Venetians enjoy a relatively gentle pace of life. But even that may seem hurried to those working on the nearby island of Murano. There, the art of glass-making, as practiced in firms like Barovier & Toso, has flourished unchanged for almost 700 years.
On the island, glass masters eschew the latest digital innovations. They continue to shape molten glass by hand. The process is painstaking and mind-bendingly slow.
A History In Brilliance
In 1938, Ercole Barovier developed the rostrato technique, a complex skill that extrudes a series of points from glass with the help of a ‘wire’ of glass to create prisms. Although he was not trained as a glassblower, the owner of the firm liked to experiment with glass. Over his 50-year career, he created a varied, and still very sought after, body of work. One of his rostrato vases sits in the collection of the V&A Museum in London. Another fetched US$100,000 at auction in 2015.
Innovation in design or technique has been at the heart of the success of Barovier & Toso, one the world’s oldest family businesses that traces its origins to the late 13th century.
But throughout, the Murano glass-crafting tradition has always remained the starting point. The production of glass, the hand tools, the raw materials and the different ‘recipes’ to obtain different kinds of glass – these remain as traditional as possible, says Luigi Lucchetta, chief executive at Barovier & Toso.
Techniques That Take Generations
The company has over 22,000 original drawings and sketches catalogued in its archives. It regularly reinterprets some of the earlier iconic pieces. Most recently, it released several new models using Ercole Barovier’s rostrato technique, which is particularly hard to achieve.
“Only a glass master with a lot of experience can realise these pieces...The extrusion is quite simple, the difficult part is in making the prisms very similar in dimensions. Only great experience can give life to a perfect rostrato,” Lucchetta says.
Innovation Requires Continuous Work
While Barovier & Toso continues its path of experimentation in the use of glass, little has changed at the Barovier’s furnace on the Island of Murano which employs about 40 craftsmen. Time and skills are required to transform sands and oxides into elaborate works of art. Here, master craftsmen coax globs of molten glass into the desired shapes using blowpipes, either free-blowing it or inflating it within a wooden or metal-carved mould. The pieces then rest on a slow-moving conveyor belt in a cooling tunnel for up to eight hours, before being polished and refined by hand.
But designs need to evolve to remain relevant to their time, and Barovier & Toso regularly reaches out to famous interior designers and product designers like Paola Navone, Marcel Wanders and most recently Brian Rasmussen, to bring a fresh approach to the traditional craft.
Lucchetta points out: "Classical Murano glass tradition must be the means to obtain innovative products that meet the changing tastes."
The Future Of Taste
The drive for excellence and innovation is evidenced at Palazzo Barovier & Toso, the company’s new Murano temple to luxury lighting. It's here that the company can display grand chandeliers in a contemporary setting, complete with Italian designer furniture and contemporary art.
The Palazzo is housed in a restored building from the 1920s, on the banks of Rio dei Vetrai. Its monochrome-themed rooms showcase the variety of chandeliers and different colours. A 13-meter-high glass bubble chandelier is suspended in the stairwell, while a five-metre-tall Taif chandelier with 76 lights looms over the entrance.
"We may be 700 years old, but we’re not dusty. We can be very contemporary... We wanted to showcase to clients how to create a contemporary interior with grand chandeliers, while underlining how everything can be customized," says Lucchetta.
"Private clients are now more inclined to look for unique pieces and high-quality experiences. There is also a return to simplicity, to the truth of things, to essentiality," he adds. "In the quest for rarefied craftsmanship, connoisseurs are now turning their gaze to Italy, where niche heritage brands are refining and expanding their offerings and collaborating with hip contemporary designers."