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. Beginning in the 1930s Finnish glass manufacturers were remarkable for their willingness to explore new forms in functional glass objects. “One of the marks of modernist glass is that designers were interested in the possibilities of the material—to see what glass could do,” says Oldknow. “Previously, glass forms had been interpretations on forms that had first been worked in metal.” In 1936 the Finnish company Karhula-Iittala glassworks produced a biomorphic glass vase—now a modernist classic—designed by the architect Alvar Aalto (1898–1976) for the dining room of Helsinki’s Savoy restaurant. The Corning collection’s postwar Finnish glass is even more striking. It includes a bladelike 1957 plate by Tapio Wirkkala (1915–1985), a designer best known for his furniture of swirling laminated wood, and a frosted glass vase made in 1956 by Timo Sarpaneva (Fig. 8). That sculptural vessel, pierced by a round hole, was part of a series that Sarpaneva said was inspired by the work of the English sculptors Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.3
Italy—or, more specifically, the small island of Murano in the Venetian lagoon—is another part of Europe where the story of modernism and glass was written, though Venice is central to the entire Western history of glass craftsmanship. The city’s first glassmaking guild was established early in the thirteenth century. By the end of the century workshops became so great in number that the city expelled them to Murano for fear that the furnaces might start a catastrophic fire.4 Bravura construction and ornamentation became the keynote of Venetian glass—a style wholly at odds with the zeitgeist of the twentieth century. But a renaissance in Murano glass came about in no small part due to the efforts of an entrepreneur named Paolo Venini. An attorney from Milan, Venini began operating glass manufactories in Murano with Giacomo Cappelin in the 1920s. His initial move was to hire the painter Vittorio Zecchin to design clean-formed classical wares modeled on glass vessels depicted in works by old master painters such as Titian, Veronese, and Caravaggio (see Fig. 2).5 But Murano glass changed utterly when Venini hired the architect Carlo Scarpa (1906–1978) as his design director in 1933. Scarpa revived the use of age-old techniques such as murrhine—or mosaic glass, made by fusing together colored disks or squares—and “canne,” a composite cane made by a method in which colored rods are laid out in a pattern, gathered onto a hot clear glass matrix, then reheated, blown, and tooled. Venini himself developed into a talented designer, with an eye for the buoyant color and asymmetrical forms that are a hallmark of much mid-century Murano glass (see Fig. 14).6
The illustrator Fulvio Bianconi (1915–1996) developed a playful repertoire that included his Scozzese, or Scottish, vases, so named because their patterns resembled tartans, while the Venetian painter Dino Martens (1894–1970) used glass as a medium for exuberant abstraction.7
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.11After 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 http://www.chinapdf.com/PDF-samples/Food/www.vetri-italianglassnews.com-websitesample.pdf
GREGORY CERIO is a regular contributor to Antiques.