Steuben Forever

by William Warmus

This essay appeared in the Winter 2000 (Number 81) issue of Glass magazine

 

 

 

An inventory of the earliest pieces of equipment required to create studio glass in the 1960s would have to include blue jeans and a case of beer. But that was just a passing phase. Although Harvey Littleton, Dale Chihuly and others seem to have won the argument that the ideal place to create art from glass is in the informal atmosphere of the artist’s studio, history also argues that the studio should be located adjacent to a palace.

 

It is quite possible that the ancient sculptor Tuthmosis started this venerable tradition. He probably had glassworking space in his large workshop in the ancient Egyptian city of Tell el Amarna, where the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten had relocated the royal court around 1360 B.C. Raw glass ingots (possibly imported) seem to have been so widely used by the artisans there that one excavator commented--no doubt he was exaggerating a little--that “almost every family in the city appeared to be working in the glass and faience industry.”  

 

In fact, for much of the history of glass, the glass “factory” was more a royal atelier than a mass-production plant churning out identical objects for the anonymous masses. By the late nineteenth century, however, the grand idea of an artist’s glass factory (maybe we should call it a proto-studio?) was limited to a select few who had wealthy patrons or were from industrial or patrician families such as Emile Galle in France, Venini in Italy, and, of course, Louis Comfort Tiffany in America. Always a costly undertaking, after Tiffany the idea that the factory is the best means of producing art in glass survived by the most slender of strands in America--at one factory in upstate New York, owned, of course, by a patrician family.

 

“The Studio Glass Movement is nothing new to Steuben. Since its inception in 1903, Steuben has been a studio.”  

Russell Lynes

 

In Corning, and alone among American factories in the twenties and thirties, Steuben glass continued to produce  work that is both an heir to the traditions of Galle and Tiffany and an obvious, if indirect, precursor to studio glass. Dramatically, it was the opposing roles played by three key individuals that split the history of the company into three distinct stylistic epochs while maintaining Steuben as a true artist’s factory. Those individuals were Frederick Carder, Arthur Houghton, Jr. and Thomas S. Buechner.

 

Frederick Carder, an Englishman, was brought to Corning in 1903 to create the Steuben Glass Works. The results, between 1903 and 1932, were nearly 8,000 designs for production work noteworthy for its diversity and consistent quality. Much of the work anticipates the historical revival aspects of post-modernism, an influence from which contemporary studio glass has not been immune. Carder himself, at the age of 69 in 1932, was “kicked upstairs”--in effect relieved of his duties at Steuben and made Art Director for Corning Glass Works. The historian Paul Gardner explains what happened next:

 

“Always a man of action, within days he began converting the 20’ by 40’ office space allotted to him into a place where he could produce not only designs but glass objects. The space [included], to the surprise of Corning Glass Works officials, a small homemade electric furnace capable of melting glass.  The studio in which Carder the artist not only designed the glass but built the furnace and produced the glass was an American harbinger of the so-called Studio Glass Movement initiated in the 1960s by Dominic Labino and Harvey Littleton.”

 

Carder produced a series of cast lost wax sculptures and vessel forms and architectural elements, the most extraordinary of which, from the late 1940s and into the fifties, reinterpret the ancient Roman diatreta or cage cups and are direct ancestors of the work of contemporary artists like Karla Trinkley. While the few surviving ancient models were laboriously carved by hand and have an exceedingly delicate and brittle aspect, Carder’s works are softer and far sturdier in appearance, both qualities emulated by studio artists in the seventies and eighties.

 

By 1933, Steuben was losing money. Arthur Amory Houghton, Jr., a 27 year old Harvard educated member of the family that controlled Corning Glass Works (now Corning Inc.), decided to “take a crack at it,” the “it” being the revitalization of the firm. Carder had been removed the year before, and now Houghton was free to follow an approach parallel to Venini’s and therefore different from Carder’s one-man operation: he assembled a triumvirate with himself at the head as president, the architect John Monteith Gates supervising quality and aesthetics, and the sculptor Sidney Waugh as designer and artistic advisor.

 

Like Venini and later Harvey Littleton, they sought to break with tradition. In the fall of 1933, the unsold stock of Carder era Steuben was destroyed (but not before objects of historical importance were salvaged). This dramatic event has tended to overshadow Houghton’s truly brilliant contributions: the development and marketing of an especially pure lead crystal glass with a high index of refraction (insiders call it by its Formula code, 10M), the opening of Steuben exhibitions at art galleries such as Knoedler and Company in 1935, the sale of work to The Metropolitan Museum of Art: all intended to establish Steuben’s image, as defined by the industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague, a consultant to the company:

 

“We must work together to establish Steuben as the finest glassware in America, worth all we ask for it. I believe we can make the ownership of Steuben glass one of those evidences of solvency--like the ownership of a Cadillac sixteen or a house in the right neighborhood.

 

Sidney Waugh designed several of Steuben’s key image pieces, including the Gazelle Bowl of 1935 and Atlantica, among the largest cast glass sculptures produced before the studio glass era, made for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Both works fused elements of Art Deco with the clarity and simplicity inherent in Steuben’s pure and limpid glass. 

