In this interview, Seattle-based artist Benjamin Moore discusses the origins of the American Studio Art Glass Movement, explaining how it benefited from the combination of traditional European techniques and an American attitude of collaboration and experimentation. Moore can be reached at his website, BenjaminMooreGlass.com.
Marvin Lipofsky introduced me to glass while I was getting a bachelor’s degree in ceramics at the California College of Arts in Oakland, California. One day I saw a poster there for the Pilchuck Glass School, which is about 50 miles north of Seattle. I told my parents about it and as a graduation gift they sent me to Pilchuck in the summer of 1974.
That’s when I met Dale Chihuly. He’s the founder of the Pilchuck Glass School, and at the time he was also head of the glass program at Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island. By the end of the summer he had offered me a graduate fellowship.
Chihuly was one of my earliest and biggest influences. James Carpenter, who works exclusively on architectural glass projects now through Carpenter Design Associates in Manhattan, was another.
After graduate school, I wanted to further develop my skills as a glassblower. Back in the ’70s, when I first got involved with glass we were all self-taught. There were no master craftsmen to show people how to make things. There was just a no-holds-barred attitude to using glass as a sculptural medium.
As a graduate student, I wrote to a bunch of different glass factories on the island of Murano in Venice, Italy, which has some of the most skilled glassmakers in the world as far as working with hot glass, or blown glass, is concerned. I wrote to about 16 different factories and got a response from one, Venini. They sent a rather cryptic telegram that said: “Come along. We might make arrangements for work.”
So, after I got my MFA from RISD, I worked at the Venini factory for two years, in 1978 and ’79. During that same period I was also working for Pilchuck in the summer as the education coordinator, so I ended up inviting Checco Ongaro, the master glassblower I worked with at the Venini factory, to teach at Pilchuck.
The next fall I asked Checco if he’d be interested in coming back. He declined, but suggested his brother-in-law, Lino Tagliapietra, as a substitute. I met Lino and brought him to Pilchuck in ’79. An Italian artist named Gianni Toso had taught at CCA and a few other schools in 1976, but Checco and Lino were the first true Venetian masters to teach in America. They had a huge impact on the studio movement here. They enabled American artists working with glass and blown glass to do things on a much more sophisticated level because they shared so many fundamental techniques of the Venetians. Their presence here influenced American artists from William Morris to Dante Marioni.
In about 1985, I started my own studio in Seattle called Benjamin Moore Inc. I wanted to do something similar to the Venini factory. I wanted to have artists or designers come to the studio and design things. We’d produce a limited edition. I did that for a short period of time and then realized it wasn’t really my calling. I didn’t want to deal with sales reps or do production work. Instead, I realized I could provide a service by working with colleagues and the team in my studio to help other artists execute their work.
The result has been a vibrant atmosphere in the studio. There’s always collaboration going on, artists coming in with different aesthetic sensibilities and approaches to the material. A lot of incredible glass has been made here. We’ve done work for Chihuly over the years, as well as Marvin Lipofsky, Fritz Dreisbach, Dick Marquis, all the founding fathers of the studio movement. Lino has been back, too.
There’s also a whole new younger generation of northwest artists working in my studio. Dante Marioni and Preston Singletary, who are two very talented young men with flourishing careers, came to work for me right out of high school. It’s been a special thing, where a lot of people work together. I was inspired by the situation at Pilchuck. It’s something I wanted to do on my own.
Collectors Weekly: When did the American Studio Art Glass Movement begin?
Moore: Harvey Littleton, with advice from Dominick Labino, led one of the very first glass workshops in Toledo, Ohio, in 1962. The first glass program was started at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, I believe in the same year. Until 1962, artists really didn’t have hands-on contact with blown glass. If the artist or designer had a concept or idea and wanted to make something out of hot glass from a furnace, they’d usually go to a glass factory with their designs and drawings and have a master craftsman execute it for them.
“What happened early on at Pilchuck spread around the world.”
