Seeing through modernism at Corning

After World War II the designer Russel Wright (1904–1976) would introduce middle-class homes to biomorphic glassware through his designs for Ohio’s Imperial Glass Company and other firms.12 The West Virginia glassmaker Blenko began to bring fancifully shaped pieces in bright colors and patterns to the same market. At the high end, Steuben, through sleek bar- and tableware pieces by designers such as George Thompson (1913–1981) and Donald Pollard (1924–), promoted what might be called “executive modernism”—design in keeping with the spirit of such buildings as Lever House and the Seagram’s Building in New York.13

But the Corning Museum’s modern glass collection contains a few works that hint at the artful, artisanal glass that would be produced in the United States later in the century. One is a yellow dish covered in a complex pattern of enameled swirls and tiny triangles. It was made in 1951 by Maurice Heaton (1900–1990), the son of a stained-glass window maker. In his thirties Heaton produced glassware for firms such as Lightolier, but felt a calling to become an artist-craftsman, and began using a ceramic kiln and tools and molds of his own making to heat, shape, and apply enamel designs to glass. Heaton is regarded as a herald of the American studio craft movement of the 1950s, which championed the handmade over the manufactured, and was embraced by artisans working across the spectrum of the applied arts.14 Those who worked in glass were hampered by lack of equipment. Having neither the money nor the space for proper glassmaking furnaces, most, like Heaton, used kilns. In 1948 the husband and wife Michael and Frances Stewart Higgins, who met at the Illinois Institute of Design, first set up kilns in their apartment.15 The Corning collection contains a late 1950s molded vessel made of fused crushed glass and enameling by Frances Higgins (Fig. 13) and a hanging lantern of about 1957 to 1964, composed of the couple’s signature glass tiles (Fig. 11).

Work by Heaton, the Higginses, and others began to attract attention. In 1959 Thomas Stearns (1936–2006), a graduate of Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art, received a Fulbright grant to practice glassmaking at the Venini manufactory—the first American to do so. Though Stearns was hobbled by the fact that he spoke no Italian, and Venini executives considered his work too expensive to make and market, they were impressed enough to exhibit his pieces at the 1960 Venice Biennale. Stear­ns won first prize. The award was rescinded when the judges discovered that he was not a European citizen, but no matter.16 American modernist glass had arrived.

1 Robert J. Charleston, Masterpieces of Glass: A World History from the Corning Museum of Glass (Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1980), p. 215.

2 Sotheby’s Concise Encyclopedia of Glass, ed. David Battie and Simon Cottle (Conran Octopus, London, 1991), pp. 171–172.

3 Design 1935–1965: What Modern Was, ed. Martin Eidelberg (Musée des Arts décoratifs, Montreal, and Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1991), p. 117.

4 Chloe Zerwick, A Short History of Glass (Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, N. Y., and Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1990), p. 49.

5 Design 1935–1965, p. 403.

6 Marc Heiremans, Murano Glass: Themes and Variations (Arnoldsche, Stuttgart, 2002), pp. 11, 67, 76.

7 Design 1935–1965, pp. 194–195, 363.

8 Czech Glass 1945–1980: Design in an Age of Adversity, ed. Helmut Ricke (Museum Kunst Palast, Düsseldorf, and Arnoldsche, Stuttgart, 2005), pp. 15–20.

9 Paul V. Gardner, Frederick Carder: Portrait of a Glassmaker (Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, N.Y., 1985), pp. 18–21, 29.

10 Anne Madarasz, Glass: Shattering Notions (Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, 1998), pp. 108–109.

11 Donald Albrecht, Glass + Glamour: Steuben’s Modernist Moment, 1930–1960 (Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2003), pp. 10–17.

12 The Brooklyn Museum has a fine example.

13 Albrecht, Glass + Glamour, pp. 29–33.

14 Martha Drexler Lynn, American Studio Glass, 1960–1990: An Interpretive Study (Hudson Hills, New York, 2004), pp. 36–37.

15 Ibid., pp. 37–38.

16 Odetto Lastra, “Yoichi Ohira: Glass of Serene Beauty,” VETRI: Italian Glass News; special Web site edition; Winter 2000, p. 9, at

GREGORY CERIO is a regular contributor to Antiques.

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[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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