Designer: Thomas Stearns

American designer Thomas Stearns stands among his Italian contemporaries as one of the masters in the field of 20th century glass. His rare and exceptional designs exhibit a skill and creativity that makes his pieces among the most desired. 

We have celebrated the works of Stearns since even before our first Important Italian Glass sale, and we are pleased to hold three of the top five auction results for his work.  

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An American in Venice

After graduating from the Cranbrook School of Art, Thomas Stearns wanted to learn the Italian method of glassblowing. In 1959 he was awarded a Fullbright scholarship as well a grant from the Italian government allowing him to travel to Venice for an apprenticeship at the esteemed glass factory, Venini and Co. It was Paolo Venini himself that chose Stearns for this position, as he was deeply impressed by the flatwork glass windows that the young artist had crafted while at Cranbrook. Tragically, Paolo passed away a few months before Stearns arrived in Italy, and he never got to see the work that Stearns would craft in his factory.

During his tenure at Venini, Stearns never learned Italian and he remained a bit of an outsider and perhaps it was this that led him to explore and push the boundaries of his medium. Inspired by the Abstract Expressionist movement sweeping across America, Stearns works strove to capture emotion through form and use of bold colors. He often utilized the “incalmo” technique of constructing objects by fusing two or more elements, allowing him to create sharp breaks in color. Stearns was paired with one of the youngest master glassblowers at the Venini factory, “Checco” Ongaro, and the two often clashed stylistically. Together, Ongaro and Stearns made sculptural works that meld traditional techniques with new design. Too difficult to mass produce, the exceptional pieces Thomas Stearns crafted for Venini are among the most rare and most desired forms of Important Italian glass. 

The Facades of Venice
Recollections of my Residency in Venice 1960–1962

by Thomas Stearns

Under the aegis of the Italian Government’s Post Graduate Award Fellowship (for research in Glass and Fiber), which was accompanied by a Fulbright Travel Grant, I went to Italy in 1960. I was 24, having just completed graduate work at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. It was left to me to set up whatever working arrangements I wanted to have in Italy as an artist.

I headed for Venice and arrived there early in the evening of November 1st, 1960. The passeggiata (walk) I took my first night in Venice decided for me that whatever work I was to do while there would be a tribute to the magic and mystery of Venice that was manifest on that singular night. That evening was a genuinely significant event for me with far reaching consequences, which are now, even years later, felt deeply. I am not the first person to be spellbound by the place, and my guess is that the gods have something similar in store for more people yet to come.

Soon after arriving in Venice, I arranged an interview with Ludovico de Santillana; the new director of Venini Glass on the nearby island of Murano. The avant garde work that the firm's founder, Paolo Venini, had fostered was what occasioned my interest in seeking the firm's opinion of my modest efforts in glass done in the U.S.

Once in Murano, Stearns proceeded to extend the accepted boundaries of glassblowing with conceptual techniques never before conceived, much less attempted.

Susan Sacks

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Thomas Stearns 1936–2006

On November 1st, 1960, the young American artist Thomas Stearns arrived in Venice and began a tenure as guest designer at Venini, an appointment which would last until 1962. Working closely with Venini’s youngest Maestro, ‘Checco’ Ongaro, Stearns would design a number of highly refined and experimental glass vessels and objects; a group of these pieces would go on to win the coveted Gold Medal for Glass at the Venice Biennale of 1962, only to be rescinded after the judges realized that the designer was an American. Stearns’ odyssey at Venini is beautifully captured in his own essay, The Facades of Venice: Recollections of my Residence in Venice, written in 1989 and published in the catalog of Muriel Karasik’s seminal show, The Venetians, Modern Glass, 1919 – 1990.

Due to the fact that most of Stearns’ designs were produced in very limited numbers, today they are highly sought after by collectors. More importantly, these pieces exhibit an innovative sculptural integrity which perfectly expresses the spirit of the times in which they were made.

And while Stearns was not the first American to work at Venini, he was certainly the most influential. In fact, his time there changed the very dynamic between designer and craftsman, as his constant presence at the Venini furnace challenged age-old Muranese traditions and class distinctions. The next generation of American artists to study at Venini, including Dale Chihuly, Toots Zynsky, Richard Marquis and others, owe a debt of gratitude to the patient and intrepid Thomas Stearns.

Auction Results Thomas Stearns

My own naivety and eagerness to explore the medium led me into zealous experimentation; and the young Maestro ‘Checco’ Ongaro’s own efforts to prove his abilities lead him to stick out his neck by collaborating with me. The timing was just right making germane a situation of exploration and accomplishment. We each saw it as an opportunity for ourselves... and we all leapt in.

Thomas Stearns