Harvey’s glass program in Madison marked the first time an artist could actually gather glass out of a furnace and try to sculpt, blow, or make something out of it. It’s an ancient craft, but it’s also always been practiced in a commercial industrialized setting, where master craftsmen would execute ideas for the designer. It was expensive and always associated with a production or factory setting, but Harvey and Dominick and other early pioneers said, “Well, let’s see if we can do this on our own.”
Collectors Weekly: So this was when the first glass-blowing classes were offered in the U.S.?
Moore: Yes. Remember, this was 10 years before my time. I wasn’t exposed to glass until 1972 in California at the California College of the Arts, but the whole thing got going in ’62. Harvey Littleton’s first students were people like Marvin Lipofsky, who was the founder of the program at CCA, and artists like Dale Chihuly and Fritz Dreisbach. They were among the first generation of studio glass artists in America.
Collectors Weekly: What sort of work were artists doing in those early years?
Moore: One of Harvey’s big lines was “technique is cheap.” He didn’t feel that glass should be looked upon just as a decorative art. Harvey and his colleagues, as well as their first students, wanted glass to be thought of as just another medium that could be used to make fine art. That was a huge task because glass has always been a decorative art—vessels, vases, lighting, and so on.
They did a lot of experimental stuff that now, technically, looks very naïve, but they were trying to break new ground. They were doing all kinds of sculptural-type things, non-functional pieces of glass. They were trying to push the limits.
Collectors Weekly: Where did the artists work?
Moore: In the beginning, almost everybody was making their work at facilities aligned with these university programs. There weren’t many private studios at first, but as time went on, more people started opening their own studios. A lot of them were kind of commercial production-oriented studios.
Chihuly was a major figure in both marketing glass and having it taken seriously by critics and collectors. When he was at RISD, Chihuly hooked up with Henry Geldzahler, who was a famous art figure in Manhattan. He helped get Chihuly’s work into the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That was a big deal at the time.
Pilchuck was a huge part of the world glass movement almost from the moment Chihuly started the program in 1971. It was his idea to start the school. He was able to attract all these international glass artists. He started a remarkable glass program at RISD with a great group of students that were doing very cutting-edge work in the early ’70s.
Chihuly would travel around the world and absorb different European glass cultures. At the same time, he was kind of promoting what was going on in America at RISD and Pilchuck. Consequently, he convinced a lot of these established European glass artists, many of whom had been associated with the old glass houses of Europe, to come teach at Pilchuck.
That was the first cross-fertilization of different glass cultures, of Europeans such as Erwin Eisch from Bavaria and Ludwig Schaffrath from Germany coming to work in America with all these crazy Americans. Other European glass artists/designers to visit Pilchuck included Ulrica Hydman Vallien and Bertil Vallien from Sweden, as well as Ann Wolff. Compared to the European factory system, which was the old way of making glass, the U.S. attitude was very experimental when it came to ways to use materials and a willingness to do things that had never really been thought of before.
At Pilchuck there was an amazing mix of international glass cultures. Faculty and students were coming from around the world to participate, creating a huge glass community here in the northwest. A lot of them stayed, and that’s why the Pacific Northwest has become kind of the glass center of the U.S.
The American Studio Art Glass Movement has embraced these cross currents. It’s a continuation of the idea of sharing and working together that happened in Pilchuck. We were all enthralled with the classical approaches and technique of the Europeans, and they embraced our way of working with no preconceived ideas. Everybody was feeding off each other. It created a remarkable melting pot.
What happened early on at Pilchuck spread around the world. For example, there’s incredible studio glass being made in Australia and Japan. Europe has always had a strong factory tradition, but now the studio glass movement is gaining, too. We’re hearing that stuff is starting to happen more in China and other parts of Asia, but I’m not very familiar with those areas.
Historically, artists or artisans affiliated with commercial glass enterprises created art glass: Tiffany had his own company; Maurice Marinot was affiliated with Viard Glassworks in France; Lalique and many other European artists and designers (from Gallé to Daum) were also working in factory settings. These factories had a century-old tradition of making glass that we didn’t have in America. Bringing artists familiar with these traditions to America was a wonderful opportunity to blend different attitudes.
Collectors Weekly: Are production pieces from some of these factories valuable?
