LIVING SECTION

Contessa: Where Beauty is Function

Contessa, Italian for “on second thought,” is really more of a museum than a local gift shop.

By LINDA BLAKE
Published: Tuesday, March 31, 2009 | 5:28 PM

Existentialist philosopher Albert Camus once said that beauty creates “for a minute, the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time.” One glimpse at the golden-red and ocean-blue Venetian glassware at Contessa – an Italian handcrafts shop in Pasadena – and you are quickly lost in eternity’s embrace.

Contessa, Italian for “on second thought,” is really more of a museum than a local gift shop. Named after the Italian owner Maria Fabbri’s ever-growing collection of random handmade crafts, the store is filled with elegant keepsakes. Rows of Venetian glassware reflect light onto surrounding pottery, chic necklaces and smooth leather wallets – all shipped in from Italy and all handmade.

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Store owner Maria Fabbri’s gently adjusts a large vase—the outside is a soft scene of cherubs at play. More of a “heart-ist” than an artist, she is constantly working to create the perfect visual chemistry in her store. Daily, Fabbri introduces and rearranges items in what she calls her “Italian Home Collection,” based to match her mood . “I’m a woman and I change my mind,” she jokes in her defense.

While, Americans generally ask, “Yes, but what does it DO, ” Fabbri says she lives by an Italian saying that beauty is enough. Beauty is, in itself, a function. Reinforcing her point, she gracefully picks up a radiant red glass elephant. “Look at it. Take it out — look at how much more light there is in the room, this thing is really absorbing everything, it’s absorbing light.”

“Whenever you go shopping in this country [America], it’s pretty common to find things coming from China, or the Far East in general, but what they’re certainly missing is passion,” says Fabbri. Unlike mass-produced machine-made goods, Fabbri’s glassware collection is handcrafted by committed artisans working with century old tools in the island of Murano – just a gondola ride away from Venice, Italy.

To get inside the customer’s soul, Fabbri makes sure everything is handmade, that behind every tool is a human. Of course there is a price in having your works of art handmade, but the decision to buy only the necessary and the affordable can leave you empty handed. (If you wait too long at Contessa, that Venetian vase will likely be long gone.)

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Even the colors of the glass are a special blend made by Italian artists. Fabbri points out a red and blue vase made of Venetian glass. Essentially the same size and make, the red costs more than the blue. “When you want to create red, you need to introduce gold and mix,” she explains, revealing a neat trick of the glass making trade.

Each fabric, each color and design has a specific feel for Fabbri that mixes to make her desired end result – leather is warm, light is important to keep in mind for glass or color shows well on pottery.

“I’m always intrigued by color, I’m intrigued by light, and by the ‘tactileness’ of things,” says Fabbri.

Fabbri says she empathizes with many women who may opt for the blue item over the more expensive red piece in this economic climate. For those who have strapped budgets, but a desire to buy someone special a classy gift, Fabbri comforts them with a signature second thought. “I tell them why that piece is $50, or $100, and then it’s gift wrapped, and once they give it to the person it was intended for, well guess what. They are surprised, they are amazed, they are pleased,” she beams.

Her eyes flashing with sincerity, Fabbri stresses for just a little more money you can get something far more meaningful than those low-cost nick-knacks. From a micro-bubble in a piece of authentic Murano glass to a slight dimple in a piece of sterling, Fabbri says the beauty is a replica of the “imperfection of human beings.” To Fabbri, “Beauty as an expression of humanity needs to be handmade.”

Contessa is located on 380 S. Lake Avenue in the Burlington Arcade, south of East Del Mar Boulevard.
Ring (626) 744-0252.

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