BY Hili Perlson in Opinion | 01 OCT 18

Searching for the Holy Grail of 20th-Century Glass Design

An exhibition at Le Stanze del Vetro, Venice, reveals the radicalism of Carlo Scarpa’s reinvention of a traditional craft

BY Hili Perlson in Opinion | 01 OCT 18

For a period of almost six years, from 1925–31, the most curious developments in glass artisanship were redefining the sleepy, traditional mouth-blown glass production coming out of the island of Murano in Venice. The local architect Carlo Scarpa, then in his early 20s, was hired by the entrepreneur Giacomo Cappellin to join his new M.V.M. Cappellin Glassworks as artistic director. Scarpa was granted full license to experiment and innovate. A lot was at stake: Cappellin had recently left his business partner and now competitor, Venini, to launch his own glass works and his goal was to completely revolutionize and modernize the aesthetics associated with Murano. Cappellin spared no cost in achieving this – with access to Venetian high society he was, after all, handling the cheapest currency there is: other people’s money. The company went bankrupt in 1932.

A new exhibition at Le Stanze del Vetro on the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice showcases the Scarpa years at M.V.M. Cappellin. Dedicated to the study and research of 20th-century glass art, Le Stanze – a collaboration between the Cini Foundation and the Swiss Pentagram Stiftung – has effectively reconstructed the company’s entire catalogue, which was dispersed after its closure. With over 200 items on loan from more than 45 private collections, the scholarly exhibition tells a number of parallel stories. At its core, there are the new achievements and techniques that Scarpa was able to introduce thanks to intense experimentation and full support from Cappellin. Bringing Scarpa on board ‘was like throwing a grenade into the Murano furnaces,’ says glass collector David Landau, co-founder of Le Stanze. Progressing through the space’s galleries reveals that the company constantly introduced new series, corresponding to the latest research in material and form. Scarpa reinterpreted age-old techniques such as the spiraling netted filigree, a pattern that’s created using rectilinear threading fused into the glass at 700°C. 

Carlo Scarpa, ‘La vetreria M.V.M. Cappellin e il giovane Carlo Scarpa 1925-1931’, installation view. Courtesy: Enrico Fiorese

He also generously used Pasta vitrea, much to the chagrin of the glass blowers, as this richly pigmented, opaque glass paste, which lends the vases the appearance of ceramics, would often sag in the long drying process, rendering many meticulously produced pieces unsellable. Scarpa’s brightly coloured vases in geometric forms – the most recognized works for Cappellin – were a huge hit when first introduced in 1930, but crafted with pasta vitrea, it was hardly tenable to put them on the market in large series. In fact, due to the designs and the company’s use of gold-leaf and iridized patina for finishing, no two pieces are exactly the same. 

Another narrative that becomes apparent in the show is Giacomo Cappellin’s utter lack of business savvy or slightest interest in the financial aspects of running a successful company. He was so obsessed with producing works of the highest quality that every morning he would discern the previous day’s production, and smash any pieces he considered sub-par. Even the figurines – the more accessibly priced glass animals that were popular decoration at the time – reveal Scarpa’s unrelenting approach. A miniature elephant, that was probably initially intended to become a best-seller, has a craggy surface made to resemble the animal’s rough skin and was the more-freakish-than-beautiful outcome of days-long experimentation at the furnace. A monumental centre piece from 1931 provides further proof of Cappellin’s folly: on the occasion of the Italian Garden exhibition in Florence, the company produced an elaborate composition in iridized crystal, inspired by the 18th-century tradition of ornamenting the lavish banquet tables of the aristocracy. The vanity project depicts a fantastical garden with a gazebo at its center, fountains featuring glass cascading like flowing water and eight columns in twisted glass adorned with figures of hermaphrodites. It cost a fortune to produce and had no commercial value. It was created just months before M.V.M. Cappellin went bust. 

Carlo Scarpa, Vaso in pasta vitrea rossa e boccetta portaprofumo in pasta vitrea gialla, 1929-30. Courtesy: Enrico Fiorese

A third narrative that arises might be more surprising for the contemporary viewer. The show opens with the company’s signature piece, a spherical vase with a truncated cone-shaped foot, that came with a glass flower. Originally designed by the company’s first artistic director, Vittorio Zecchin, the vase’s more geometrical base and mouth are credited to Scarpa, as is the vase’s later rendition in opaque glass. However, while it might seem like a marketing no-brainer today that a brand would seek collaborations with famous designers, architects or celebrities, the approach to copyrights was very different back then. The pieces were marketed as Cappellin, never boasting of the brilliant Venetian architect behind the designs. Scarpa would often be credited as the brain behind the company’s presentation at fairs, but not the individual pieces themselves. Considering the level of artisanal production that went into each nearly unique piece, authorship was tricky anyway: To what extent does the glassblower’s own style, expertise, and even physicality give shape to the works? 

Carlo Scarpa, ‘La vetreria M.V.M. Cappellin e il giovane Carlo Scarpa 1925-1931’, installation view. Courtesy: Enrico Fiorese

In 1932, shortly after Cappellin’s closure, the company’s competitor Venini named Scarpa as artistic director. He stayed with them until 1947, continuing to set new standards in glass works, albeit with more financially viable designs. (The Stanza del Vetro’s very first show in 2012 was dedicated to these works; it was then staged at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2013.) But among highly specialized glass collectors, the Cappellin years – when Scarpa’s rarest and most capricious were made – are considered the Holy Grail of 20th-century glass design. 

‘The M.V.M Cappellin Glassworks and the Young Carlo Scarpa 1925-1931’ is on view at Le Stanze del Vetro, Venice, until 6 January 2019

Main image: Carlo Scarpa, ‘La vetreria M.V.M. Cappellin e il giovane Carlo Scarpa 1925-1931’, installation view. Courtesy: Enrico Fiorese

Hili Perlson is a writer, art critic and fashion journalist based in Berlin.