In Struggling Murano, a design intervention

This article is part of our Design a special report preview of Milan Design Week 2022. Can high design reverse the decline of Murano?...


This article is part of our Design a special report preview of Milan Design Week 2022.


Can high design reverse the decline of Murano?

Could a transcendent lamp, or a single revolutionary wine glass, or a fruit bowl created on the Venetian island by one of today’s greatest designers restore the reputation of this capital of glassmaking, whose the artisan heritage dates back to the late 1200s, but whose relevance has diminished in an era of cheap, mass-produced goods?

Maybe not just one of those things, say the international designers and artists currently collaborating with Murano glassmakers. And realistically, reversing the fate of Murano would be a monumental task, especially at this pivotal moment when soaring gas prices, sparked by the war in Ukraine, have forced small independent factories to close their kilns.

But perhaps the wave of one-of-a-kind pieces they’re making hand-in-hand with Murano artisans — and exhibiting at high-end showcases, such as Milan Design Week — could help create a new niche. for its products. , restore prestige, bring back tourists, even encourage the younger generations of Murano to remain faithful to the family business.

Creators love Ini Archibonga Swiss-based American, who created the latest iteration of his Gaea pendant light on the island, touts his designs as examples of how Murano glass experts, famed for their extravagance, could dedicate more of their technical skills to the development of stylish products that are currently popular with luxury consumers.

“One person seeing the potential, believing in it and bringing attention to it could inspire another person who could inspire another person,” he said. on a video call from Murano.

The first of 10 limited edition Gaea was recently unveiled at the Milan gallery Rossana Orlandi in an exhibition of products made by the design company Se.

The new pieces update Mr. Archibong’s original 2018 design – a graceful teardrop of glass hanging from a string of irregular beads. The designer described it as “like a floor lamp hanging from the ceiling”.

The new lamps are more sophisticated, Archibong said. He credits master glassmakers with helping to add intricate textures to the surface and taking the piece from white glass with an extra layer of color to actual colored glass.

Specialty glass made by several companies on the island has been the source of Murano’s reputation for centuries, as have the creative contributions of artisans, said Sé founder Pavlo Schtakleff.

“They’re not just makers, they’re artists,” he said. They “have it in their blood”.

Authentic collaborations are exactly the kind of thing the designer Luca Nichetto, one of Murano’s most prominent defenders, thinks he could boost the island’s reputation. He grew up there and started designing for the lighting company Foscarinibefore designing numerous products for other global brands and opening a second studio in Sweden in 2011.

He knows the problems of Murano, such as competition from low-quality trinkets imported to Italy and presented to tourists as “Murano glass”, and the decline in the number of people interested in collecting heirloom art glass.

Then there is a perpetual shortage of skilled labor which has worsened over the past three decades when the children of Murano glass masters decided they did not want to spend their lives as factory workers. . Glassmaking is hot and physically demanding, and the prestige of doing the work has faded with Murano’s reputation.

Current events have worsened an already bad economic situation. Factories have been forced to close during the coronavirus pandemic and rising gasoline prices have prevented many reopenings. Italy gets much of its natural gas from Russia, and supply shortages have pushed prices beyond what small family farms can afford.

“They’ve gone from 10,000 euros (about $10,700) a month for a gas bill to 70,000 euros a month, and for a small factory that’s not viable at all,” Nichetto said. “So what they’re doing is shutting down and saying they’ll wait for gas prices to come down, but they have a limited time to survive.”

All of these issues make it unlikely that Murano will ever return to making glass in the same amount as in previous centuries, Nichetto said. But he hopes an appeal to high-end design enthusiasts will avert a total meltdown.

He has been at the forefront of a movement encouraging creative partnerships. Last September, he organized an exhibition in Venice entitled “Empathic – Discovering a heritage of glass” with collaborations between Murano workers and top designers like Marc Thorpe, Noé Duchaufour-Lawrance and Elena Salmistraro.

He is also among the stars of an ongoing exhibition in Venice, “Form of the Bere(Forms of Drinking), featuring updated versions of classic Murano drinking vessels.

If genuine Murano glass fails to appeal to the masses, it might appeal to affluent consumers heading to Venice, Nichetto suggests. If its status were restored, it could attract young people to the industry in the same way that the artisan food movements attracted new generations to beer-making and old-fashioned baking.

“I still believe there is a way to reinvent Murano,” he said.

New York artist Judi Harvest approached the Murano crisis from a different angle. Since the 1980s, she has worked closely with the glassmakers of the island and has witnessed the decline of the industry, in particular the shrinking of the Giorgio Giuman workshop.

“I saw them go from about 70 people down to the father, two sons and the woman helping them in the office,” she said over the phone from Manhattan.

Her goal is to draw attention to the region and its economic situation through her art. In addition to creating colored glass pillows and developing precision glass replicas of regional cultures like the radicchio, she has made a series based on bees, forming both the insects and their glass hives.

As part of the project, Ms Harvest cleared an abandoned plot of land on the grounds of the glass factory, built a garden to attract bees and started a small honey farm, which now supplies restaurants and retailers local.

The garden is a kind of tourist attraction, but also serves as a metaphor. The bees are endangered, as is the Murano glass industry, and she wants people who visit the garden and see her work around the world to connect.

She has also taken an interest in bats, another endangered pollinator, and is working with architects in Murano to set up functional bat houses in the garden. Along with this, she created a series of bat sculptures – in Murano glass, of course.

“As an artist working there, I feel responsible to do whatever I can to help them,” she said.

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