Published: November 18, 2003
The Museum of the City of New York (MCNY) is currently presenting the first exhibition ever to explore a remarkable chapter in the history of American’s premier glassmaker and the Modernist movement itself. “Glass and Glamour: Steuben’s Modern Moment, 1930-1960” will remain on view through April 25
The exhibition marks the centennial of Steuben Glass, founded in Corning, N.Y., in 1903.
“Glass and Glamour” features almost 200 objects, including more than 170 rare and iconic crystal pieces from major American and European museums and private collections, along with original drawings, books and catalogs from the time of the Great Depression and World War II, as well as the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
“Glass and Glamour” focuses upon the years when Steuben Glass dazzled the American public with a futuristic pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair and conducted business in two important modernist buildings commissioned by its parent company Corning for Fifth Avenue, including Wallace Harrison’s sleek 1959 Corning Glass Building (then Manhattan’s tallest glass-clad skyscraper).
Highlights of “Glass and Glamour” include objects rarely seen by the public. Among these are functional pieces conceived for Steuben by celebrated industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague and included in the landmark 1934 Museum of Modern Art exhibition “Machine Art,” curated by architect Philip Johnson. “Glass and Glamour” also presents important designs from Steuben’s 1939 World’s Fair pavilion, including George Thompson’s large-scale blown Galapagos Bowl and John Dreves’ Olive Dish. Selections from “Twenty-seven Artists in Crystal,” including engraved works by Isamu Noguchi, Georgia O’Keeffe, Salvador Dali, Grant Wood, Pavel Tchelitchew, Paul Manship and others, have been gathered for the exhibition, as have key examples from such later series as “British Artists in Crystal,” 1954, and “Asian Artists in Crystal,” 1956.
Don Wier’s “Star Plates,” a 1960 series of 12 celestial engraved works based upon the zodiac, have been loaned to the exhibition from a leading private collection. And Steuben designer George Thompson’s monumental “Cascade Wall” – a ten-foot-square architectural screen of 300 interlocking crystal flowers with bronze stamen – is enjoying a special New York City homecoming. The piece was originally created in 1959 as a central feature for the Steuben store at 717 Fifth Avenue at 56th Street.
“Glass and Glamour” is also presenting an extensive array of functional pieces – pitchers, vases and urns, punch-bowls, candlesticks, drinking glasses, smoking accessories, martini sets, centerpieces, cruets and jam jars, serving dishes and other signifiers of good living – conceived by Steuben’s design staff between the years of 1930 and 1960. Initially inspired by the restraint and simplicity of 1930s Swedish glass, these artifacts illustrate how Steuben designers ultimately created a signature style characterized by weight and volume, adhering to the same architectural principles of balance, proportion, profile, and scale that characterized Manhattan buildings of the era. Consistent with the Modernist ethos of “truth to materials,” many Steuben Glass objects took on the naturally curvaceous shapes formed by hot, molten glass.
According to curator Donald Albrecht, “In the versatile hands of highly skilled designers and artisans, Steuben glass was fashioned in a range of styles, from streamlined olive dishes to fanciful colonial revival pitchers, neoclassical centerpieces and cigarette boxes with Bauhaus purity. Steuben’s stylistic variety was a physical manifestation of the malleability of glass itself, yet its repertoire was rendered new and modern by the crystalline clarity of the company’s unique glass – a technological achievement that was invented in the optimistic mood of the mid-Twentieth Century.”
Steuben Glass was founded in upstate New York in 1903 by iconoclastic English glassmaker Frederick Carder, who served as the company’s director and chief designer for 30 years, producing more than 80,000 designs and introducing innovations in glass formulas and aesthetics. The company’s modern era began in 1933, however, when Arthur Amory Houghton, Jr, a 27-year-old Harvard graduate and member of the family that controlled Corning Glass, decided to catapult its financially failing Steuben Glass division into the realm of Modern design.
Steuben Glass still operates today, producing designs by hand in its studio in upstate New York.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the New York City-based publishing house Harry N. Abrams, Inc has published Glass and Glamour: Steuben’s Modern Moment, 1930-1960, an overview of the period in Steuben’s history explored by the exhibition. The 96-page book features 70 illustrations and plates, and an introduction by Donald Albrecht.
The Museum of the City of New York is at 1220 Fifth Avenue. For information, www.mcny.org, or 212-534-1672, ext 207.
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