 

As a significant artistic precursor to studio glass, the most important event of the early Houghton years was the “Twenty-seven Artists in Crystal” exhibition that opened  on January 10, 1940. Conceived by John Gates after a meeting with Henri Matisse in Paris in 1937, the other artists providing drawings and designs included Isamu Noguchi, Georgia O’Keefe, Thomas Hart Benton, Pavel Tchelitchew and Salvador Dali. The works were made by skilled glassmakers, and hand engraved by craftsmen at Steuben. As described by the critic Royal Cortissoz: “It is surprising...that these designs should be as successful as they are. To translate pictorial conceptions into intaglios--which yield an effect as of sculpture in relief--would seem to have been impossible....But the legerdemain of the glassmen works. It reduces the whole company to a common denominator of whitish grey effectiveness against a crystalline background and leaves the designs charming.”

 

The collaborative process by which these artworks were produced anticipated contemporary studio glass techniques. Today, artists with fine art reputations work with studio glassmakers at Urban Glass, The Pilchuck School, and elsewhere. However, one collaboration eluded Houghton. In 1962 he had the idea to produce a series on the theme of Angels. Houghton engaged one of the most famous philosophers of the era, Mortimer Adler, to think about the project and deliver a lecture. But the series was never executed. In Houghton’s words, “God doesn’t want us to do angels. You just can’t do angels in glass; it did not find favor with the Almighty.”

 

Thomas S. Buechner was made president of Steuben on January 1, 1973 (he had been a vice-president for 2 years).  The company that he inherited was largely Houghton’s creation, but Buechner, former director of the Brooklyn Museum and before that of The Corning Museum of Glass, brought his own innovative agenda. Throughout its history, Steuben has experienced ups and downs in profitability. In an effort to address mounting production costs in the 1960s, Houghton and his team had countered with an increasing use of gold, platinum, and other precious metals and gems that were incorporated into increasingly intricate and ornate (some would say kitschy) artworks. These, however, commanded princely sums on the market and made the bottom line look better.

 

Buechner chose instead to emphasize the integrity of the material itself and to pursue elegance of design. If the patrician Houghton’s Steuben glass was intended for a royal treasury, then Buechner, ever the museum man, wanted his Steuben displayed in the Museum of Modern Art. Buechner also sought ways to directly involve artists in the process of making Steuben. He brought  Peter Aldridge and Eric Hilton to Steuben (both artists had extensive hands on experience with glassmaking techniques), encouraged David Dowler (who had recently joined the design team) to experiment with the material in innovative ways, and contracted with outside artists from the emerging studio glass movement, like Jamie Carpenter, to produce fresh designs. But Steuben was (and still is) a union shop, and this has until very recently placed restrictions on the degree to which studio glassmakers can actually “get their hands” on the glassblowing and shaping process within the factory.

 

Buechner also expanded the idea of what Steuben could be and how it could be made. He encouraged the manufacture of objects, like the novel Hand Coolers, that were affordable and made by mass production processes (in that case, machine pressing) but executed at a level of refinement that only Steuben could achieve. Hilton designed the first ever piece of jewelry for Steuben in 1975, and by 1977 Steuben was numbering and signing special pieces with the mark of the designer/artist.

 

At the same time, Buechner sought to preserve Steuben’s past with the Heritage series, which reissued classic Steuben designs, and to link Steuben with the best of the history of glass through a series of benefit exhibitions at the Steuben Gallery on Fifth Avenue. These included displays of the medieval windows from Canterbury Cathedral, the Harvard Blaschka glass flowers, and masterpieces by the French art nouveau artist Emile Galle. And under his watch, Abrams published the authoritative and scholarly Steuben: An American Tradition in Crystal by Mary Jean Madigan in 1982.

 

The Buechner era ended in the early 1980s when he left Steuben to pursue life as a painter. During the late 1980s and most of the 1990s, Steuben stood on the sidelines as studio glass solidified its position as stylistic leader and the dominant technique in glassmaking. And so Steuben missed the extraordinary patronage that was afforded studio glass artists by a large group of  extremely affluent collectors ( and an even larger group of middle class consumers of production studio glass). It has not been unusual in my visits to collectors homes to learn that they acquired Steuben early in their collecting careers, only to abandon it for work by studio glass artists.

 

Steuben has a new president, Marie McKee, who recognizes that Steuben is a powerful brand name with a rich history, but who is also keen to synchronize the company with current trends in the worlds of art, design and technology. After 65 years on 5th Avenue, she packed up and moved the flagship store and offices to 667 Madison Avenue, and launched an ambitious web site at steuben.com. Working with Peter Aldridge, Steuben’s Vice President and in charge of design,  Lino Tagliapietra was brought to Steuben and allowed to create his glass designs himself on the blowing room floor, a first for the company.

 

And in a move worthy of, but opposite to, Arthur Houghton’s introduction of colorless crystal, there is even talk at Steuben of re-introducing color. Seattle artist Sonja Blomdahl was invited recently to test some experimental tints. In a curious way, this possibility brings to mind Houghton’s brush with the angels. Aldridge and McKee and everyone at Steuben realize that the magical, pure material that Steuben makes is its chief glory. But they are willing to engage in a philosophical discussion about the evolution of the material into something new. The question is, does the Almighty want Steuben to make colored glass?

 

William Warmus

Ithaca, New York

September 22, 2000

Note: Warmus, a writer, is a former curator of the Corning Museum of Glass, and has in the past guest curated exhibitions for Steuben. 

 

 

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