Steuben gave U.S. glass its modern glamour

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Dec. 16, 2003 at 3:04 PM
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NEW YORK, Dec. 16 (UPI) -- Between 1930 and 1960 Steuben Glass brought modernity and glamour to American crystal glass that previously were to be found only European glass, especially the engraved crystal produced by Orrefors in Sweden.

This pivotal era in U.S. glass design is the focus of sparklingly beautiful exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, the first of is kind to explore this important chapter in the 350-year history of American glassmaking. It has been mounted to celebrate the centennial of the founding of Steuben Glass in Corning, N.Y., and can be seen at the museum through April 25.

The man behind the idea of creating utilitarian, decorative, and sculptural glass objects, produced in multiples but still works of art, was Arthur A. Houghton Jr., a member of the family who controlled the glass-making industry in Corning, located in New York's upstate Steuben County. Just out of Harvard, he decided to rescue Corning's financially ailing Steuben division -- which specialized in colored, frosted, and iridescent glass -- by going modern in design using clear glass only.

Houghton used the Chicago World's Fair of 1933-34 as a showcase for Steuben's first modern designs created under the supervision of the firm's managing director, New York architect John Monteith Gates, with sculptor Sidney Waugh as his chief designer. The designs were so popular that Steuben had its own futuristic pavilion at the New York World's Fair in 1939-40.

The clarity and purity of Steuben's crystal was what makes it so outstanding. Early chiseled pieces have an impressive solidity and a wonderful ability to refract light. After early success with applied design in the form of copper wheel engravings created by famous contemporary artists, Steuben began to concentrate on the creation of designs such as the "twist," a double helix of trapped air, and "teardrop," a suspended bubble, that depended solely on the skill of the glassblower.

There are more than 200 objects in the show titled "Glass and Glamour: Steuben's Modern Moment," most of them rare pieces from major American and European museums and private collections. They are displayed along with original design drawings, books, catalogs, photographs of Corning Glass' glass-sheathed skyscraper built in New York in 1959, and a recreation of a spectacular wall made up of crystal glass elements made for Steuben's Fifth Avenue display room.

From the beginning, Steuben focused on the upper middle class market, advertising its array of glistening wedding gifts from elegant candelabra to stylish olive dishes as worthy of "the privileged bride."

Many of these functional pieces, familiar to four generations of glass lovers, are on display including capacious bowls, dainty glasses for sipping cordials, decanters of varying sizes, glass-handled table services, and those wonderful weighty ashtrays that were once a symbol of American hospitality. Most have the virtue of sophisticated simplicity in spite of a bravura style, although some of the Steuben's popular glass animals verge on the kitsch.

Highlights of the show, curated by Donald Albrecht, are Waugh's deservedly famous Gazelle Bowl featuring 12 gazelles in motion, George Thompson's Galapagos Bowl featuring the island's rare creatures, and Walter Dorwin Teague's Lens Bowl with facets like auto headlights. Works by most of the 27 contemporary artists commissioned in 1939 by Steuben to design limited-edition bowls and vases to be exhibited in its new New York store also are on display.

They include engraved designs by Henri Matisse, Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau, Raoul Dufy, Paul Manship, Isamu Noguchi, Georgia O'Keeffe, Grant Wood and Fernand Leger and are every bit as successful as the Orrefors glass objects that inspired this type of expensive display piece, most of which have wound up in museums.

Also on view are selections from Steuben's 1955 artists' series of sculptural, non-functional designs that pointed the way to Steuben's future as a purveyor of more popularly priced display objects suitable for collecting. These items have made the Steuben trade name synonymous with crystal glass, and none more so than Angus McDougall's1940 glass apple that has come to symbolize New York as the Big Apple and is popular as a presentation piece.

A lavishly illustrated book by Albrecht accompanies the exhibition ("Glass and Glamour," Harry N. Abrams, 96 pages, $24.95).

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