Glassware designer and sculptor Isabel Antonia Giampietro died March 30, 2010 in New York at the age of 92. Her most prolific years were in the 1950s, a time when very few women worked in design. Her pieces were unique; The New York Times describes her glassworks as being “as graceful as they are innovative”. She developed a technique to make the stem of a drinking glass from one piece creating extremely strong glassware that was more efficient to produce. She also designed goblets, where the stem doubles as another glass. Like many glassware designers, she is not very well known outside a small circle of collectors. I doubt I would be familiar with her work if she weren’t my great aunt. We are an artistic family; Isabel’s brother, my grandfather Alexander Giampietro, was a sculptor and art professor at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. My mother is a jeweler and many of my cousins are artists and designers themselves.
I first met Isabel about ten years ago when I was studying design in New York. Although over 80, she was very independent and living alone in Manhattan. Entering her tiny apartment was like walking into a well-curated and creatively cluttered gallery. Everything — from the dishes she served pastries on to the sculptures and glassware that lined her walls — had a story. She surrounded herself with her art: antique carvings and a beautiful and delicate sculptural portrait of her son as boy. I was struck by her sophisticated appearance. She wore dark lipstick and dramatic hats, managing to look elegant throughout her life.
Isabel was born in 1917 to Matilde and Giuseppe Giampietro. They lived in the small town of Marsicovetere in the Potenza province of Southern Italy. In 1928, Isabel immigrated to Brooklyn with her mother, brother Alexander and sister Concetta. Like many other Italian immigrants, they followed the patriarch, in this case Giuseppe, who settled in New York. Keeping with the creative tradition, Giuseppe and his brothers were traveling musicians. In high school, Isabel’s innate creativity was apparent as she often dreamed about designing and sewing her own clothes Isabel received her undergraduate degree from Manhattanville College in 1940. She later returned to Italy where she pursued a master’s degree in sculpture at the University of Fine Arts, Rome.
During the 1950s, Isabel worked as a glassware designer in Northern Europe where she designed for such notable firms as Royal Leerdam in Holland and Gullaskufs Glassware in Sweden. She received a certificate in glass design from Konstfack, University College of Art and Design in Sweden.
Her most famous work is probably the Riflesso line of crystal glassware she designed for Royal Leerdam which won the Gran Prix at the Brussels Exposition in 1958. Riflesso is Italian for reflection. The line featured an array of drink-ware including champagne, wine, martini and liqueur glasses. Also part of the line is a unique punchbowl and decanter. Of the collection she would say, “[It was] an excuse to show the tension, fragility, transparency and strength possible of crystal.”
While she never labeled herself a modernist, her work reflects a simplicity and sophistication that were hallmarks of modern decorative arts. She plainly resisted the idea of any aesthetic dogma, instead articulating, “I was interested in the process of how crystal was made, not just the design”.
Isabel’s work was certainly recognized and appreciated during her life but she also expressed frustration at being unable to fully support herself solely with her art. In 1978, she received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in design. Then in 1984, her work was on display at Alan Moss gallery in New York, by which time it was already collectible. The National Glass Museum in Holland has a large collection of her glass, and the Hanneke Fokkelman gallery, also in Holland, had a retrospective of Isabel’s work in 2007. In the United States her work is part of the permanent collection of the Corning Glass Museum.
She is survived by her son Andrew Knoll and granddaughter Dakota Brewster, as well as our large extended family. She will be remembered as a vibrant woman and an inspiring artist and designer.