Dale Chihuly

Twenty years ago I arrived in Venice to study glass blowing as a Fulbright Fellow. During my last year of graduate school at the Rhode Island School of Design, I wrote to all the glass factories in Italy, hoping that one of them might take me on as an apprentice or just let me watch. Only one factory, the famous Venini, started by Paolo Venini in the 1920's, responded with an invitation that looked promising.

I arrived in Venice, took a little room in a palazzo, and wandered around the foggy city for a long time before I got up enough nerve to catch the vaporetto for Murano. Shortly after arriving at Venini, I met the owner, Ludovico di Santillana, in the hallway and he invited me into his office for tea. With our mutual backgrounds in architecture we had a lot in common, and it wasn't long before we were discussing a large sculptural commission that Venini was competing for. I showed Santillana photographs of projects I had done as a student, combining glass, plastics, and neon, and volunteered to design and execute a model for the competition. He liked my ideas and set me up in a small studio on top of the factory overlooking Fondamenta Vetrai.

A few weeks later the model was finished. We won the competition, and I spent the rest of the year working on the details and prototypes for the project. This project put me in close contact with the masters of the factory, and I learned and observed the way in which Italians blew glass. It changed my attitude and ideas about glass blowing forever. One of the things I didn't get a chance to do was design anything for the Venini line or for myself.

In 1971 I started the Pilchuck Glass School near Seattle and shortly thereafter began to invite European glass masters to come and demonstrate their skills, which were well beyond our abilities. One of the first to come was Francesco (Checco) Ongaro from Venini. Shortly after Checco, I invited Lino Tagliapietra, Checco's brother-in-law. These masters taught the young American glass blowers a great deal and would often work with the Pilchuck facility on various projects. At the time I didn't feel it would be beneficial to my pieces to work with a master. My work was asymmetrical and very unorthodox, unlike anything that was being made in the factories. For years I watched them working at Pilchuck but didn't feel it was appropriate to have them work for me.

In the summer of 1987, when Lino Tagliapietra was finished teaching at Pilchuck, he came down to Seattle and spent a few days working in my new glass shop, the first shop I had ever built for my own use. Lino had a good time making my wife Sylvia and me some dolphin goblets and dishes, so we decided that the following summer, Lino and his wife Lina would return to Seattle, and he would work on a series of pieces that I would design.

That winter Sylvia and I visited Venice and I had the opportunity to see a private collection of Venetian Art Deco vases unlike any I had ever seen in books or museums. They were very odd, with garish colors. Most were classical shapes with beautiful handles and other unusual additions. I started thinking about Lino's visit coming up in the summer and thought I would design some pieces similar to these, in spirit of the period.

Summer was approaching, and I decided to build a large kitchen in the glass shop so Lina could prepare pasta on location every day to make sure Lino would be in the best of moods. On July 10, 1988, Lino and I went to the glass shop at 6:00 a.m. and met with the rest of the crew - The best glass blowers in Seattle, including Billy Morris, Rich Royal, Ben Moore, Martin Blank, and Paul Cunningham.

I began the blow with the idea of replicating the Italian Art Deco vases I had spotted that evening in Venice. I started with a simple drawing of a classical Etruscan form with several handles. After Lino finished the first piece I quickly made another drawing that was a little more complicated involving more bit work. After each drawing was finished, Lino and Ben would walk over to my drawing table and we would discuss the next one. After a couple of days the pieces became much more involved. It wasn't long before something started to happen. It opened first in the drawings. In the beginning the drawings were made with watercolor and pencil. But somewhere around the fourth or fifth day I started to make bold drawings in charcoal. The series started a drastic change from rather refined classical shapes to very bizarre pieces; handled changed to knots, prunts became claws, colors went from subtle to bright, big leaves and feathers appeared.

We started the Venetians in July 1988 and all the work in this volume was made during seven blows, each lasting a couple of weeks. Original Lino Tagliapietra was the gaffer, but when he returned to Murano, Rich Royal took over. It turns out that both masters worked equally in alternating sessions, and Lino led the final blow at Ben Moore's in Seattle during August 1989.

I want to thank Lino and Rich, and the whole team, for all the creativity and skills which have made working this series so satisfying. Many people also help every day without much glory, but their contributions are just as valued. Thank you. A very special thanks to Tracy Savage, head of my staff, who keeps everything together.

Published in Venetians: Dale Chihuly, Twin Palms Publishers, 1989

Also from Venetians: Dale Chihuly:

Venetians, Ron Glowen