A family firm is giving the age-old art of Murano glassmaking a makeover for the modern age while also ensuring that a dying craft remains relevant. Selina Denman meets the creative director of Baroncelli
From the get-go, Rinda Baroncelli wanted to do things a little differently. When, in the early 1990s, after years spent travelling the globe, Baroncelli found herself in Venice and decided to launch her eponymous glassmaking firm, Baroncelli, the idea was always to take the ancient tradition of Murano glassmaking and give it a makeover for the modern age.
Baroncelli, who is now almost 70 and still heavily involved in the business, spearheaded a design-centric approach to the age-old craft of Murano glassblowing, infusing an extremely traditional material with a new, contemporary edge. Today, the company creates bold, contemporary lighting, as well as furniture and accessories, for residential and commercial clients around the world. Baroncelli may not be the biggest glass blowing house in Murano, or the oldest, but it is certainly trying to be the most innovative. Its creations can be seen hanging in the Burj Al Arab, Claridges in London and Sandy Lane in Barbados.
"I think that she had an idea of Venetian glass that was perhaps not very well understood at the time when she started her business," says Giovanni Corrado, who is the company's creative director and Rinda's son. "It was a question of looking at what was already coming out of the island and editing that so it wasn't just the flowers and the leaves and that very baroque style.
"I think the great moments of Murano's glass blowing history have often been the ones when people from the outside have come in. That doesn't mean that you don't respect the maestro or the glass blowing heritage but I think that when you separate the maker and the designer, you can achieve something bigger. Because traditionally, the maker, maestro, artist and designer are one and the same, which means, ultimately, that person is going to make what they can make. Their imagination is bound by what they know they can achieve. Which can be a lot. But if you are not the maker you challenge certain preconceptions in a very different way."
And Corrado is more than happy to challenge preconceptions. He is constantly trying to push the boundaries of what can be achieved with glass - often to the despair of his glass maestros - and is always looking for ways to combine glass with other, unexpected elements. "A lot of my design language is about using the preciousness of all the materials we work with, whereas with the traditional vernacular it is all about the glass," he says.
He has a near-obsession with glass tubes and, having recently watched a documentary on 17th century blacksmithing, is now eager to explore the idea of creating chandeliers that combine glass and intricate metal lacework. He has also long been searching for ways to mix glass and timber.
"I've always wanted to use timber and glass together but both are such temperamental mediums that I've never quite worked out how to make those two materials work. Obviously, timber moves and expands and will continue to do so throughout its lifetime. And glass, particularly Venetian glass, is not that keen on been squished and squashed!"
Baroncelli's novel, design-led treatment of Murano glass seems to resonate in markets such as the UAE, Corrado says. The company is currently in the process of creating pieces for the Waldorf Astoria Ras Al Khaimah and another large, as-yet-undisclosed project in Abu Dhabi.
"The projects that have been going on in Dubai and the region are really nice projects. We work with this craft and this material that is so steeped in tradition and heritage and actually it's in these kinds of markets that people understand the potential and embrace the design aspect of what we do, which, in a way, is surprising because you'd think that more emerging markets would be clinging to more traditional, easily-recognisable designs, but actually we get to do quite interesting work here."
Of course, creating interesting work comes with its own share of challenges. There's the inherent delicacy of the glass itself and, particularly when working with larger lighting elements, the restrictions imposed by gravity and the need for an electrical source. The complexity of the glass blowing process, which is done without moulds, and relies on the skill and consistency of experienced craftsmen, also comes with restrictions. Then there's the problem of trying to artfully combine the old and the new without creating something that's a pastiche, and the need to convince artisans who have spent their whole lives doing things a certain way to see things from a new perspective.
There are also longer-term issues to contend with. Murano's glassmaking industry is not evolving as quickly as it should, says Corrado, and fewer and fewer young people on the island are viewing glassmaking as an attractive career option.
"I don't think we have anyone under the age of 40 working with us. It is, at the moment, a dying art. But it's been doing that for a thousand years - there's a constant cycle of decline and reinvention - so I wouldn't say there's a fatalistic end in site.
"Working in the glass industry is an incredibly hard job. It is physically exhausting. There is nothing mechanised at all and it takes a long time to become a maestro, to be the guy doing the cool stuff. Many glass houses have shut, but it's a simple supply and demand thing. At some point people will start coming back into it because there aren't enough people doing it. The sad part is that during periods of decline, skills get lost.
"I don't know how it will end up but I do know it won't die. But how the whole island will permutate into its next phase, I don't know. It will definitely have to change. And I think they understand in the workshop that what I am trying to do is keep us relevant."