Since the late 1990s, pieces by recognized modern masters of Italian glass such as Carlo Scarpa have routinely sold for six figures. This past June, Scarpa’s circa-1935 Rilievi vase took $81,700 at Wright in Chicago, earning the architect the top spot at the house’s record sale of the Frank Toskan collection. But the work of designers like Toni Zuccheri, a generation younger than the mid-century greats, is also being reappraised.
Indeed, Zuccheri, acclaimed in the 1960s and ’70s but less appreciated today, and his expressionistic designs, especially his bestiary of odd and humorous birds, have hit the radar of savvy collectors tired of the dead-serious restraint of the modernist classics, outpriced at the top of the market, or fleeing the proliferation of fakes.
“Colorful violence” is how Zuccheri’s output was characterized by Alexander Heminway, design director at Phillips de Pury & Company in New York, which holds the auction record for a Zuccheri piece: a phoenix sold in 2009 for $110,500 against a presale estimate of $45,000 to $55,000. Much of the artist’s output remains eminently affordable. A bowl and a vase from the Toskan collection, for example, went unsold and were available after the auction for $2,500 and $2,800, respectively.
David Landau, a Venice-based collector who with his wife, Marie-Rose Kahane, has 40 Zuccheri designs in a collection of roughly 1,500 pieces, calls them “beauty out of madness, drawn in glass.” Landau points out a further attraction of Zuccheri’s work: “There are no fakes.” According to the collector, “No one would dream to make one because of the techniques, which haven’t been used since.” Landau, who is one of the sponsors behind Rooms for Glass, a new permanent exhibition center that opened in Venice last month, says Zuccheri will have an exhibition there in 2015 or 2016, further raising his profile.
Who was Toni Zuccheri?
Born in 1936 in San Vito al Tagliamento in Italy’s Friuli region, a son of an estate owner and painter who was a member of de Chirico’s circle, Zuccheri studied architecture at the University of Venice under the tutelage of Scarpa, Franco Albini, and Bruno Zevi, among others. He began working at Venini in the early 1960s, where he produced the beginnings of his bestiary: a hoopoe, a turkey, a guinea fowl, and a duck, which were exhibited at the 1964 Biennale in Venice. In 1965 he met the architect Gio Ponti, and the two collaborated on stained glass windows. Over the course of 40 years, in addition to unique items, Zuccheri executed small production series, including lighting, for Venini and other companies. A visitor to his studio in 1990 described him as an “alchemist,” working in “noble, silent, peevish solitude...submerged by the rising flood of trash, debris, garbage produced by life and work.” Zuccheri died in 2008.
The birds—technically almost unbelievable—are Zuccheri’s calling card to history. “Radical, eccentric, really over-the-top” is how they are described by Jim Oliveira, a dealer who vetted, curated, and catalogued the Toskan sale with Sara Blumberg, his partner at New York’s Glass Past. “He broke away from the existing vocabulary of forms at Venini: the simple symmetries, the elegant balance.” The Toskan sale featured a turkey, circa 1964 (est. $15–20,000), that was bought in, but available post sale for $17,500. A phoenix will go up on the block at Phillips on October 16 in a sale curated by design impresario Murray Moss.
The Production Series
Zuccheri’s vases, bowls, and lighting, executed largely for Venini, are organic, naturalistic, and sculptural. They are frequently freely shaped—unlike classic, rounded blown vessels—or they do things glass shouldn’t do: They tear, split, intertwine. Their names are evocative of their forms or techniques: The first series for Venini included the Grovigli (“tangles”), Tronchi (“torsos”), and Scolpiti (“sculpteds”). The Giade (“jades”) and Ninfee (“water lilies”) forms were also designed through the 1960s. In the 1970s, Zuccheri designed Membrane, a series in which a glass skin on the vessel’s interior holds the color while the exterior walls remain clear. Zuccheri also worked for other companies like VeArt, which produced the Otri (“wineskins”) and Vulcani series. In the 1980s his designs for Barovier & Toso included the Spacchi (“splits”)
Zuccheri is not flea market fodder. Knowledgeable dealers, like Blumberg and Oliveira of Glass Past or the Rita Fancsaly gallery, in Milan, are aware of the marking, relative rarity, and nuances of variety among production pieces. Zuccheri’s Venini work is generally identified with just the etched words “Venini Italia.” The birds are occasionally signed with “TZ Venini” in a circular bronze label. (The standard literature on the firm is Franco Deboni’s 2007 Venini Glass). According to the artist’s son Taddeo, Zuccheri’s work outside Venini is usually signed “TZ,” “tz,” or “t.z.” But all is not known. Recently rediscovered Venini papers thought to have been lost in a major fire in the 1970s, are rewriting history.
This article originally appeared in the September issue of Art+Auction.