Postwar Murano Glass, America and the Evolution of the Secondary Market

by Jim Oliveira

Important Italian Glass: A Private Chicago Collection is a unique selection of works. Composed entirely of postwar Murano glass, it offers the rare opportunity to study a very specific historical period and body of work without distraction. To see the nearly encyclopedic progression of Fulvio Bianconi’s work for Venini present in this collection is a rare and dynamic experience. When combined as it is with the best examples of work by Ercole Barovier, Dino Martens and Thomas Stearns, a powerful vision of postwar Murano glass begins to emerge — the vivid colors and strong patterns influenced by American Abstract Expressionist painting, Op-Art and Madison Avenue allow us to feel the enthusiasm and optimism of the postwar years. The highly specific curation of this collection also allows us to examine the unique relationship between Murano glass and America. Finally, the history of the secondary market for Murano glass is subtly embedded here. What follows is a brief exploration of these themes, and others, all present in this landmark collection.

Rare Intarsio vase by Ercole Barovier, 1961–63. Photo by Wright

During the first half of the 20th century, Murano glass could be described as an entirely European phenomenon. Presented at international exhibitions, works from Venini, Barovier and other major glassworks were specifically designed to appeal to an aesthetically progressive, culturally sophisticated European audience. Vases, bowls and sculptural objects were offered as tasteful accents for elegant modernist environments. These objects were, for the most part, made in relatively small numbers and presented as fine examples of the creative virtuosity of their companies, most of whom made their real income through the production of lighting for large architectural projects.

While postwar Murano glass shares much in common with prewar glass, its differences are due, in no small part, to the influence of America. Drawing inspiration from Abstract Expressionist painting, Op-Art and graphic design, the vivid colors and strong patterns of postwar Murano glass were fresh, lively, enthusiastic and appealed to a young and more diverse audience. A more daring use of experimental techniques, along with biomorphic and asymmetrical shapes, also became part of the postwar Murano glass oeuvre as designers began to reconsider the potential of the vessel as a work of art.

Paolo Venini holding a piece of Pezzato glass

However, it took the genius of Paolo Venini to realize the potential for Murano glass in postwar America, and act upon it. Venini’s vision for his company had always been international — as a lawyer from Milan who traveled in the most elevated artistic and cultural circles he was well aware of the most recent trends in European taste and aesthetics and built his company with these in mind. He was perhaps the first to employ modern advertising and branding to promote Murano glass, and his company was certainly the first to intentionally appeal to “modern” taste, as Murano glass had always been defined by its own historical and cultural standards.

Understanding that Europe was busy rebuilding its infrastructure in the immediate postwar years, Paolo Venini looked toward America and the potential of the American market. In 1947 he hired the idiosyncratic graphic artist, illustrator and designer Fulvio Bianconi to create a new line of glass objects for the company. The first pieces Bianconi designed were influenced by caricature, whimsy and surrealism and included the well known Commedia dell’arte figures and the fantastic A Rete (netted) mermaid forms and vases. The famous Bikini vase was also designed during this period and demonstrated Bianconi’s sensitivity to cutting-edge trends, as the bikini itself was a new concept, borrowed from islanders on the Bikini Atoll where nuclear devices were tested in the 40s and 50s.

Bikini vase by Fulvio Bianconi, c. 1950. Photo by Wright

In short order Bianconi became interested in color, and the chromatic effects of glass as subject matter. Drawing inspiration from Carlo Scarpa’s work at Venini in the 40s, Bianconi designed a number of related series of in rapid succession, all of which employed the use of colorful tesserae and glass canes including the vibrant Pezzato or Patchwork series. Executed by Venini’s great master blower Boboli (Arturo Biasutto) these Patchwork vases would become emblematic of Venini’s production in the 1950s. More than this, the Pezzati stand as testament to Bianconi’s genius as a designer — composed of varied arrangements of colorful glass tesserae, the design concept and process of construction ensured that each piece would exist as a unique work of art. The dynamic optical effect of these objects, combined with the feeling of individuality that they project, would resonate deeply with the American audience. In fact, one color combination (yellow, amber, green and black) was cannily named the Americano series.

Important Con Macchie vase by Fulvio Bianconi, 1950 with the illustrious provenance of Baldwin Kingrey, Chicago. Photo by Wright

Bianconi’s Pezzati, along with other series created during this seminal period including Fasce, A Spicchi and Con Macchie elevated Venini’s production to a new artistic level. With their vibrant colors and patterns, and subtly biomorphic shapes, these pieces were imbued with the glamour of contemporary art and fashion of the postwar years. And it was precisely at this moment when Venini’s ambitions, Bianconi’s designs, and the intentions of the American government all came together in spectacular fashion.

Concerned with rise of communism in postwar Europe, the American government identified Italy as particularly vulnerable. To that end, the HIH or House of Italian Handicrafts was formed in 1947. This privately owned and operated company was founded to import and promote Italian handicrafts in the US (and capitalism in Italy). In 1950, the Italy at Work project was initiated by the HIH. Italy at Work was a museum exhibition which toured the US visiting twelve cities between 1950 and 1953, with simultaneous shows of identical work staged in host city department stores. Some 2500 objects were selected for the exhibitions and these included glass, ceramics, furniture, lighting, textiles and other hand-made arts. Of the several Italian glass manufacturers represented, Venini was most prominently exhibited and was clearly presented as the industry leader. In this way Venini became identified as the preeminent name in Murano glass.

