by Roderick Conway Morris

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Yoichi Ohira
Flasks, a vase and tea bowl by Yoichi Ohira, 1995

Japanese Venetian Glass Master

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 9 February 1995


The responses to Yoichi Ohira's initial attempts to investigate the mysteries of Venetian glass making were far from encouraging.

'It was in 1973, and I was already enrolled at the Fine Arts Academy here in Venice to study sculpture,' said Ohira. 'One of the professors offered to introduce me to a good glass workshop on Murano. But when we got there the owner said he would never allow a Japanese into his factory - because ''they just steal your ideas and go off and copy them and ruin other people's industries!'' '

Happily the Japanese artist's resources of dedication and determination were matched by his charm and good humor, and he took this and other early rebuffs in his stride. For he is now one of Venice's most influential and highly-regarded glass-makers, and his designs are not only widely admired but, ironically, also extensively imitated and copied.

'There are two types of artist that work in Venetian glass,' said Ohira. 'The first is the Muranese glass-master, who designs for himself and blows his own work. The second is the artist who designs the work and then has it executed by a glass-master - so that the creation of the piece becomes a kind of collaborative effort. I fall into the second category, and in some ways it's like being a composer of music. I commit the piece to paper, give it to the glass-master and his team, and then conduct and control the whole process from start to finish to realize exactly the kind of work I want to create.'

Venetian glass-making has a continuous history that stretches back over a thousand years. In 1291 it was decided that the by then numerous glass furnaces in the city were a fire hazard and should be moved out to the nearby island of Murano, where they have remained to this day. Ohira works with a number of glass-masters, according to the type of piece he wants to make. On a cold and foggy December morning I went out to Serenella, a tiny island off Murano, to watch Ohira in action with Livio Serena, one of Venice's most famous masters.

The project was to make a 'filigrano' flower vase, using colored glass rods - a technique pioneered by one of Serena's forebears in the 16th century. Ohira had arrived some time before with his designs (now pinned up by the furnace for reference), and himself had cut into different lengths and meticulously laid out the green, red and white glass rods in a rectangular pattern. With the furnace heated to a temperature of over 1,000 degrees centigrade, Serena, aided by his first assistant and 'garzone' (apprentice) took a globe of white-hot glass on his blowing-tube and deftly rolled up the rods into a cylinder. He then set to work, constantly twisting and adjusting and periodically blowing the molten glass, returning it over and over again to the furnace (explaining that one of the trickiest aspects of this technique is to keep the colors under control, since they react differently to the level of heat and are in constant danger of running like dyes in a piece of cloth). Ohira intently monitored the process throughout, occasionally exhanging a word or two with Serena, until suddenly the vase emerged, miraculously fully formed, and Ohira gave the last instruction to make sure the mouth of the piece was precisely the width he had planned.

'Actually to make pieces is relatively fast - and a great master like Serena very, very seldom makes a mistake - but to design them can take weeks, even months,' said Ohira, as the vase was taken away to a cooling oven, where it remains for 24 hours.

Before coming to Venice, Ohira, who is now 48, worked for several years in an artistic glass factory in Tokyo. 'What we were making there was English and Bohemia-type glass. This is made with lead, and is much softer, so is suitable for deep-cutting and engraving. Venetian glass, on the other hand, is soda-glass. It's much harder and more brittle and is worked at a much higher temperature. What came to fascinate me, and still fascinates me, about Venetian glass is that everything has to be done in the heat of the fire and it can't be altered or modified afterwards. This gives the work a unique spontaneity and intensity - and the results an unparalleled freshness and delicacy.'

Shortly after arriving in Venice Ohira met the flamboyant local artist Egidio Costantini, a leading light in Peggy Guggenheim's circle who had previously arranged for Picasso, Chagall, Leger and other visiting artists to have their designs realized in glass on Murano. 'Egidio used to rent glass factories on Saturdays and Sundays, and one of these was De Majo's workshop,' said Ohira. 'One day Egidio asked me to design a collection of flasks and bottles for him. These turned out so well that the proprietor said to me: 'Yoichi, why don't you design a nice series of bottles for us, too?' So I did a set called 'Venice and the Orient', which were a great success and the beginning of a long collaboration with de Majo.'

Unlike some designers who are often not present when works are made, Ohira has acquired a deep knowledge of the materials, colors and techniques used by Venetian glass-makers and has established relations of profound mutual respect with the Muranese master-glass blowers. Consequently, though he brings a Japanese sensibility to his work, he is now esteemed as a 'purist' in the medium. As the descendant of one of Murano's most ancient glass-blowing families and prominent Venetian authority on Venetian glass Rosa Barovier Mentasti has put it: 'Paradoxically, on the basis of the pieces he has designed for De Majo, Yoichi Ohira is now regarded as one of the most Venetian of the designers working on Murano today.'

Four years ago Ohira began exhibiting annually as an independent artist in Japan, with a series of works, from vases and tea-bowls to sake flasks and glasses, that are distinctly Japanese in form and flavor, but fully exploit the unique possibilities of Murano glass. (This year's show opens at the Isetan store in Shinjuku, Tokyo, on 9 February.)

Louise Berndt, an American expert on glass and long an admirer of the Japanese artist's flair and originality, said: 'Yoichi's early pieces were very Venetian, though the colors and the forms were more restrained than a Venetian would employ. What he manages to do now is to produce designs that are very Japanese, but with a technique that is pure Venetian. Something Japanese, but which could never be produced in Japan, something very Venetian, but which could never have been made by a Venetian - works that are absolutely individual and exquisitely beautiful.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023