American art glass refers to decorative household glass objects made in factory or production settings from the Victorian Era to the present. We’re not talking about Heisey or Fostoria pattern glass here, or even carnival glass made by the likes of Fenton, Northwood, and Imperial. No, this is the seriously fancy stuff made by companies with names like Tiffany, Steuben, and Blenko.
One of the biggest influences on American art glass was the American branch of the Art Nouveau movement, which sought to break down the barriers between so-called high art (painting and sculpture) and the applied arts (craft) to create a unified aesthetic that would speak to people of all classes. It was, in part, a rejection of mass-produced goods, but it didn’t take long for the same champions of the naturalistic look we associate with Art Nouveau to figure out ways to produce their goods quickly and at a profit.
Louis Comfort Tiffany was a particularly successful early producer of art glass, making leaded lamp shades and iridescent vases that today seem to be the definition of the genre. The son of the famous jewelry designer, Tiffany studied painting with landscape painter George Inness before learning art-glass techniques from French master Emile Galle. These experiences informed Tiffany’s work at the Tiffany Glass Co., which he established in 1885 to produce leaded-glass doors and stained-glass windows.
Tiffany renamed his firm the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company in 1892—in 1902 it would become Tiffany Studios. Throughout, blown glass remained a preoccupation for Tiffany. In 1893, in order to have as much control on the process as possible, Tiffany installed glass-blowing furnaces at his studio. A year later, the Favrile brand was born.
Favrile glass was prized then, and is still admired today, for its eye-catching iridescent surfaces. The Favrile line included classic forms harking back to Tiffany’s fondness for ancient glass shapes, as well as for new inventions like the paperweight vases, which are technical marvels that remain difficult for contemporary artists and artisans to duplicate to this day.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Tiffany’s love for leaded-glass windows and electrical lamps combined into a series of lamp shades on bronze bases. Tiffany lamp shades seem to drip and drape over their light sources, in dense organic patterns resembling wisteria, apple blossoms, and other plants and trees. The colors of the glass he used were proprietary, which is one reason why copies of Tiffany lamp shades look like the pale imitations they are.
Steuben came next, in 1903. Co-founded by designer Frederick Carder, Steuben’s first line was a new form of iridescent glass called Aurene. Unlike Tiffany’s dense and dark Favrile, which had been introduced almost a decade earlier, Carder’s Aurene pieces were luminous and lustrous, seeming to radiate more light than they absorbed...
The shapes of Carder’s Aurene pieces were also unlike Tiffany’s. His Favrile forms and their surface decorations tended to the organic and naturalistic—they were pure Art Nouveau. Steuben’s Aurene vases, bowls, and candlesticks flirted with Art Nouveau, but Carder never strayed far from classical forms, and he used decoration sparingly.
Steuben’s earliest years were largely devoted to the production of Aurene. Gold was a favorite color, sometimes paired with white or shades of green or red. Blue Aurene was a Steuben glass mainstay—some blue Aurene Steuben vases had concave bodies and ruffled rims; others were squat and almost utilitarian looking. By the 1910s, Egyptian shapes (tall vases with collared necks and high shoulders) were added to the company’s repertoire.
After Steuben was sold to Corning Glassworks in 1918, Carder remained with the company to guide it through the 1920s. Many Steuben vases from this period were acid etched and suggested the influence of Art Deco. It was beautiful stuff, but it wasn’t selling, so, in 1933, Carder was replaced by sculptor Sidney Waugh, who turned the company’s focus to clear crystal. Waugh wanted to take advantage of a new glass recipe, created by Corning Glass chemists, that permitted the full spectrum of light to pass through it, including ultra-violet waves. The result was unprecedentedly clarity.
Almost all Steuben products produced in the years following this innovation were made out of this new crystal, which was called 10M—from stemware to drinking glasses. As for the company’s art glass, it was heavily influenced by Art Deco. Large cut or blown bowls, urns, and vases were routinely engraved using copper-wheel techniques. Waugh most famous piece, his Gazelle Bowl, came relatively early on—1935—and was soon added to the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
In 1940, Steuben collaborated with 27 internationally renowned artists, from Georgia O’Keefe to Henri Matisse. After World War II, Steuben designer Walter Teague turned to the drawings of John J. Audubon to create a series of 10-inch plates, each of which featured an engraving of a different bird on its base. In 1947, President and Mrs. Truman presented a set of the Steuben Audubon plates to Princess Elizabeth as a wedding present.
Another leader in American art glass has been Blenko, which began in 1921 as The Eureka Glass Company—it was renamed after its founding family in 1930. In its early years, Blenko paid the bills by making glassware, but during the 1930s, Blenko's pieces got incrementally fancier. Blenko's iced-tea and highball glasses, as well as its candleholders, rolled-rim plates, and crackle-body decanters, caught the eye of the people running Colonial Williamsburg, who, in 1933, made Blenko the exclusive manufacturer of table and stemware for the historic site.
By the end of the decade, a new shop foreman named Carl Ebert Erickson had joined the company—Blenko's line of "Heavy Swedish Type Vases," which have been attributed to Erickson, gave the company its identity just before the war.
After the war, Winslow Anderson took the company’s design reins. He introduced indented vases of various sizes and colors, bent-neck cruets, and slender, flat-bottom decanters with teardrop stoppers. Anderson laid the groundwork for one of Blenko’s most influential designers, Wayne Husted, who was with the company from 1953 until 1963. During that decade, Husted pushed both form and color to bring Blenko into step with the prevailing Mid-century Modern aesthetic.
In the mid-to-late 1960s, Joel Philip Myers, who is now a well-known studio glass artist, designed for Blenko, injecting humor and whimsy into the company’s sensibility. Especially charming are some of the decanters Myers designed with cowboy hats and longhorn skulls for stoppers.
Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)
Cloud Glass Reference Site
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Clubs & Associations
- Antique Glass Salt and Sugar Shaker Club
- The Glass Art Society
- Stained Glass Association of America
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