Published: July 15, 2003
– Fame eludes some artists because their work is either too esoteric or too rarely found to capture the popular imagination. While neither scenario applies to the “grand old man of glass,” Frederick Carder (1863-1963), he ultimately never achieved the household word-status accorded to his contemporaries, including Louis Comfort Tiffany. Fame eluded Carder for the simple reason that he was just too successful and too prolific.
“Lustrous: A Centennial Celebration of Art Glass Designed by Frederick Carder,” an exhibition on view at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum of Art (MWPAI), illustrates the brilliant career of the designer who became director of the Steuben Glass Works 100 years ago. It is also an attempt to erase the namelessness of one of America’s greatest designers of glass and expand the public’s awareness.
The 40 shining examples on display at MWPAI have been drawn from two of Carder’s hometown museums in Corning, N.Y., The Corning Museum of Glass and the Rockwell Museum, whose collection of Carder-designed Stueben glass is now on a long-term loan to the Corning Museum.
Anna D’Ambrosio, the curator of decorative arts at MWPAI, had the challenging task of outlining the scope of Carder’s design work at Steuben through her selection of a few dozen pieces from the thousands in storage at the glass museum. She explains, “We have a wonderful American Victorian decorative arts collection, but it is not very strong in glass, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to introduce our audience to material they wouldn’t get to see unless they traveled to Corning. I went into Corning’s storage and came up with a checklist, so it was fun — like a kid in a candy shop.”
For the Corning Museum of Glass, the exhibition is an opportunity to share their extraordinarily deep collection of the designer’s work and to tell his creative story to a new audience. Jane Shadel Spillman, the institution’s curator of American glass, says, “I hope visitors to the exhibition will learn how creative Carder was. He is not a household name in the same way that Tiffany is and not even collectors realize the extent of his production.”
D’Ambrosio selected the Carder examples with certain criteria in mind: “We picked objects that showed the range of design, the range of techniques and colors, and the influences on his designs. For example, he traveled abroad and there are pieces that were influenced by Venetian glass. And we show more domestic things such as a table setting service. He did hundreds of colors and thousands of different forms, so it’s very difficult to represent everything he did, but I think it’s an excellent cross section.”
Displayed in three connecting galleries, the exhibition is particularly rich in examples of Carder’s best-known work, the shimmering gold and blue Aurene glass that inspired the show’s “Lustrous” title. The curator continues, “Even though we’re not very far from Corning, visitors here have been very impressed with the Steuben production during the early Twentieth Century. The show also demonstrates not only the range of colors, but the different types of hot and cold decorating techniques that were used. People find that process — how a certain aesthetic effect was achieved — quite intriguing.”
The Staffordshire, England, region where Frederick Caleb Carder was born in 1863 was an industrial area with a long history of pottery and glassmaking. The boy left school at 14 to began working in his family’s Leys Pottery, where his father eventually allowed him to experiment with clays. Realizing the deficiencies in his education, Carder began to study both art and chemistry in night school. A fellow student was the son of noted English glassmaker John Northwood, and Carder was impressed by the older man’s work with cameo glass in general and by his accurate copy of the ancient Portland Vase in particular.
This encounter with art glass proved to be the turning point in Carder’s life. In 1881, Northwood helped him get a job as a draftsman and designer at Stevens and Williams, where he was soon involved with the creation of cameo pieces. The artist created sketchbooks with superbly drawn images of interesting historic objects and design ideas. There are also full-scale drawings from 1900 or 1901 of objects that he created for his English firm, which are principally swirling Art Nouveau floral designs engraved on lead glass vases.
In 1903, the Englishman was lured to the United States by a job offer from Thomas G. Hawkes, whose Corning firm was famous for producing the brilliant cut glass popular at the turn of the century. Carder, however, could never be content with merely turning out blanks for another company and soon began the experiments and design drawings for glass to be marketed under the Steuben name.
A superb draftsman, Carder had already designed pieces covered with Art Nouveau floral motifs during his time at Stevens and Williams, and he was keenly aware of the work in that style executed by Emile Galle and Daum Freres in France. He also knew of Tiffany’s creations in shimmering Favrile glass, so it is not surprising that Carder soon patented his own iridescent formula, which he labeled Aurene. The effect was produced by spraying the glass “at the fire” with tin and/or iron chloride solutions. Blue Aurene had cobalt oxide added to the glass itself. Aurene effects were also used as decoration on vessels of other colors — red, green and the translucent white calcite glass.
As was the practice at the time, Carder did not work hands-on with the glass at the furnace but directed the work of the craftsmen. “In the Twentieth Century, until the start of the studio movement in the 1960s, the designers didn’t do anything but make sketches,” points out Spillman. “Although Carder was not a glassmaker himself, he understood the chemistry, so he both designed the shapes and developed the colors.” Once again, the problem is that the inventive artist created so many shapes and so many colors that collectors do not have the same sense of recognition they may feel on spotting a Tiffany stained glass lamp or Favrile vase.
