A brief history of glassblowing

06/2018


Glassblowing is an ancient artisan craft. Whilst Egyptians and Mesopotamian craftsmen were working with glass to create decorative beads and vases, it was the Romans who first used long metal tubes to blow into hot glass, reminiscent of the tools and techniques associated with modern glassblowing today.

By the Middle Ages, Venice had established itself (albeit under a shroud of secrecy) as the centre of the glassblowing world. Home to over 8,000 glassblowers, whilst the city was not short of water, the threat of fires with thousands of furnaces in such close proximity was of great concern, as was protecting the methods and techniques of the craft, which at the time was regarded as almost magical. In 1291 a solution was found to both issues: relocating the craft to the island of Murano. Being isolated geographically meant the discipline was able to flourish whilst being contained. In fact, craftsmen were threatened to death if details of their practices left the island (!) and if you visit Murano today, glassblowers still keep their studios under lock and key – although not for fear of their lives, but for tradition's sake!

Gradually over the centuries glassblowing began to spread to other areas of the world and remained an expensive art form, with each piece painstakingly handmade. Fast-forwarding to the early 19th century, Englishman, Benjamin Bakewell, founded Bakewell & Company, which saw the manufacturing of glassware change dramatically. Benjamin Bakewell became known as the Father of Flint Glass (a type of glass which contains lead), whilst his relative, John P. Bakewell, is credited with inventing pressed glass (also known as Carnival glass) which enabled the mass production of coloured glass through the use of moulds as opposed to the traditional blowing technique. This reduced the price and exclusivity of owning glassware, and with it, the prosperity of traditional glassblowing across the world.

At the beginning of the 20th century, glassware was largely produced in factory settings. However, gradually, in part due to the spread of Modernism and the proliferation of artistic forms, (indeed, glass was one of the disciplines taught at the Bauhaus school,) in the 1960s there was a resurgence in artisanal glassblowing. Inspired by the glassblowing heritage of Italy, in 1962 Harvey Littleton and Dominick Labino founded a glass workshop at the Toledo Museum of Art. Now world famous, the workshop at Toledo was conceived as a model of how to take glassblowing away from the industrialised process it had become, back towards an artistic studio practice that could be performed on a personal scale, using small glass furnaces. The 'studio glass movement' gathered momentum across the world and prevails fruitfully to this day.

Based in Czech Republic, Brokis is one such studio workshop. The company specialise in handblown glass in combination with other materials, including wood and metal. Founded in 2006 by Jan Rabell, Brokis are based in a traditional Bohemian glassblowing studio, Janštejn Glassworks acquired by Rabell in 1997, with its origins dating back to 1809. Now under the art direction of Lucie Koldová, the heritage of the company, coupled with the originality and beauty of the pieces its 100 strong team produce, make for a fascinating story.

Mystical and playful yet elegant, a selection of Brokis lights are on display in our Shoreditch Design Space.