International Workers’ Day: tour of Venini glass

I visited the manufacturing operations of a quintessential modernist Italian glass producer, the Venini Glass Factory. Italy is famous for its stained glass manufacturing and disproportionately supplies the finest articles to the world. Venini makes beautiful glass and I was grateful for the gracious tour the company provided.

As an American who has worked for a large US manufacturer and has interest in processes and making things I observed factory operations.  Aesthetically, I’m biased in favor of Italian manufacturing, though some Venini observations disturbed me. Following is a truncated version of my factory tour.

Hot

In a glass factory furnaces are basic capital equipment. This furnace, a smaller one used well downstream, operated at reportedly 900 degrees F. The temperature where I stood to take this picture about 17 feet away felt about 100 degrees F.

Bright

The furnaces are very bright. Lines of other mostly younger men I saw working at bigger furnaces all wore Ray-Charles-styled sunglasses. This man was one of the more experienced designers and would be physically handed off bulbs of molten glass that were ready for the most differentiating points of design. This photo makes 2 points:

  1. He is standing as far away from the furnace as possible.
  2. His face is turned toward me but he is not looking at me: His eyes are nearly closed in this photo.  He is looking away from the furnace to momentarily allow his pupils to dilate:

Repetitive motions

The movement of the man’s head, this master craftsman—like those of the lines of men I saw standing at the larger furnaces—is

  • Stare into furnace; twirl, twirl, reverse twirl, as he elevates the glass to a workable viscosity and spins it into some appropriate asymmetrical shape.
  • Look away until pupils dilate.
  • Look back quickly to assess progress.
  • Look away until pupils dilate.
  • Look back, twirl, twirl, reverse, twirl.
  • Look away.

And repeat for each bar he receives.  For hours.

He sits down eventually but not for very long and his seat is not one of clear comfort in light of the movements he must do:

Staying cool has its place. The bottle is a drink:

One is fortunate to avoid any contact or fall into the pan of collected glass fragments on the floor that steadily accumulate. There is a lot of cutting:

Fastforward….
Output
In the end we walk into a comfortable beautiful showroom like this:
And we see this:

These pieces were priced beginning at 4 figures in US dollars. The laborers behind these pieces are deeply talented professionals who have mastered, as one can, the most subtle of physical movements and habits to be maximally productive and routinely protect themselves and others.  However, neither they nor their environment is perfect.

I remain haunted by these men, standing in the blackest eye shades before furnaces, staring into them until they couldn’t any longer and yanking their heads back, over and over. It’s not something you can forget.

Global consumers have the burden to actively discern—while in the coolest of showrooms—from whence cometh the goods and services they so highly value. When something is not right, there appears some ethical duty to at least speak to it.

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