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The Many Facets of Steuben Glass Still Fascinate

by Anne Gilbert (04/26/12).

A Carder lighted panel. (Photo courtesy of John Toomey Auction Gallery, Oak Park, Ill.)

It can capture the imagination or simply add a touch of beauty to the eye of the beholder. That is the legacy of the Steuben glass decades when even utilitarian objects became something special. Now is time for glass collectors to reflect and search out remaining pieces, the last of their kind.

But first a warning of “buyer beware.” Over the years signatures for Frederick Carder pieces on down have been forged. During the 1970s, forged signatures were even done with a dentil drill. Check the WorthPoint Signature library for some examples of proper signatures.

When the Steuben Glass Company—an important name in American glass history— closed last Thanksgiving, the quality that had once made it a producers of some of the one of the most expensive glass in America had long disappeared. Gone were the exciting innovations and one-of-a-kind lead crystal designs that collectors would at one time fight for the chance to buy for thousands of dollars. A single martini glass could cost more than $100; a single edition engraved crystal piece created by Steuben artists could cost several thousand dollars. Its one-of-a-kind designer glass sculptures were chosen as gifts of state by every American president since President Truman.

So what caused its inglorious end? It was two-fold. First, the company began sacrificing perfection for profit. The other contributing factor was a changing in public tastes. To put it simply: Steuben went out of fashion. The end was in sight when the company was bought by Schottenstein Stores Corporation, a retail-chain. What Steuben began to offer—items produced en mass—was not what serious Steuben buyers had come to expect nor wanted.

Historically, Steuben began when Carder (1863-1963), a glassmaker and artist of note, emigrated from England and partnered with Thomas Hawkes (Hawkes Crystal Company) of Corning, N.Y. in 1903. They founded the Steuben Glass Company. The early pieces are a far cry from what came to be identified as Steuben glass. Carder saw decorative and functional glass as color, often in the Art Nouveau style. During the 1920s he tried new techniques, but still relied on colors and a variety of forms.

A Carder lighted panel. (Photo courtesy of John Toomey Auction Gallery, Oak Park, Ill.)

He achieved special effects, such as frosting and bubbles, by mixing crushed glass and using casings of various thicknesses. Among the names for these pieces were Cintra, Cluthra and Moss Agate. His experiments resulted in a number of color combinations named Blue Aurene, Jade Yellow and others. Acid-etched pieces were made as vases, bowls and lighting fixtures along with tableware.

A Gold Aurene vase. (Photo: John Toomey Auction Gallery, Oak Park, Ill.)

By the 1930s, his styles had become outdated. Color was supplanted by a new look using engraving to emphasize the beauty of clear crystal that had become popular in Sweden and Norway. The look of Steuben pieces changed when the company was purchased by Arthur A. Houghton, Jr. Color was banished as a team of artists and architects were hired to focus on the developing techniques emerging in Sweden. The result was a total new look of glass. It was viewed as an art form and not just functional. Artists were hired not only in America but from around the world. Glass design forms were combined with engraved designs.

In 1935, Sidney Waugh designed a series of decorative pieces in the Swedish style using copper-wheel and diamond-point engraving. The first engraved piece he designed was the Gazelle Bowl that year.

The Gazelle Bowl, (Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

A later example is the classic “Moby Dick” bowl, circa 1959, designed by Donald Pollard with the engraved design created by Sidney Waugh.

Pollard also designed “Genesis,” suggesting the beginning of creation, in 1959. Quite unique, it was a solid crystal, ovoid form depicting a planet-like sphere with swirling lines engraved to represent the movement of planetary bodies. President Dwight D. Eisenhower presented it to the President of Brazil in 1960.

“Genesis.” (Photo: Steuben-Seventy Years Of American Glassmaking; Praeger Publishers)

Great ideas often come from unexpected sources. Such was the case in 1937, when architect John Gates met with artist Henri Matisse in Paris. Matisse volunteered to make a drawing to be engraved on a Steuben piece. Pleased with the result, Gates commissioned drawings from other important European and American painters and sculptors.

The line became “Design in Glass by Twenty-seven Contemporary Artists.” After the Second World War, in the years from 1954 to 1955, artists from the Near and Far East created a series.

During the 1950s, important ornamental pieces were introduced. They became yet another new form of American art glass and produced in limited numbers. Major department stores, such as Marshall Fields in Chicago, devoted a special room to showcase the pieces. They were displayed against black backdrops and special lighting. The effect was dramatic. So were the prices, ranging sometimes into the thousands of dollars.

Sculptures of crystal animal and bird figures were introduced in the 1950s. They were designed by internationally famous artists in limited editions. They became popular as collectibles. They still are when they come to auction or are discovered at estate sales.

“Snail,” designed by David Hills. (Photo: Steuben Catalogue of Gifts)

In the 1960s, Steuben once again created a new glass concept, offering decorative pieces combining crystal and precious metals. One of the early designers was Donald Pollard, a painter and designer who had joined Steuben as a staff designer in 1950. His background included working in silver and architectural theater design while in the trainee program of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. However, during the ’50s, he designed important engraved works.

Another important Steuben name is James Houston (1921-2005), an artist, naturalist and writer who joined the company in 1962. He translated this interest into nature themed crystal sculptures combined with precious metals. Among them was his crystal-and-gold Trout and Fly sculpture created in 1966 that was one of the first Steuben pieces combining crystal and precious metal. The fly is 18-karat gold. In an interview Houston said, “I am interested in having the glass say something to you. My glass has to tell a story.”

“Thistle Rock” by James Houston (Photo: Private collector)

Indeed, Steuben glass tells a story from beginning to end.

Anne Gilbert is the author of a nationally self-syndicated antiques column “The Antique Detective,” the author of nine books on antiques and art, and a professional appraiser specializing in original illustrations and original political cartoons. Her early columns and feature stories are archived in Chicago’s Newberry Library section of “Outstanding Pioneer Women Journalists of the Midwest.” As an advocate for abused dogs, she has written her first novel, “Mayor of the Dog Park,” an e-Kindle book. You can e-mail Anne at Antique2@bellsouth.net.

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One Response to “The Many Facets of Steuben Glass Still Fascinate”

  1. Bon Horner says:

    I am interested in purchasing James Houston Steuben Beehive. Any assistance will be greatly appreciated! Best, Bon

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