Carlo Scarpa, master of modernism

by clé tile | published: Jan 13, 2023

A modernist interior with a focus on vertical and horizontal planes as design form, with an organically curving bronze sculpture.

Negozio Olivetti, Venice, Italy 1958. source

with his championship of materials, traditional craftsmanship, and commitment to working with artists and artisans, it’s no surprise that we’re fervid fans of the work of 20th century Italian architect, glassmaker and furniture designer Carlo Scarpa.

making tile an essential part of modernist design and architecture

Scarpa–along with modernist Italian architects such as Gio Ponti–was a master (and prolific user) of using architectural tile, employing it to play up texture and color, and to bring character, timelessness, and life to a space.

so it won’t come as a surprise that inspiration from Scarpa’s work has found its way into what we do–most notably (for now) the rough cut mosaics of our lapidary collection of precious stone and marble tile. in fact, it’s a collection we’ve been wanting to bring to life since clé first started. maybe even before. 

in honor of our hero, we thought we’d share a little of what makes us such Scarpaficionados.

rooted in Venice

Scarpa may be world-renowned but nowhere is he more venerated than in his hometown, Venice. 

born in 1906 he spent most of his working life there, first studying at the Accademia di Belle Art Venezia (Venice Academy of Fine Arts) where during this time he began collaborating with craftsmen and glassmakers on the Venetian island of Murano, notable for its long history of glassmaking since the 13th century. 

Designer Carlo Scarpa supervises glassblowing in a vintage black and white photo.

Carlo scarpa in Murano, Italy 1943. source

in 1932, Scarpa joined Venini, the renowned Murano glass manufacturer where he served as artistic director until 1947. Venini was–and still is– known for its unique glass colors and exquisite blown glass objects often in collaboration with famous designers and artists, such as Gio Ponti, Ettore Sottsass, Tadao Ando as well as with Scarpa.

blending past is present

Scarpa’s love of materials was not limited to glass and his approach to design relied heavily on the use of craft and elemental materials such as stone, metals, wood and water. he had an unrivaled ability to mix both traditional and modern design.

The interior of a modernist tomb with sculptural, classic monolith inspired shapes.

Memoriale Brion, San Vito, Italy 1978. source

this was no more evident than in his renovations of public buildings where Scarpa straddled both the ancient and modern by layering new architecture into historic buildings, creating tension between the new and the old, and in effect, making the past become part of the present.

Scarpa’s legacy

while he designed many private residences, it was his reinterpretation of public buildings that secured his legacy in the world of design. the most notable examples of Scarpa’s bridging the ancient with the modern are evidenced in the following structures.

1935 - 1956 Palazzo Ca’Foscari, Venice

the doges’ palace on the Grand Canal was built in 1453 and is typical of floral gothic architecture denoted in particular by its ogive arches and windows on the canal facing facade.

Scarpa carried out a first renovation in 1935, installing large sheets of glass on the ground floor and behind the gothic windows in the great hall where he also created wooden seating.

he returned to the great hall in 1955 to create boiserie paneling to serve as a wooden screen dividing the space into a lecture hall and a corridor using sliding cloth covered frames that, once closed, replicate the gothic pointed form of the windows. 

1953 – 1954 Palazzo Abbatellis, Palermo

built in 1490, this Catalan Gothic style palazzo was renovated and designed as a museum by Scarpa in 1954. 

most notable in this renovation was his approach to museology (the study of museum design) relying on natural light and color in the arrangement of objects and the showcasing of installations. how each display relates spatially not only to the architecture but also in consideration to each other was of tantamount importance to Scarpa.  

A museum room with a green panel running around the wall.
Art displayed on a freestanding wall-like easel.
Colorful panels are the background for classical bust sculptures in a museum.

1958 The Olivetti Showroom, Venice

sitting discreetly on piazza San Marco is the Olivetti museum designed by Carlo Scarpa. commissioned by Adriano Olivetti to showcase the work of the Italian technology manufacturer’s cutting-edge typewriters and calculators, the museum has since become one of the most revered spaces designed by Scarpa.

cantilevered slabs of marble create a central staircase that appears to hang in the air and materiality is on full display with cement, glass, steel, brass and stone carefully crafted to create space and transparency within the confines of the building. however, it’s the floors with Scarpa’s use of hand-chiseled venetian glass mosaics (known as smalti) which take center stage. 

forever conscious of the play of light, the pigmented glass chips are displayed in different color blocks with the colors becoming increasingly brighter as the viewer moves away from the natural light of the window.

A modern hallway with floating stairs and a 1960s typewriter.
A row of light green typewriters in a room with wooden half walls.

1956 – 1964 Museo Castelvecchio, Verona

Scarpa’s work on this 14th century medieval castle is widely considered to be one of his finest.

with over 600 years of history, many marked by bloody wars, the castle had been modified numerous times over and allowed Scarpa the opportunity to pare the building back to an elemental state while adding modern materials such as a steel staircase, steel beams and glass panels which were embedded in the stone walls. 

Scarpa, who was heavily influenced by Japanese architecture, the Japanese use of light and their respect for the integrity of materials, covered the walls in rough concrete that served to reduce reflections and installed a gray stone floor with a matte finish that minimized shadows allowing the works of art, placed on raised platforms to give the illusion of pieces floating in space with light filtering through side windows.

As Scarpa said, “we are not interested in mediocre, we know beauty, we go in search of the sublime.” his work stands as an enduring testament to that ethos.


The knight and horse sculpture from the floor below.
A gallery room in a castle, with steel easels.