Zafferano glass: Italian creativity on the dining table

Zafferano glass: Italian creativity on the dining table

by Tom Riby 13 June 2016

The Venetian island of Murano is home to some of the best glassblowers in Europe, and many of the world's top restaurants serve wine and water in their beautiful glassware. Tom Riby talks to designer Federico de Majo to discover how he keeps this artisan industry alive.

Tom worked as the producer for Great Italian Chefs. Originally from the UK, he has always been a part of Britain's culinary scene, working with chefs such as Robert Thompson and Gordon Ramsay, Tom now lives in Tuscany, Italy with his family. His obsession with Italy’s culture combined with a shared passion for food is his dream now realised.

Mid-twentieth century Italy gave birth to some of the world’s most radically exuberant design and architecture. One example which quickly became famous the world over was glassware from the Venetian island of Murano. Its popularity in the Venetian Republic, where global trading took place, made Murano glass one of the most coveted symbols of style and status across Europe.

Today, the island’s glass-makers haven’t changed their methods, but there are fewer of them due to the economic woes over the past decade, with only those brave and talented enough to weather the storm. Not content on being a museum to a lost craft, the glassblowers are revolutionising the industry and rekindling the island’s artisanal tradition.

Federico de Majo, designer and owner of Zafferano, is at the forefront of this movement. His inspiring glassware creations have been chosen by some of the world’s best restaurants and he’s leading a new generation of Italy’s artisan glass-makers. Following in his father’s footsteps, Federico was immersed in the beauty and craft of glass at his family’s glass firm from a young age. His grandfather, on the other hand, used to sell cheese and olives to the biggest restaurants in Venice. ‘When I was a young boy, this combination of food and glass was perfect,’ says Federico. ‘I started working with my father, but it was my grandfather that taught me to be resourceful.’

After working with his father for many years Federico soon became the factory's in-house designer, until he left the family business in the 1980s to focus on designing hand-blown and artistic glasses and lighting. In 2001 he started his own company – Zafferano – creating wine glasses on the mainland, but the spirit of Murano is still evident in all his creations. Federico’s expert knowledge of glass-shaping meant he had the confidence to innovate, which in turn helped him to revolutionise traditional tableware designs which were seen in almost every high-end restaurant in Italy.

Many of Federico's designs start off life as a concept or drawing
They are then transformed into beautiful glassware, taking inspiration from the iconic artisans of Murano

Federico describes his style as sensorial, but for chefs such as Gaetano Trovato it is the combination of quality materials and the designer’s artistic touch that is most fascinating. ‘I love how delicate the glasses are,’ says Gaetano. ‘Some say it will break easily, but it’s the fragility that is most fascinating.’

The choice of materials, the functionality, the study of shape – all these bear witness to the great attention paid to design and product research that Federico undertakes. But the way he comes up with his iconic glassware seems to grow organically. ‘When creating something new, you’re never exactly sure how you’ll arrive at the finished product,’ he says. ‘Everyone finds different solutions and the spontaneous experiments usually result in the most exciting creations.’

Every one of Zafferano’s glass collections expresses its own style and personality, with the looks to match. But Federico always focuses on how the glass will be used, before thinking about how it will look. ‘I know the glass world very well and I know the materials, but I begin by looking at the function, and the use,’ he says. ‘For example, we have designed glasses for Norbert Niederkofler at St Hubertus, Gaetano Trovato at Arnolfo and the Capri Palace & Hotel Spa with Andrea Migliaccio – all of them asked for something unique. We worked with them to figure out the best design that would work with their restaurant space. It has to fit into the aesthetics of the experience.’

The tasting glasses and colourful tumblers are signature designs for Zafferano, including the new Perle line which can all be found in the world of tasting and haute cuisine, both Italian and international. For Federico this is just the beginning, and to combine the beauty of Murano-inspired glass with the restaurant tables of the world is a perfect fit.