Posted on Thursday, March 7, 2013 by Christina Linden
In the past year, Orfeo Quagliata (Wood/Furniture 1999) has designed: exterior vinyl graphics for an Aeromexico 767 airplane; sets for Mexico's massively popular annual 24-hour-long television and radio broadcast benefit Teletón; glass tiles for architectural interiors and exteriors; jewelry; window displays for Barneys New York; hotel lobbies; coffee tables; whiskey glasses; and garden features for millionaires' homes.
Quagliata was born and raised in the Bay Area; today his studio is based in Mexico City, and the world is his oyster. It is extremely unusual for a designer to operate in so many media and at so many scales of production, from a tiny piece of jewelry to an airplane exterior, but maintaining a robust and diverse practice keeps his creative energies high . . . and ensures that his design work will be in demand no matter whether the global economy is ebbing or flowing.
His schedule is typically jam-packed; when we spoke for this piece, he was getting ready to catch a plane for a new overseas commission: "I'm going to Taiwan to work on an installation on the grounds of new high-rise residential towers. The work is two reflecting pools with these big, faceted, blinged-out, illuminated glass sculptural forms. These kinds of huge commissions are always fun and overwhelming at the same time."
A Heritage of Glass
If flexibility is one hallmark of Quagliata's practice, then another, ironically, is a decidedly non-flexible material: glass. It runs in the family, and his mastery of the medium has been honed over a lifetime. "I started working with it because it's what my dad did. It's what I know best. Although, ha, I'm not always sure I like glass!" he quips.
He's qualified to joke about it, since he's been working with it since he was 12. His father, Narcissus Quagliata, was a prominent figure in the American Studio Glass Movement of the 1960s. For years the two worked together on projects, one of which was a crystal dome for the apex of the basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri in Rome, Michelangelo's last architectural work.
Quagliata also cites as pivotal the experience of learning cold-working techniques during an apprenticeship in Spain with the glass artist José Fernandez Castrillo.
All of this preceded his time at CCA.
The CCA Years: Learning in Broad Strokes
Although he grew up with glass and it has become his primary métier, Quagliata reports that he spent his college years trying out everything he could. "I'm glad I got the broad strokes while I was at CCA," he says. "I entered as an Industrial Design student, wanting to make glass furniture."
In the end he emerged with a degree in Wood/Furniture and an established, already-successful furniture business. "I was stubborn and did things my way."
And if Quagliata's self-declared stubbornness sometimes caused him to butt heads with Industrial Design professor Steven Holt, they always ended up seeing eye to eye. He also found a mentor in the Sausalito-based architect and designer Chris Deam -- also known as "Dr. Deam" -- whom he later worked for. To this day, he says, "Chris remains someone I'll call up for advice."
Moving to Mexico
Because his father moved to Mexico City while Quagliata was at CCA, he had become a frequent visitor to that city by the time he tied up his studies in 1999. "I'd done some gigs for Nouvel Studio in Mexico City, and after I graduated they invited me to develop a product line." It did so well that he ended up partnering with Nouvel to form the design company Phuze (pronounced "fuse"), which is still going strong today.
A large part of Phuze's production is focused on in-situ installations and environments. "I've been solidly based in Mexico City since 2000," he explains, "Phuze's sales used to be 90 percent international. Now I'd say they are 90 percent in Mexico."
His jewelry continues to enjoy strong international popularity. This aspect of his practice runs in the family, too; his maternal grandmother, Herta Jalkotzy, was a renowned jewelry designer with the Wiener Werkstätte collective. (Speaking of grandparents, his paternal grandfather, Luigi Quagliata, was an architect and acoustic engineer who designed, among many other buildings, the Palazzo del Cinema on the island of Lido in Venice, where the film festival of the Venice Biennale is still held.)
"I have jewelry on the cover of Italian Vogue magazine next month," he mentions, casually. "My work is unique because it is made of glass crystal and not plastic or resin, but, ironically, the magazine wanted to put it on the model because it has the look of 1960s Op Art Lucite jewelry.
Quagliata's great professional success is a result of both nature and nurture: a multigenerational creative inheritance, an enthusiastic and supportive international clientele, an incredible work ethic, and a willingness to evolve his practice in response to changing fashions and shifting global economies.
And glass remains central to everything he does. Even the vinyl he designed for the Aeromexico jet airliner exterior has imagery of colored glass in the background. Barneys New York department stores sell his beautiful faceted drinking glasses -- suitable for whiskey, espresso, or whatever else -- and their display window has featured his glass sculptures of mushrooms. In the many angles and aspects of Quagliata's practice, his translucent tonalities shine through.