Moore: Certainly the established European glass houses made some remarkable, tremendously valuable objects. I guess it depends upon how many were made, but in some cases I don’t think that’s even a factor.
At the company I worked for, Venini, there were many remarkable designers. Two in particular were Napoleone Martinuzzi and Carlo Scarpa. They were both artistic directors of Venini in the late ’20s and in the 1930s, respectively. They designed a lot of amazing objects that were made in rather small numbers. Today, those pieces command crazy prices—a couple of hundred thousand dollars each. I wouldn’t say they were actually production items, but they were made in multiples.
Because some of these historically significant objects that were made in production houses command such high prices, people have started making fakes. There have been many fakes of pieces by Martinuzzi, Lalique, Tiffany, and others.
In terms of the American companies, I don’t think Steuben, or any of the others really compare, Tiffany, perhaps, being the exception. Steuben did some incredible Art Nouveau and Art Deco pieces back in the day, but once they got out of color and decided to focus almost exclusively on clear crystal, I don’t think their work was that cutting edge anymore. Since the ’40s and ’50s, Steuben has only produced these prestigious, corporate kinds of objects, in my opinion, anyway.
Collectors Weekly: Were there different techniques coming out of places like Czechoslovakia and Scandinavia?
Moore: The thing I find most artistically significant about Bavarian glass is of course the long history of sophisticated engraving and enameling. In Czechoslovakia, the truly amazing thing that happened was the development of kiln-casting. That is when glass is melted in molds in kilns to create remarkable objects. The foremost artists of that technique are Jaroslava Brychtová and Stanislav Libenský.
Italian glassmaking was all based on a tradition of blown glass. Glass became a huge part of the commerce of the Venetian city-state from the 12th to 16th centuries. They were making the most sophisticated blown glass anywhere, and selling it worldwide. The production of drinking vessels, vases, bowls, chandeliers, and that sort of thing became a huge part of their economy. By comparison, the Bavarian process is more contemporary in appearance.
Collectors Weekly: After the first wave of American artists were recognized, how did successive waves get noticed?
Moore: Most were students of those early pioneers. There’s a long list of people who I’d consider to be the second generation (I’m probably at the tail end of that), people like Therman Statom, Toots Zynsky, Mary Shaffer, and Bruce Chao. A lot of Chihuly’s students went on to become very successful glass artists.
Chihuly’s first graduate student was Dan Dailey. Dan actually works at my studio. We’ve been executing his work for the last 20 years here. He founded the glass program at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston around 1971. He went on to start a very successful glass program there that’s still going strong today. He no longer teaches, but he’s a very successful artist. He’s designed for many factories in Europe and does all kinds of projects.
Collectors Weekly: Has the glass movement spread across the country?
Moore: There are many glass programs in the Midwest, like in Illinois and Ohio. Kent State has had a glass program for a long time. Center College in Kentucky has one. It’s happening all over the country. I’d say that the biggest concentration is here in the northwest, but the San Francisco Bay Area has a strong glass community, too.
It’s also been happening in Southern California and in the Carolinas. For example, North Carolina has the long established Penland School, which has attracted a lot of artists to that area. Not surprisingly, a lot of studios have popped up there, too. Urban Glass is in Manhattan, Pittsburgh Glass is in Pittsburgh, and there’s a glass school in Corning, New York, that’s associated with the museum. It’s happening across the country, but the concentrations are on the coasts.
Collectors Weekly: Are people inventing new techniques and then combining them with traditional techniques?
Moore: There’s not a lot of technical innovation going on. It has more to do with the concept of the individual and aesthetics. I think technique is a profound foundation for anything in the arts—performing arts, visual arts, or whatever. A musician has to know his scales. He has to know harmony. A painter has to understand colors and know how to draw. Technique is a tool to enable you to realize your concepts or ideas.
In the beginning, we were lacking technique in the studio art glass movement. When Lino first came to America, he couldn’t believe how primitive we were as far as how we worked the material. But he saw the spark and the enthusiasm we had to work with the material in ways that never would have been considered on the island of Murano.
Italy has an incredible tradition, but it’s very closed and commercially oriented. Everybody’s competing, selling a product on the market. When someone comes up with a particular product that’s successful and it hits the market, five other companies start making knockoffs.
