How Glass Work Came to the Forefront of Contemporary Design

Courtesy R & Company

Objects of glass come out of the dusty curio cabinet to make a powerful statement in your home decor.

It's received wisdom in the art and design worlds that new materials move thinking forward. So why is glass, which has been around since the time of the ancient Egyptians, suddenly so hot? Not since the craft-mad 1990s—hello, frilly chandeliers by Seattle’s master glassblower Dale Chihuly—has the medium been quite so in vogue. But here we are again: At exhibitions worldwide, glass has been a material of choice for creative thinkers as varied as Roni Horn, whose icy 10,000-pound cube, Pink Tons, has traveled to museums in London, New York City, and Boston; and Misha Kahn, whose cartoon-like puzzle mirrors have been dazzling visitors to New York’s Friedman Benda gallery this winter.

So many facets of the substance have been getting attention that even if only a fraction of the work has made its way into the homes of new collectors, the message is crystal clear: Glass is demanding a fresh look.

One of the standouts at December’s Design Miami fair was R & Company’s installation of filigreed pendant lights, a collaboration between artists Jeff Zimmerman and James Mongrain. The spheres, each roughly 20 inches in diameter and noticeably slumped, were blown from caned glass, made using an age-old Venetian technique that infused the works with webs of milky-white glass threads evoking helices and spirals.


Left: A Loose Line, a mirror by Misha Kahn, at the Friedman Benda gallery. Right: Raven, a vase by Casey McMains from Todd Merrill Studio. From left: Daniel Kukla/Courtesy Friedman Benda and Misha Kahn; Courtesy Todd Merrill Studio

Zimmerman’s goal, a timely one, was to highlight both the intelligence and fragility of nature. “If you look closely at any natural element, there are always intelligent design and patterns at work,” he says. “I try to make the invisible visible.”

Since the start of the Studio Craft movement in the 1960s, glass collectors have identified either as purists, celebrating the technical and aesthetic achievements of Venini and other established makers, or as appreciators of so-called art glass—the Chihuly set. In 2020, it’s the latter group that’s seeing a resurgence. As the market for collectible design has grown, allowing artists to push their work ever further in the conceptual direction, glass has become a preferred medium. You don’t have to understand much about its origins (sand is heated to at least 2,550°F, until it becomes a viscous liquid) to get that glass and its fluid nature is ideal for conceptual thinking.

Casey McMains is one of many contemporary artists to explore the material’s paradoxes. She makes traditional cased-glass vases—using layers of different colors of glass—that go intentionally and spectacularly off the rails as she takes a knife to their surfaces. “Casey will create imperfect pieces on purpose and carve into those imperfections,” says Todd Merrill, who shows her work at his New York gallery. He describes a vase that depicts a predatory raven, a reference by McMains to the dark poetry of Edgar Allen Poe: “Things like that would not have been acceptable 25 years ago. Now, because of contemporary art—graffiti is acceptable in people’s houses these days—there is much more freedom.” Merrill, a glass collector himself, draws his clients’ attention to the spellbinding depth and mutability of the material. “What’s new is the freedom to do things that are not considered perfect,” he observes. “Because everything is smooth and perfect and digital today, it’s more interesting to the eye to be asymmetrical or offer something that isn’t supposed to be there.”

Zesty Meyers from R & Company, the New York gallery that represents Zimmerman as well as glass artist Thaddeus Wolfe, who creates jagged, mineral-looking works, feels that the material’s rise is part of the larger shift toward tactility that has led ceramics and textiles to become so popular among collectors in recent years. Unlike ceramics or textiles, however, which carry more specific cultural associations, glass tends to be freer—at least in its associations.


Left: A jewel-like wall lamp by Fabien Cappello from Ago Projects. Right: A hand-blown deer sculpture by Robert Wilson at Cristina Grajales Gallery. From left: Arturo Arrieta; Courtesy Cristina Grajales Gallery

Many designers have also discovered that glassblowing can be a major undertaking. Even Zimmerman, who typically blows his own pieces, turned to Mongrain and an eight-person team at the Corning Museum of Glass studio to realize the new work. “For large pieces, you need large equipment,” Zimmerman says. “These pendants are probably 30 pounds of weight at the end of a blowpipe, and you have to keep reheating them.”

The craftsmen at Corning also assisted theater director and visual artist Robert Wilson in the creation of A Boy from Texas (revealed at Design Miami in December), a highly personal piece that includes blown-glass deer, some as tall as 26 inches, against an imagined landscape of five cast-glass pyramids. Some pieces took up to a month to anneal—the process of cooling—to avoid cracking. The project was both a technical and an aesthetic feat, according to Cristina Grajales, whose namesake New York gallery presented the work at Design Miami with the Paula Cooper Gallery. “In Bob Wilson’s vocabulary, he only has two lines: the straight and the curved,” Grajales explains. “So the necks had to be fairly straight—extremely difficult. And the ears had to be perfectly straight. We were almost in tears when we saw it.”

For Fabien Cappello, who is a French designer based in Mexico City, no material is without its social dimension, glass included. He’s scoured his new home base in search of artisanal producers whose endangered skills he reveres, shaping oversized lamps using carnival-colored window glass. The owners of Ago Projects in Mexico City, Rudy Weissenberg and Rodman Primack, acquired some of the jewel-like lamps for their space as well as their own apartment. “Glass adds atmosphere, but it’s also collectible,” Primack says. “It’s no longer a hangover from the 1980s.” For Primack and a new breed of buyers, glass has finally joined the contemporary design fold. “Like anything, good design thinking can make a thing beautiful.”