Seeing through modernism at Corning

January 2009 | Strolling into the modern glass gallery of the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York, where the display cases with pieces from 1880 to 1960 are arranged in chronological order, the aficionado of modernism feels comfortable moving quickly past the vitrines of ornate, sinuous wares from the art nouveau period. But there, sharing shelf space with the floral-shaped iridescent Favrile designs of Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933), is a set of blown-glass goblets of such chaste and simple form—shallow, clear glass bowls mounted on ruby-colored bell-shaped feet—that they seem to have come from the 1940s or 1950s. A curatorial error, you wonder? No. The goblets were designed about 1900 by the German architect Peter Behrens (Fig. 10). Soon afterward, a sleek lead glass claret jug with a wooden handle and silver cuffs appears. Surely this must be a product of the Bauhaus, you think. But no, the jug was produced in 1882 by the iconoclastic Scottish designer Christopher Dresser (Fig. 7).This unsurpassed design collection offers many such surprises, which both shed light on the roots of modernism and demonstrate the ways that the movement found expression in glass in Europe and the United States. You might, for example, think you have René Lalique pegged stylistically—and, indeed, the gallery includes several of his familiar neoclassically inspired art deco designs. But then you come across his Tourbillons (Whirlwind or Whirlpool) vase of 1925 (Fig. 5): a vessel made of molded glass with deep sweeping incisions that Lalique coated in black enamel. The piece seems to anticipate the dynamic abstract aesthetic that came to the fore twenty-five years later. Or, on seeing an acid-etched vase, you encounter Maurice Marinot, a respected fauvist painter who became enamored of glass after a visit to a factory run by friends in 1911. He mastered the techniques of glassworking and set out to produce, as he wrote, “objects born of fire to give the feeling…of water, still or flowing, of ice which is cracking and melting.”1 The Corning collection includes a vase he made about 1934 that captures this effect perfectly (Fig. 4). It is covered in roundels created by repeated immersions of the piece in an acid bath.

“Modernism came to glasswork for the same reasons it came to other areas of art and design, and the same rules apply: concerns for progress, transparency, and purity of form,” says Tina Oldknow, curator of Corning’s Modern Glass department. “Modernism is also pluralistic, and you can see in our collection how many different things were happening under its umbrella.” Three areas in Europe, Oldknow explains, produced the most artistic and influential modernist glassware. One region was the Nordic countries, in particular Sweden and Finland. In the second decade of the twentieth century, the Swedish glass manufacturer Orrefors hired artists to direct its designs. At about the same time, the company developed a technique called graal, in which an etched or engraved patterned vitreous core is encased in clear glass. The graal method, imitated worldwide, was used to great effect in the 1930s by the designer Vicke Lindstrand (1904–1983), whose figurative style is often reminiscent of that of the art deco era designer Jean Dupas (1882–1964).2 The Nordic glassmakers employed clear glass almost exclusively, although after WorldWar II Swedish firms like Orrefors and the companies Kosta and Boda (which all later merged) began to present glass in subtle colors and with restrained abstract designs based on nature.

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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