Big Impressions

Nothing spells prestige quite like a Chihuly

The people on your gift list may already have the requisite gleaming Rolex and BMW SUV—but do they have a glass-art installation? Well, you can get it for them, because you have the good fortune to live in the world capital of glass art.

This isn't Chamber of Commerce hype. When ambitious, talented young Italian blowers want to realize their dreams, they often leave Venice and come here to hone their craft. Have you ever tried blowing glass? It hurts your cheeks, and you're lucky if it doesn't fry your flesh. Glass art is a macho world, full of sexy shapes achieved while drinking beer and getting burns (the glass artist's equivalent of the dueling scar, a badge of honor). And yes, they refer to the glass furnace as "the glory hole."

But out of this sweaty world often come the most polished results. And the result of the Northwest glass renaissance is a holiday shopper's dream: Foster/White Gallery, Vetri International Glass, Phoenix Rising, Elliott Brown, and many others bristle with young talent and solid, midcareer artists. Only one artist, though, has a room reverentially devoted to him in each of Foster/White's local galleries. Guess which one? Yep—Dale Chihuly. We're talking status glass here. What other glass artist has a PBS special? Or, for that matter, a whole museum being built (in Tacoma) in his honor?

If you want a Chihuly piece to call your own, you can get one for as little as $700, but, as Don Foster explains, when it comes to Dale Chihuly originals, "There's nothing unique under $10,000." Everything else is a multiple, also a viable gift option. Because purchasing a piece is such a big commitment, the artist and gallery become your partners in matching the art to its residence. "It's appealing to people because they have input," says Foster. They can specify colors from a spectrum of thousands of hues, but that's just the beginning.

A large-scale installation is a collaborative process between designer and client. "The studio will actually mock up the room to scale, so the client can see what the installation will look like," Foster explains. It's not a one-man job at the studio: More than a hundred people are hard at work under Chihuly's supervision. He's there at the inception and makes sure it's all up to snuff; at the end, everything is signed by him.

If you want a Persian Wall Installation, $90,000 will get you three striped, flowerlike, open bowls with fluted, sort of involuted, edges. They come in dimensions of 45 by 64 by 20 inches, each with a different-colored rim, or "lip rap"; though coral might be called for on the Brilliant Blue bowl, you may specify a different color. If you've got the space, Chihuly can make the art—over a sideboard, in an entrance hall, you name it. Foster once saw an installation that was two stories high in a split-level home.

And if you move, you can have the pieces rearranged for a different site: A metal armature supports the glass, and all it takes to create a new arrangement is a different-shaped armature.

One warning: Chihuly's work isn't practical, just beautiful. (You don't buy his chandeliers as reading lamps.) But if you want to be pragmatic about your pocketbook, order more than three pieces—they'll cost you less than $30,000 each. How many artists give you discounts? It's like David Letterman says: "What's the secret? Volume, volume, volume!"

If you want something distinctive, try a figurative Chihuly. He's done puttis—little angels—that can be incorporated in a chandelier and vessels, about $40,000 and 2 to 3 feet high, featuring putti scuba diving and putti on a crab form.

Another option is something from the Ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) series, whose pieces, being horizontal, might look good above a stairway landing. One $45,000 Ikebana piece is 20 inches by 12 feet, a series of woven stems intertwining in pinks and teals and greens—"Chihuly colors," as Foster calls them.

For those who missed Chihuly's triumphant show at the Venice Biennale in 1997, consider home-sized versions of the enormities he produced there. They range from 3- to 9-feet tall in 12-inch increments, and the elements are rearrangeable. Three feet will cost $80,000, 5 feet $115,000, and 9 feet $175,000.

Wait, come back! You don't have to be IPO-wealthy to afford a Chihuly. My favorites include some of his simplest work: Pale Blue Basket Set ($14,000) is pretty, and the mysterious dancing forms glimpsed through cloudy glass in Nivens White Basket Set are like underwater visions.

For around $3,500, you can get a studio-editioned work—not a limited edition, but modest and graceful: the Buttercup Yellow Persian with Red Lip Wrap (11 by 11 by 8 inches) or the Chinese Red Seaform with Ebony Lip Wrap (11 by 9 by 6 inches).

What about safety? The editioned pieces come with a cool little vitrine (a clear cover) to protect them. And when artists make large pieces, they always "overblow"—that is, make extra pieces. So if your absent-minded Wharton Business School nephew strolls into your new Chihuly while reading The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, you're probably OK. Your nephew is another story.

Victoria Ellison writes about visual arts for Seattle Weekly.

 
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