How to Travel in Venice Like a Chic Ceramicist

Original story featured on harpersbazaar.com. Read it here

You might think it’s strange to travel all the way to the Venice Biennale to look at cups. But as a New York-based ceramicist, the opportunity to attend the 25th Anniversary of Illy’s Art Collection—designed by Robert Wilson alongside The Watermill Center—I can only liken to an American chef traveling to Paris to taste real ratatouille. 

Landing in Venice from JFK, water taxis ferried directly up to the airport and porters gingerly carried our small group’s luggage onto the boat. The smell of the motor’s gasoline and the salty air whipped our jet-lagged faces as we began our journey to JW Marriott Venice on Isola delle Rose, a small private island 15 minutes from Venice, where Israeli artist Ron Arad greeted us in front of a teaser art installation. Ron showed me his own ceramic pieces in the collection, and his silk drape-inspired cups set the tone for what would be several days of pure beauty.

Pulling into Venice, the start of a new adventure.

Pulling into Venice, the start of a new adventure.

The following morning I boarded a water taxi (no cars is truly half the fun of Venice) to Magazzini del Sale housing the Illy Art Collection exhibit. Seeing the peony-laced tablescape showcasing over two decades worth of customized ceramics was an indescribable moment. Pieces by Francesco Clemente, Julian Schnabel and Marina Abramovic lined the sprawling table, along with Bob Wilson’s Alice in Wonderland-inspired collection titled, The Dish Ran Away With The Spoon: Everything You Can Think of Is True, which parlays the notion of dreaming as reality.

Spotted in Venice outside JW Marriott Venice.

Spotted in Venice outside JW Marriott Venice.

A disappearing gondola.

A disappearing gondola.

Innovation is rarely at the forefront of the porcelain industry, which has long been guided by traditional manufacturing and craftsmanship, so I was eager to hear from Carlo Bach, Illy’s Art Director, for his thoughts on how artists can redefine what I like to call “functional art”—beautiful pieces that are also dishwasher safe. 

Carlo described each cup as a canvas for expressing something new, adding that Illy is always exploring advancements in technology to push the boundaries of possibility for porcelain.

Clockwise from left, designs by: Fondazione Pistoletto, Francesco Clemente, Robert Wilson and Pedro Almodovar

Clockwise from left, designs by: Fondazione Pistoletto, Francesco Clemente, Robert Wilson and Pedro Almodovar

I loved this idea, mostly because our own ombre collections embody a texture and experience paying quiet homage to sunsets, pale dip dyes and psychedelic metallic touches inspired by travel: seeing new places, people and learning about how others live. So much of our new collection is meant to evoke a feeling of togetherness and approachable inclusion, and Italy certainly has no shortage of that. 

I took a lot of inspiration (and an embarrassing number of photos) from the electric aqua canal-ways, the broad golden bodies of water and sunburnt cement glittering off of stucco colored walls. I had never experienced such an unapologetic love for life alongside such vibrant visuals.

Disappearing light.

Disappearing light.

The notion of functional, approachable art led us into our next chapter of the trip and into a cooking class at Sapori Cooking Academy held by JW Marriott Venice's executive sous chef, Micki Milan. Our group eagerly encouraged the scent of spices ruminating throughout the space (I shelled 100 small shrimp!), and my new friend Tina Craig, the icon behind Bag Snob, offered to dress me for the night. The evening wore on like a true Cinderella story. 

Arriving by boat for the red carpet of Illy’s 25th Anniversary event, we wore matching Valentino gowns to coordinate with the collection’s pale pink palette. We ended our night with peppermint tea and cocktails outside at The Gritti Palace, a Luxury Collection Hotel, conspiratorially watching the small taxi boats pass by.

Arriving by boat with Tina Craig (right), dressed in Valentino.

Arriving by boat with Tina Craig (right), dressed in Valentino.

The last day allowed for an exploration of the local food market, Mercati di Rialto, which gave us the unique opportunity to peruse and purchase spices to bring home as gifts. The vendors sprawled across several streets with fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and coffee. Locals ambled along while surveying the day’s offerings and the indulgent pace was enough to make me never want to leave. 

From the market we walked to the Giardini to experience the Venice Biennale. We made our way through the installations, with Mark Bradford’s political works Tomorrow is Another Day, being my favorite. The installation’s focus on utilizing everyday materials to represent a hair salon or Home Depot pulled at my tactile heart strings; and the undercurrent of representing America’s marginalized populations, both for their vulnerability and resiliency, left me feeling energized, and hopeful.

Baby clams and pasta… my favorite meal of the trip.

Baby clams and pasta… my favorite meal of the trip.

Taking our last gondola ride.

Taking our last gondola ride.

The day was cloudless, a perfect Spring breeze in the air as we walked through the city and stopped for a rooftop lunch at Terrazza Danieli, where we watched ships big and small lazily linger past while recounting our favorite sights. As day turned to dusk, we had time in the city before our final dinner as evening light was beginning to flicker through the pavement. A friend recommended the show Glasstress at Palazzo Franchetti so I slowly made my through the beautiful cobblestoned walkways. Bringing a modern touch to an ancient art, the display—designed in collaboration with Murano glassblowers—touched the core of my appreciation for handmade craftsmanship. And being able to see Ai Weiwei’s latest work in person left me floating on my way out. 

After landing back in New York I felt a strong urge to innovate with new palettes, clay textures clay, firing methods and silhouettes. Venice was truly a dream come to life, and much to the Illy exhibit’s point, left me feeling more than ever that everything you can think of is true.

Saying goodbye. 

Saying goodbye. 

The Setting