As Art Nouveau segued into Art Deco, the prolific genius made clear, translucent and opaque glass in every shade of the spectrum from jet black to the colorless crystal. His pale verre de soie has the sheen of fine silk. Green jade, pink rosaline and mandarin yellow were among many popular color formulations. Color is often combined with distinctive glass-working techniques. For example, Steuben’s Cintra was made by picking up crushed colored glass on a molten glass matrix and then encasing the shapes piece in a protective layer of crystal class.
Carder took his interest in cameo effects to a new level of perfection with his process for acid-etching designs on objects with multiple layers of colored glass. A bowl from the late 1920s, for example, was made of two layers of plum jade glass with a layer of light alabaster glass in between. The craftsman used his knowledge of chemistry to ensure that both colors had the same coefficient of expansion so that the object would not shatter.
The design motifs — in this case, an elaborate Chinese pattern — was applied to the surface with wax and the entire bowl dipped in acid until the unprotected surface was removed to reveal the color beneath. By repeating this process twice, a complex series of color gradations between the white and colored glass was achieved. This same technique was used with great drama in Art Deco-style vases of the same period, such as a “Booth Bay” design with angular leaves where a mirror black glass surface is etched away to reveal the alabaster interior.
During his three decades at Steuben, Carder’s designs moved from the fluid and naturalistic to angular and geometric shapes with decoration etched, wheel cut or added in molten glass. To help understand the factory’s diverse production during Carder’s leadership, collectors have the aid of Carder’s sketchbooks, in which he recorded historical and contemporary glass that attracted his attention, as well as the factory line drawings of shapes and patterns. Many of these are published in the Gardner volume and in the recent study, Frederick Carder and Steuben Glass: American Classics by Thomas P. Dimitroff, published for the Rockwell Museum in 1998 by Schiffer.
For this reference, Spillman contributed an essay on “Carder’s Cut and Engraved Glass,” which may be the least-explored area of the designer’s production. The curator notes, “Cut glass people haven’t discovered Carder’s cut glass yet because mostly it’s later than the period they collect, and it’s not as heavy. The copper wheel-engraved designs from the 1920s were beautifully designed and beautifully executed by the immigrant Bohemian engravers who came to this country and worked for Steuben. They continued working for Steuben and were making the 1940s and 1950s engraved designs that the firm is famous for, but they started out in the 1920s and no one is collecting the earlier examples.”
In addition to decorative wares and glass for the dining table, Steuben also produced various lines of artistic light fixtures and architectural cast glass — primarily panels and grilles — that were used to ornament buildings and even ocean liners. A list of projects completed between 1929 and 1935 included glass panels for the façade of Rockefeller Center and for the lobby of the Empire State Building. Buyers could choose between a polished or matte finish and several types of glass matrix were available, including Pyrex heat-resistant glass for outdoor applications. The firm also made glass tesserae for mosaics that reflected Carder’s interest in ancient glass techniques.
Carder’s time at Steuben came to an end in 1932 when he was transferred to the position of art director of the Corning Glass Works. At his own request, Arthur A. Houghton, Jr, a great-grandson of Corning’s founder, became the new Steuben division director. Houghton felt — with some justification — that too many styles of glass were being produced, making it impossible for consumers to identify the brand name with one particular product. Under his tenure, Steuben began to manufacture the heavy colorless crystal art objects that are still made today, so Houghton was able to achieve the goal of focusing the firm’s glassmaking on a single outstanding product.
After 1932, Carder served as a consultant and design expert for all the divisions of Corning and became the “grand old man” of glass to all seeking his help. He was particularly interested in perfecting cast glass sculpture and developed his cire perdue and Diatreta techniques, which produced objects with highly decorative surface patterns. Blessed with a long life span, he continued going to his private office and his own small studio until his mid-90s and formed a friendship with Robert Rockwell who began a collection of Carder’s work, which is now on loan to the Corning Museum of Glass.
In the epilogue to his book on Carder, Dimitroff sums up the designer’s contribution: “Frederick Carder was not the originator of any new style or movement in glass art and design. He never intended to be, and perhaps never gave it a thought. Frederick Carder never totally embraced any style or movement…. His basic approach to design was predicated on an acceptance of classicism’s order and balance and a firm acceptance of historicism and of the beauty of rich ornament. He believed that utilitarian objects could and should be beautiful. Upon this foundation, he built a career in glass design that eclectically encompassed a vast range of styles and techniques, all of which depended upon fine handcraftsmanship.”
The Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum of Art is at 310 Genesee Street. For more information, call 315-797-0000 or visit the website, . The exhibition travels next to the Albany Institute of History and Art, November 22-May 9, 2004, where it will complement The Lamps of Tiffany: Highlights of the Neustadt Collection, running October 18-January 11, 2004.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm