GLASS AND GLAMOUR History of Steuben glass reflected in exhibit
The show features some dazzling pieces designed by famous artists.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
NEW YORK -- The mid-20th-century tableware made by Steuben was so elegant, some people wondered whether they should use it for such mundane tasks as drinking water or snuffing out a cigarette.
Or, at least, that's what a 1960 ad contended. It's not hard to believe amid the array of luxury crystal barware, serving dishes, and ashtrays from the era that have been assembled for "Glass and Glamour: Steuben's Modern Moment, 1930-1960," which is on exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York through April 25.
Besides functional items, the show features some dazzling display pieces designed by the likes of Henri Matisse, Salvador Dali, Isamu Noguchi, Thomas Hart Benton, and Georgia O'Keeffe and engraved by Steuben's master engravers. Commissioned in the late 1930s as limited-edition pieces, they leave little doubt that glass was an intriguing medium for these artists.
It certainly fascinated the architects who designed the glass-covered skyscrapers that changed Manhattan's skyline at postwar and held the public in their thrall, including the Corning Glass headquarters, which in 1959 was the tallest such building in New York.
Before all this, though, Corning during the Depression had been looking for ways to revive its failing Steuben (pronounced Stew-BEN) division and decided to embrace the Modernist aesthetic, along with the urbane glamour of the ultimate modern metropolis itself -- New York City.
For those who only know of Steuben's decorative pieces largely from the 1960s on, including gifts of state and commemorative pieces, the show focuses on this earlier, pivotal phase. It begins in the early 1930s when young Harvard-educated Arthur Amory Houghton Jr., who took over at Steuben in 1933, gets invaluable advice from industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague.
"Go modern and elite," Teague urged, indicating that with the proper promotional campaign, ownership of Steuben glassware could become "one of those evidences of solvency -- like the ownership of a Cadillac ... or a house in the right neighborhood."
The show includes Teague's industrial-looking "lens" bowls, with their stepped concentric circles evoking a car's headlights. They brought artistic recognition to the company, said exhibition curator Donald Albrecht, noting that they were selected for inclusion in the important "Machine Art" show at the new Museum of Modern Art in 1934. But they didn't sell very well.
During the 1930s, Steuben turned away from colored-, iridescent- and frosted-glass objects in the art nouveau style to embrace a new, ultra-pure, clear crystal called 10M that Corning chemists had just developed for optical uses. It made objects exceptionally brilliant.
New shapes took inspiration from the simplicity of Swedish Orrefors glass and "were characterized by weight and volume, and adherence to the architectural principles of balance, proportion, profile and scale," