Designer Massimo Vignelli was known for the sense of sophistication and refinement he brought to the product, graphic, and furniture design that he produced first in Italy, and later in the U.S. working with his wife Lella, also a designer.  While a student at the School of Architecture in Venice, Vignelli learned about glass from architect and glass designer Carlo Scarpa. Vignelli went on to design lamps for the Venini glass firm, working directly with the owner, Paulo Venini. He learned much about the material and the role of light in our perception of objects. “If the glass is clear, light will go through…. If the surface is smooth, light will have a reflection; if the surface is corrugated, light is refracted in multiple reflections. Without light everything is lifeless.” He also learned about opaque and transparent colored glass, and that different textures could be engraved in a glass surface as a secondary manipulation of light.

This pitcher, manufactured by the French silver firm Christofle, is one of a range of Vignelli-designed vessels that combine silver-plated metal with glass bodies by Venini. The smooth, cylindrical silvered brass neck and curved handle combined with the spherical green glass body, lightly textured in the inciso technique, offer a study in pure shape, contrasting surfaces, and refracted and reflected light. Vignelli originally conceived of the group after spending a year-long fellowship at Towle Silversmiths of Newburyport, Massachusetts. Having to make his own prototypes, he learned about silver craftsmanship and how the polished metal reflects light, much like glass. “The game is to play with these properties to enhance the material.” Vignelli first suggested the range of metal and glass vessels to Towle, but after doing market research Towle rejected the idea. After his return to Europe in the early 1960s, Vignelli offered the designs to Christofle, who successfully marketed the line for several years.

Cynthia Trope is the Associate Curator of Product Design and Decorative Arts at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

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