The Finnish-German designer talks to us about her love of glass, and how she uses craft to fashion design products playfully informed by traditional practices
There’s something about Pia Wüstenberg’s Matisse vessels that stays with you. Commissioned by the Tate to coincide with their Cut Outs exhibition, the Matisse Collection takes the sumptuous shapes and colours of the French Master’s work, and reinterprets them through glass in an elegant, inquisitive and exciting way. They are beautiful; as beautiful as the forms and silhouettes that make up Matisse’s own experiments carving colour. I saw them earlier this year and like a first, delicious sip of fine wine, the taste has lingered. At her Dalston studio, Pia Wüstenberg rustles through a box filled with foam packing, emerging with a light green vase from the Matisse Collection, made from uranium glass. “That glass is only ever made in the Czech Republic because it actually has uranium in it” she tells me, rolling it between her hands. “That’s how you get the colour, the nice green tint”.
Turning it on the desk, she puts on its lid, made from larch tree and with its outer bark still intact. It’s slightly oval, due to the tension in the tree’s growth. “It’s really important to season the wood in the right way,” Pia explains casually, “you cut it in January when all the water seeps to the roots, and it has to dry for nine months. Then you can slowly start making it smaller and then there’s the turning; they leave it to season for a little while, like maybe a week, and then take off the final surface.”
This juxtaposition of glass and traditionally turned wood marries perfectly Pia’s pursuit of craft through the lens of contemporary design. “I’ve always been interested in crafts, since a child, and I think it’s very pleasurable to make with your hands,” she says. “I design objects quite freely – not collections as such, as all of them are really unique, so it means I get to be creative and make all of the time”.
Pia works mostly in Czech glass, a decision she largely attributes to scale of her vessel and lighting designs: “In the Czech Republic they blow standing. They blow into big wooden moulds and they can make much larger pieces, which isn’t something you can do here in England.” Another quirk of the Czech methodology lies in how they achieve colour: “Because of the scale of glass blowing in Czech, they have big pots of molten glass, and the colour is actually in it. It’s like mixing water colours, to get purple, you pick out a bit of red and a bit of blue and some clear glass and then you blow it out.”
When I quiz her on the longevity and eco-credentials of her designs, and her use of natural materials, Pia is very pragmatic. “I’m not worried about sustainability – I don’t think small batch design, like what I do, will save the planet. It’s not for that I use paper etc. It’s more that it’s interesting to have objects that show the process, how they’re made; that make you curious about them.” She picks up a vessel, “So often you get the reaction, ‘What is it? How do you use it?’ People don’t really see the material, they don’t understand it, but they want to understand the story behind it”. This is where design longevity lies for Pia: “You discover for yourself the value of something, it makes it an object you will keep for longer, a value beyond the aesthetic”.
For her Utopia pendant lights, available via Heal’s, the same process of woodturning used on the vessel lids is used on the paper cufflinks that attach to the table legs. “There’s not much difference doing it on wood as paper. You’re just finding a new way to apply a traditional process”, she says. I ask if she’ll ever move away from traditional materials such as wood and glass and whether she deliberately eschews contemporary materials, and she thinks for a moment: “I think if I found a process that interested me that involved contemporary material, I would. I’m just not that into C&G technology, or 3D modelling, or something like that. For me, they’re always mimicking something from the past, a tool to make something easier or more accurate. But they’re always trying to do something craftsmen have done by hand very successfully for hundreds of years.”
Photography Jasper Fry
“People don’t really see the material, they don’t understand it, but they want to understand the story behind it”