Never presented like this before: glass works by Ettore Sottsass in Venice.

Magically simple

He was fascinated by the material and never lost his delight in experimentation: On Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, Le Stanze del Vetro are presenting sensational glass works by Ettore Sottsass.

Ettore Sottsass (1917 – 2007) would have been 100 years old this year. Reason enough to cast a glance at the fascinating variety of glass and crystal works by this extraordinary architect and designer. To this end, curator Luca Massimo Barbero has assembled more than 200 glass pieces made between 1947 and 2007 for the exhibition “Ettore Sottsass: Il Vetro.” Most of them are from the Ernest Mourmans Collection and many are on public show for the first time, in an exhibition setup designed by Annabelle Selldorf’s studio.

It is surprising that Sottsass was in contact with the glassblowers on Murano from the 1940s, that he designed his first glass object in 1947 (more by coincidence than anything else), and that he repeatedly and with great passion designed glass objects almost throughout the time he was working as an architect and designer. For Sottsass, glass was always a magical material, with whose very particular possibilities he liked to play and experiment. 

“Needless to say,” stated Sottsass, “beyond glass one finds a whole universe of centuries-old traditions. For one of the first Triennale exhibitions, after the War, I was asked to design a glass object. I remember that at the time we were designing spheres with a Scottish pattern, with interwoven clear and dark stripes. It was my first experience of the kind.” 

Over the decades Sottsass went on to collaborate with such renowned glass manufacturers as Vistosi, Toso Vetri d’Arte, Gino Cenedese e Figlio and Venini, in the process repeatedly putting the skill of the master glassblowers to the test, challenging tradition and craftsmanship on more than one occasion and pushing them to the limits of what was technically feasible. When he conceived his first series for Vistosi in 1974, only ten of his 30 designs were able to be realized. There was also a lesson to be learnt from that: Whatever the designer dreams up and however much he wishes to go beyond the customary processing of the material to achieve it, in the end the finished piece – and Sottsass knew that from then on – belongs equally to the designer and the person who realizes the design and creates the finished object.

Extravant and experimental: Kachina 10, 2006. The Gallery Mourmans
Like a jelly fish with eyes: Kachina 16, 2006, The Gallery Mourmans

Naturally, after the foundation of the Memphis Group in 1981 Sottsass was inclined to view the everyday differently in the medium of glass too, to combine things and forms in new and surprising ways, if necessary spiced with a splash of bad taste. He went against the norm, as we see today, but he certainly wasn’t that bad. It was a combination that in 1982, in cooperation with the glassblowers of Toso Vetri d’Arte, gave rise to further, unique sculptures – in gaudy, striking colors and lightyears away from any kind of functionalism.

In 1999, Sottsass produced a particularly extraordinary series for the Emir of Qatar, Saud Al-Thani, for his “Millennium House” in Doha. At the time Arata Isozaki was tasked with the “Millennium House” project, which also involved a host of renowned artists and designers: Achille Castiglioni was responsible for the gym, David Hockney for the pool, Ron Arad for the living area – and Ettore Sottsass for the reception area. The 22 glass sculptures that Sottsass designed for the Emir differed from other works on account of their sheer size alone. Some of the pieces, produced at the Gino Cenedese e Figlio glass factory on Murano, are more than a meter in height and are on show in Venice for the first time. 

Exceptional size: works for the "Millenium House" of prince Saud Al Thani

In one of his last interviews, Sottsass stated: “Glass is an incredible medium, at once mysterious, transparent and fragile.” Anyone observing all the frequently slender steles, in cylindrical form they resemble multicolored totem poles, the figurative kachinas and all the objects combining white, transparent glass with elements in boldly glowing colors instantly understands why Sottsass was so fascinated by the magical properties of the material glass. “Glass, like ceramics, has a very peculiar characteristic: one doesn’t really know what goes into the furnace. Then all of a sudden a pure object breaks out, burnt by fire, an object of sheer purity and physical intangibility. It is like a vision. One is deeply involved when making glass. Glass is spectacular.”

Volume, light, color – and above all transparency: Another reason all that interested Sottsass to such an extent and repeatedly fascinated him anew was that it corresponded both to his idea of space and to his desire to experiment with forms and colors.

Ettore Sottsass: The Glass
Le Stanze del Vetro
A joint project of Fondazione Giorgio Cini and Pentagram Stiftung
Venice, San Giorgio Maggiore
through July 30, 2017

Skira has published a catalogue raisonné on Sottsass’ complete glass works to accompany the exhibition.

Versatile forms, bright colors: works of glass by Ettore Sottsass in the exhibition.
Glas works from the years 1992 – 1995 on show in the second room of the exhibition.
Ettore Sottsass (1917-2007)
The magic of Hopi Kachina figures fascinated many artists, among them Max Ernst and George Nelson. Sottsass created his own version.
Mysterious, transparent and fragile: Sottsass transformed even simple cylinders to special objects made from glas and marble.
Glas, as Sottsass used it, looks always spectacular.