Seeing through modernism at Corning

Oldknow is particularly proud of Corning’s collection of mid-century Czech glass, which comes as a revelation for the simple reason that Americans have had few opportunities to see it. Bohemia—the region, most of which is now today’s Czech Republic—has a long and distinguished history in glassmaking. When Czechoslovakia first became independent in 1918, the country’s glass firms and schools followed developing design currents, most notably the functionalist concepts of the Bauhaus. But after World War II, as Czechoslovakia was absorbed into the Soviet bloc, glassmaking took on a new significance. As Oldknow explains, the state vigorously suppressed modernism and abstraction in the fine and graphic arts, but did not apply the same strictures to glass, reasoning that works in glass were merely functional objects that might also be decorative. “The only artists who could express themselves freely,” Oldknow says, “were those who painted on or sculpted in glass.” Among the key artists from the fifties were the husband and wife Stanislav Libenský (1921–2002) and Jaroslava Brychtová (1924–) who, working separately and together, created cubist-inflected enameled glass and sculptural glass vessels. The sculptor Pavel Hlava created a series of elegant, organic “single bloom” vases in the 1950s that just barely passed as functional objects (see Fig. 1). Also at this time Vladimír Jelinek (1934–) and Vladimír Kopecký (1931–) decorated their glass with boldly abstract designs, but it would be more than thirty years before all these artists could truly work as they wished.8

The United States’ embrace of modernism in glass was slow to arrive. In the early twentieth century American glass manufacturers cared little about artistic design, according to Oldknow: “When they needed a new design director they’d often just promote someone who had been working at the furnaces.” More importantly, she adds, “Americans hadn’t experienced the horrors of war to the degree to which Europeans had, and so they weren’t as concerned with new ways of thinking and living.”

If for no other reason than his free-spiritedness, a singular figure in the development of artistic American glass was Frederick Carder. A master British glassmaker, Carder immigrated to the United States in 1903 and became the director and cofounder with Thomas G. Hawkes (c. 1847–1913) of the Steuben Glass Works in Corning. His brief was to create blanks for other firms to engrave or decorate—but he ignored the directive and followed his muse.9 “He was tired of the stiffness in England,” Jane Spillman, curator of American glass at the Corning Museum, says. “Carder was very hands-on. He studied chemistry and was constantly developing new formulas for glass. He was extremely versatile.” Just how versatile is evident in the works on view in the museum’s Frederick Carder Gallery. The range of styles and types of glass—cameo glass, iridescent glass, cut glass, acid-etched glass, and cased glass—is staggering. Stylistically, Carder was no innovator. But given an inspiration, he could tease dozens of variations on a form. Nor was he a modernist, yet his Moss Agate pieces from the twenties reveal a talent for mixing color that rivals that of the mid-century Italians, and the semiabstract floral and botanical patterns of his Intarsia vases (see Fig. 9) and bowls of the early thirties almost prefigure the punchy floral textile designs of the 1950s and 1960s. Steuben was bought out by Corning Glass Works in 1918, but Carder stayed on as Steuben’s artistic director for another fifteen years.

Other American glassware designers were making an attempt to incorporate modernist ideas. Reuben Haley kept a close eye on European art and design trends, and, working at Consolidated Lamp and Glass Company of Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, he unveiled in 1928 the first pieces in his Ruba Rombic glassware collection, a line of cubist-inspired tableware (Fig. 3).10 Back in Corning, with the onset of the Great Depression, sales plummeted. In 1932 Arthur Amory Houghton Jr. (1906–1990) became head of Steuben and decided to sweep the board clean. Chemists at Corning Glass had created a new optic lead glass of surpassing clarity and brilliance, and Houghton decreed that henceforth Steuben would use only this material. The color-loving Carder was given a sinecure at the parent company, and Houghton brought in the famed industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague as a consultant. Teague understood both the power of glass—his 1934 Bluebird radio, with its circular matrix of blue glass (Fig. 12), is a modernist icon—and the power of marketing. He executed some designs for Steuben, but more significantly he convinced Houghton to position Steuben glass as a luxury item (see Fig. 6). The following year Houghton hired the sculptor Sidney Waugh (1904–1963) as the firm’s artistic director. Inspired by the elegant and restrained work being produced by Orrefors, Waugh created pieces such as his 1935 Gazelle Bowl: a thick rounded vessel set atop an angular base and decorated with an engraving of a dozen leaping gazelles. Such graceful yet dynamic designs set the tone for Steuben glassware for more than a decade.11

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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