story by Derek Ferrar
photos by Linny Morris Cunningham
Linny Morris Cunningham is crazy for color. Her photography, her artwork and her intrepid fashion aura all pulsate with riotous hues. Her home, a cramped loft in an ancient barn on her family's heirloom property at the back of a Honolulu valley, is done in radioactive pink, lime and tangerine. But the most luminous tones of all blaze forth from her prime obsession: an amazing collection of vintage blown-glass baubles from the island of Murano in Venice.
"In the '50s and '60s, this stuff was made in great quantity for export," Linny explains as we climb the creaky stairs to her aerie. "It was the thing for tourists to bring home when they visited Venice."
At the top of the stairs, we duck down to get through the tiny door. Inside, nearly every available surface is crowded with Murano glass. A hot-pink picnic table is covered with an assortment of splash-shaped bowls saturated in wild, transparent shades that morph through the spectrum from lollipop reds to popsicle blues. There are surreal Dr. Seuss flower shapes; thick, rounded "geodes"; and space-age doodads straight out of The Jetsons. Another table is set with watery forms and aqua hues, with just a couple of glass fish to complete the pelagic tableau. Glued to the tops of the loft's shaky beams, twisty vases play games of catch with the ambient light.
The variety of shapes and colors is stunning. Linny grabs a few pieces and arranges them in a patch of sunlight on the white floor. "Sometimes I just have to take them out and play with them," she says. "I get so excited when the sun hits them like this."
She's not sure exactly how many Murano pieces she has now, but it's over a thousand. She's been collecting them for more than fifteen years, but her pace really picked up when she started combing eBay's Internet auction site for the stuff. And lately, she's been incorporating the glass into her artwork, arranging pieces into outdoor installations and photographing them in matched groupings.
"If there's only one piece alone on your grandmother's coffee table with a doily, it s just a piece of kitsch," Linny says. "But if you take them out of context, and especially when you group them together just right, they become something else, like little pieces of exquisite, abstract sculpture."
I ask what she finds most enticing about the glass, and she runs down a list: "Well, first of all, the colors are just so tasty. To me, they look like candy; they make my mouth water." Then there's the flow of the shapes, which she describes as "controlled but loose, with the whole biomorphic thing you get when glass is blown instead of cast. They're whimsical, humorous, kind of cartoonish, even, but very sensual at the same time."
And finally, she says, there's the fact that this is art made for the masses: "This is not high art; it's production work that was done to make money from tourists. I like that, and also the fact that it's not flimsy at all; it has some heft to it."
Since so much of the glass was sold, a relatively plentiful supply still exists, stashed in forgotten corners of attics and basements. And so far, the prices remain within reach, averaging between $20 and $40 on eBay, although top-dollar pieces can go for over $1,000. "It s like being in on the ground floor of an undiscovered, very collectible thing," she says. "It's pretty thrilling to feel like you're ahead of the curve on something like this."
From an old kamaaina family, Linny grew up in Honolulu. At sixteen, she got a camera as a gift and "was instantly hooked." She attended college here and in Colorado before winding up at the Parsons School of Design in New York. A photographer friend helped her get into the business there, and she started doing fashion work, as well as architectural and garden photography, which has become one of her mainstays. (Today, she focuses largely on editorial work for architectural and style books, as well as magazines like Travel + Leisure, Islands, House & Garden and, of course, Hana Hou!)
A relationship with the saxophone player from the band Oingo Boingo took her to L.A., and she was soon ensconced in the art world there. Then, on a trip home to Hawaii, she fell for lifeguard and bodysurfing champion Mark Cunningham, and she moved back to the Islands to marry him.
In fact, it was at a wedding shower sixteen years ago, she says, that she got her first piece of Murano glass: "A friend of mine found a piece in a relative's basement, and she knew it would be perfect for me. When I opened it, it just blew my mind. I couldn't believe something existed that was so perfectly in sync with what my art has always been about."
She started searching for Murano pieces at antique shops and garage sales. Whenever she traveled, she'd comb the junk stores and fleamarkets, hoping to "bring home a little treasure." And then, a couple of years ago, she discovered eBay. "I was late getting a computer," she confesses. "I'm such a design nazi that I refused to have one of those little beige boxes in my house. So when the iMacs finally came out, I pounced. And I think the first time I went online, I went straight to eBay."
Online bidding "has opened up a whole new world," she says. "It s truly a global marketplace. I've bought pieces from Germany, England, Australia, New Zealand, lots from Canada. Now I check the listings every day; it's the first thing I want to do in the morning."
She leads me downstairs to the studio she calls her "Aladdin's cave." Dozens of glass pieces cram the shelves and cabinet tops, including exotically tinted "genie bottles" with stretched necklines and pointy stoppers. Hundreds of other pieces are packed away in blue plastic bins that share the jammed shelving with camera gear and film archives.
She boots up her grape iMac and scrolls through the day's offerings. The trick, she says, is knowing just what you want and what it's worth. "There's a lot of tacky stuff out there," she admits, "and I made some pretty horrendous mistakes in the beginning." What does she look for now? "Nice curvy shapes with a good flow, glitter whenever possible, and really juicy color."
As her collection has grown, so has her vision of using the glass in her own artwork. Last summer, she created a day-long installation on a North Shore beach consisting of more that 300 of the small, petalled Murano ashtrays she calls "flower bowls," arranged into a rainbowed spiral on the sand. "I just love the way these things look when you take them completely out of context and set them in the natural environment like that," she says.
The beach installation was only the beginning. "I'd love to travel around in a van, photographing other people's collections for a book on Italian production glass," Linny says, "or to do installations in areas with different kinds of natural backgrounds. Salt flats would be wonderful, or sand dunes, or snow."
She is also starting to display her collection at museums, beginning with an installation she'll mount from June 18 to 23 at the bottom of the swimming pool on the grounds of Honolulu's Contemporary Museum. And she is even cooking up plans for using the glass as an architectural design element. In fact, about the only thing she can't see herself doing with Murano glass is getting bored. "Being such a light nut," she says, "I m just hypnotized by the way light works with this stuff. I can't stop playing with it."