by a method in which colored rods are laid out in a pattern, gathered onto a hot clear glass matrix, then reheated, blown, and tooled. Venini himself developed into a talented designer, with an eye for the buoyant color and asymmetrical forms that are a hallmark of much mid-century Murano glass (see Fig. 14).6

The illustrator Fulvio Bianconi (1915–1996) developed a playful repertoire that included his Scozzese, or Scottish, vases, so named because their patterns resembled tartans, while the Venetian painter Dino Martens (1894–1970) used glass as a medium for exuberant abstraction.7

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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