After the great success of Italy at Work, Venini glass, and Murano glass in general, became well received and well represented throughout the United States. During the 1950s numerous exhibitions were staged featuring the best designers and manufacturers from Murano including Venini, Barovier and Toso, Seguso Vetri d’ Art and Aureliano Toso. In addition, prominent American department stores began to carry dedicated lines of Murano glass. In San Francisco, Gump’s began a long-term relationship with Barovier and Toso.

Installation view of Italy at Work at The Art Institute of Chicago

Existing as counterbalance to the international modernism of Venini, the Barovier firm had roots that could be traced back to the 13th century. As owner and principal designer of the company for almost 50 years, Ercole Barovier was a force majeure, both as an entrepreneur and artist. Designing thousands of models during his tenure, Ercole was particularly adept at combining traditional Murano glassblowing techniques with contemporary trends in art and design. From the late 20s until his retirement in 1972, he produced an astonishing array of award winning designs and series. During the postwar period, he too focused on strong colors and graphic patterning. But unlike the free-form designs of Bianconi, his compositions were sharply linear, geometric and highly structured. This approach, combined with his choice of elegant, simplified forms, created visually powerful glass vessels and objects of lasting appeal.

The Intarsio series is perhaps Ercole Barovier’s penultimate postwar creation. Composed of often brightly colored triangular shaped tesserae, these pieces are the modernist descendants of the famous murrine vessels designed by Ercole, his brother Niccolo and uncle Giuseppe in the 1920s. As such, the Intarsia are excellent examples of Ercole’s ability to repurpose materials, techniques, ideas and designs from his family’s long history and adapt them to contemporary taste. Beyond this, the Intarsia have a visceral, archetypal appeal which continues to feel timeless in every sense.

Eldorado ewer with handle by Dino Martens, 1954. Photo by Wright

The work of Dino Martens for Aureliano Toso is also significant in the history of postwar Murano glass. His dramatic use of exploded imagery, cane fragments, and spiral pinwheels executed in bright colors and asymmetrical forms was undoubtedly informed by American Ab-Ex painting and in some ways anticipated the imagery and brio of psychedelic art. The Eldorado and Oriente series in particular have become icons of 50s design and together form the outer-edge of postwar Murano glass.

By the mid-1960s Murano Glass and America had formed a deeply symbiotic relationship, but the social and political chaos of the era would alter this relationship in deep and lasting ways. During the early 1970s there is a marked decline in the technical and design quality of Murano glass. One can partially account for this through the collapse of the medieval guild system, where child apprentices would enter into life-long service at the glass furnaces. After the cultural revolution of the 60s, young Venetians seemed less inclined to enter into this professional arrangement. During the 70s, many young master blowers recognized that this transformation was taking place, and decided to either allow foreign students to study with them, or to leave Murano all together — Lino Tagliapietra was the most famously intrepid of these daring masters who risked reputation, life, and limb to keep Murano’s traditions and skills alive outside Murano.

Dale Chihuly in Venice, 1968

At Venini in the 1970s, a new era began in which visiting American artists would regularly hold residencies. Dale Chihuly, Dick Marquis and Toots Zinszky all studied and worked at Venini during this period and learned techniques that they would share and disseminate throughout their long careers.

But the real revolution that took place in Murano glass in the 70s was a post-modern one, the rise of scholarship and research and the creation of relevant historical narratives in the field of 20th century Murano glass. During this period a new generation of scholars, dealers and collectors would emerge who, over the next four decades, would define the history of the field and establish a secondary market. The architect, student of Carlo Scarpa, and artist Franco Deboni played a pivotal role in the post-modern renaissance of Murano Glass. His work as a dealer, scholar and author established the mold from which all others in the field would emerge.

Diamantati bowl by Ercole Barovier, 1968 from the collection of Mark McDonald. Photo by Wright

By the early 1980s a small but vibrant secondary market for Murano glass was firmly established. In New York the seminal Fifty/50 Gallery was at the center of the action. Founded by Mark Isaacson, Mark MacDonald and Ralph Cutler, Fifty/50 would gain international fame as the ultimate showcase for postwar decorative arts and design — a field that had largely been ignored since the early 70s. Their show of Murano Glass in 1984, Venini & the Murano Renaissance, Italian Art Glass of the 1940s and 50s is still considered by many to be the first and most important of its kind. Accompanied by an elegant catalog with fine essays by Alexandra Anderson, William Warmus, and Mark Isaacson, the Fifty/50 show drew international attention to the field.

A second landmark show was held in New York at the Muriel Karasik Gallery in 1989. Not only did this show present a world class collection of 20th century Murano glass, it also introduced the world to the genius of American artist Thomas Stearns, who documented his historic residency at Venini from 1960 to 1962 in an epic and heartfelt essay included in the exhibition catalog.

Doppio Incalmo vase with double opening by Thomas Stearns, c. 1962. Photo by Wright

As the 1990s began, both Americans and Europeans were well on their way to establishing world class collections, many of which would re-appear at auction during our present decade. As each of these collections is documented and presented to the public, it enters into the historical record, and the future history of postwar Murano glass continues to be written and rewritten.