An orgiastic frieze of genitalia, limbs and mouths seems an unlikely subject for a 173-year-old glass maker to hand-cut onto its refined crystal tableware. Yet that is exactly what the Czech company Rückl did when collaborating with Switzerland-based artist Marine Julié for this year’s Handmade.

The resulting ‘Constellations of Us’ vases and cups feature what Julié calls ‘a farandole of bisexual beings’, their curvaceous forms melding into, grasping and probing each other. This imagery is a trademark of Julié’s. She often paints it on walls and rock faces – large-scale sites befitting a trained architect. Her forms tend towards the gender fluid, combining male and female traits alongside some traces of the animal. She’s frequently asked, ‘Why women with dicks?’

The answer is multilayered. ‘It’s a kind of representation of myself – it’s much easier to speak about desire by representing myself with a dick. Because as a woman, culturally, I’m not supposed to talk about it, I’m not supposed to have an active part in that kind of situation,’ she explains. ‘But there is also an element of mythology, fantasy and collective unconscious,’ she continues, pointing to the recurrence of non-binary or trans-everything figures in nature, history and folklore. She considers her work a ‘poetry of beings’ that appear as their most essential selves.

Rückl master glass cutter Jaroslav Mádle
Rückl master glass cutter Jaroslav Mádle deep-cuts Julié’s design onto a vase using vintage machinery. Photography: Hudson Hayden

Rückl, some might think, occupies a more conservative corner of the design world. How did it receive Julié’s art? ‘Many people worry about the representation of sexuality, but not them,’ says the artist. Marketing director Eva Kozarova explains that the company was relaunched in 2017 by new owner Martin Wichterle, with a mission to marry the classic and the contemporary – and it immediately took a shine to Julié’s work. ‘It is provocative, but also universal,’ Kozarova says. Besides, humans have only been painting orgies onto jugs for oh, the last few thousand years.

The first stage of the collaboration did bring a more pragmatic obstacle, however: Rückl wasn’t sure how to cut Julié’s energetic curved lines into glass. Typically, the cutting process is done on a sharp wheel, which spins in place as a craftsperson manoeuvres glass vessels onto it. This technique is used to produce multitudes of designs, from precise lattices to playful letterforms, but in no way can it cut a rounded shape. Any curves at Rückl were small details only, made with a hand-held engraving tool. And yet, there was never a sense this would derail the project.

‘When you work with craftsmen, there’s always someone who wants to find a solution,’ says Julié. To convey both the heft and expressiveness of the artist’s lines in glass, Rückl dug into its archives, found an old machine that was something of a cross between a cutter and an engraver, and started experimenting with it again. By the time Julié visited the factory, Rückl master glass cutter Jaroslav Mádle was a deft hand with the deep-cutting technique enabled by this tool. Julié and Mádle shared no common language, but they seemed to understand each other from the get-go. This was key to Julié, who says the ‘good feeling’ she always got with Mádle meant she could trust in the process.

Constellations of Us sketches
Julié’s sketches for ‘Constellations of Us’

On subsequent visits, Julié familiarised herself with glass by drawing directly onto it and trying traditional processes, while Mádle practised deep-cutting until he could produce the desired quality of cut. It’s a technique Rückl plans to continue using, both for other objects and, if all goes to plan, to make ‘Constellations of Us’ into a product line.

Meanwhile, Julié has finished the project with new insight into the many distinctive properties of glass – including, unfortunately, its fragility. Both vases and three of the four cups arrived in Milan for the Handmade exhibition in pieces, having broken during shipping. With only a few days until the opening, Rückl sprang into action. Mádle worked through the weekend to produce one more vase. The company’s managing director Ivica Franeta kept the temperamental object in sight as he drove it to Milan in his own car. Kozarova still has nightmares about it. ‘I love glass. It’s our passion,’ she says, coming back to the exhibition theme. ‘It’s beautiful but it’s like love: you cannot control it. And sometimes it makes you crazy.’ §

As originally featured in the August 2019 issue of Wallpaper* (W*245)