In Italy a master craftsman or a master glassblower would never go to another glass factory unless the owner of the company or another master craftsman invited him. In America, we visit each other’s studios and work with each other all the time. I think that’s what Lino saw in America—it was a different way of approaching the material that wasn’t so inbred, secretive, and uptight as in Europe.
So, when I brought Checco and Lino to Pilchuck to teach, they shared all the basic fundamentals of making glass with the students. Keep in mind that when I took my very first glass class from Marvin Lipofsky, he did a demonstration and then handed you a blowpipe and said, “Blow glass.” Everybody was self-taught, but it was kind of limited technically because all you could do was figure out as much as what you could figure out, and then that was that.
The Italians taught people how to properly gather the glass, how to create a moil, which is the glass that you have on the blowpipe to create a foundation to make a larger piece of glass. That’s a pretty basic thing to know how to do. The reason the Venetians could make such sophisticated objects was because they had this tradition of learning and passing on the fundamentals going all the way back to the 11th century.
We’ve borrowed a lot of the Venetian tricks to create objects with more of an American aesthetic. For example, there are all the tricks of reticello, the process of picking up glass rods and crisscrossing them to create air traps. There’s also murrine. If you look at Dick Marquis’ work, he knows all the Italian tricks and does them in a very sophisticated fashion. He is just as skilled as the Italians, but he uses these old techniques to address his aesthetic and say the things he wants to say as an American.
Collectors Weekly: Can you tell if an American artist made a particular piece of glass?
Moore: I don’t know if you can really tell that it’s from an American artist, to be very truthful. I think you can tell if a piece is not from a traditional European glasshouse. Keep in mind that the American studio movement is now an international movement that’s been cross-fertilized from all these different workshops and schools around the world, Pilchuck being the one to really get it all going.
There will always be certain looks that come out of places like RISD, Mass. Art, or CCA due to the instructors there, but there’s nothing you could point to, I think, that really identifies a piece as being American.
Collectors Weekly: As an artist, what are you known for?
Moore: My work is about clarity, simplicity of form, and minimal line. I’ve chosen to continue to work in blown glass, which has fascinated me from the beginning of my career. I’m not into a lot of surface embellishment. I’ve chosen blowing glass and to work on the round, not blowing into the molds but working off hand. Almost everything has already been done on the round, so I feel that I’ve produced only two or three series of objects that really have a personal or unique quality to them.
People have been blowing glass for centuries. If you don’t do some sort of unique surface embellishment and you choose to work on the round, there’s not a whole lot you can do to come up with something fresh. There are many other ways to work with the material, but I’ve chosen this simple, symmetrical, on-center way to work.
Collectors Weekly: How did your role as an artist for other artists begin?
Moore: During my first year as a graduate student at RISD, Chihuly got into an auto accident and lost his vision in one eye. At that point, I actually started executing his works for him. I think eventually he probably would’ve had other people make his glass anyway, but I was able to give him a lot of help at that time.
I began executing works for him starting with the Navajo Blanket Cylinders, and then going on to the Baskets and then the Seaforms. About the time of the Macchia series, I started backing off a little. That’s when William Morris, Rich Royal, and a few other people started coming into the picture and executing those things for Dale.
My wife, Deborah Moore, and I execute our works at my studio. Artists also come through and produce their work here in my studio—sometimes with my assistance, sometimes without. Dan Dailey has been coming here for 20 years, probably four or five times a year. We execute his works for him. On a regular basis, Preston Singletary comes and works here, as does Dante Marioni, Richard Royal, Jenny Pohlman, Sabrina Knowles, and younger artists like Ethan Stern and Sean O’Neill.
I’ve always enjoyed working with other people. Glassmaking is unique because it’s a group process. It’s not like being a sculptor or a painter, closed off in a studio all by yourself.
Collectors Weekly: Do you think the American Studio Art Glass Movement has peaked?
Moore: I don’t think so. There was only one college or university glass program in 1962. Ten years later, there were maybe five or six. I don’t know how many there are now, but I’m sure it’s pushing one hundred.