This Frenchman not only rescued the Italian firm Fontana A r t e, he also ushered in a new era of exquisite glass designs.
When Italy’s Fontana A r t e firm named Max I n g r a n d its art director in 1954, he wasn’t an obvious choice. The company, founded in 1932, showcased the Italian mastery of glass manufacturing by using the material in cutting-edge light fixtures, furniture, and accessories, and it relied on the talents of top Italian designers. I n g r a n d was a Frenchman best known for producing stained-glass windows, often for religious buildings. But he also had an important ally in G i o P o n t i, the legendary Italian modernist, who had been working with Fontana A r t e since its beginning, and who recommended him for the post.
“What’s interesting about Max In grand is the way he came into his own when he entered Fontana A r t e,» says Domenico R a i m o n d o, a senior specialist in design at Phillips auction house in London. “If you look at In grand’s prior work, it’s very decorative and one-dimensional. When he got hold of the manufacturing potential of that company, he became a great master.” Specifically, notes Domenico, “at Fontana A r t e there was a wealth of knowledge about what you could do with glass—the idea of using industrially produced glass planes, which were then finished by hand with incredible craftsmanship.” Both In grand and Fontana A r t e benefited enormously from the collaboration, says B e r n d G o e e k l e r, a New York dealer who has been selling In grand’s work for 20 years. “Without his partnership with Fontana A r t e, they would both be less important in the eyes of the design world today,” says G o e e k l e r. “He was a revolutionary who had not only the imagination to create something new of enduring beauty, but also, as the director of Fontana A r t e, the resources and artisans to produce and market his designs.”
Born in 1908 in B r e s s u i r e, France, I n g r a n d received his early training while working for Jacques G r u b e r, a respected French artist who specialized in Art Nouveau stained glass. The early ’30s, I n g r a n d and his first wife, P a u l e, had established their own studio in Paris, producing stained-glass windows as well as furniture that incorporated sandblasted and acid- etched glass panels. Although that marriage ended in divorce after World War II, I n g r a n d not only kept the studio open once he was on his own but enlarged it, experimenting with glass lamps, mirrors, and panels, while also accepting interior design commissions.
At around the same time, in 1948, Fontana A r t e lost Pietro C h i e s a, its visionary art director, to a heart attack. C h i e s a, working closely with P o n t i, had overseen Fontana Arts product line since the founding of the company, and had personally designed more than 1,000 pieces. His death left a gaping hole in Fontana A r t e, which lost its creative direction as it struggled to find a new leader. After six difficult years, P o n t i recommended I n g r a n d, who began building on the company’s heritage while giving it an exciting new voice. I n g r a n d maintained his busy Paris studio, spl it ting his time bet ween France and Italy, but soon became best known for the otherworldly light fixtures he was producing at Fontana A r t e. “Max I n g r a n d applied his knowledge of natural light seen through glass to the world of illumination, and experimented with new lighting technologies together with industrial glass,” says Barbara P o l i t i, Fontana A r t e ’s current C F O, noting that the designer’s influence is still felt in the company today.
Among I n g r a n d ’s first creations for the firm were his breathtaking Dahlia chandeliers, which feature dozens of long, slender, colored and curved glass petals that cradle polished brass fittings. Kach piece is so organic looking that it almost appears as though the glass has simply grown into place. Other fixtures feature thick glass pieces cut to look like gemstones, or etched or chiseled to present unusual textures. I n g r a n d ‘s 1954 Fontana lamp is relatively simple by comparison, with a white satin blown-glass base and shade. But the surprise comes when you turn it on: Bulbs inside the base illuminate the entire fixture, from bottom to top. Almost 60 years later, it is still in production and remains among Fontana A r t e ’s best sellers.
Indeed, interest in work produced by Tngrand, who died in 1969, is on the rebound. In April, Phillips set the auction record for the designer’s creations when it sold a pair of chandeliers from the Hotel Savioli Spiag-gia for the equivalent of $170,000. And in December 2012, U m b e r t o A l l e m a n d i & C. published Fontana A r t e, a comprehensive book on the company’s activities from the early ’30s to late ’60s, by Franco D e b o n i.
I n g r a n d ’s fixtures are worth a careful second look because they offer much more than just an innovative use of glass, says architect I.cc F. Mendel, of Shelton, Mendel & Associates. “Whenever I would see a piece that combined clarity of articulation, beautiful engineering, and an artistic sensibility, it just always seemed to be by Max I n g r a n d,” says Mendel, who has used the designer’s fixtures in numerous projects. “I think those qualities come through in his architectural commissions and his understanding of the place of light in a space. lie treated light as an art form.”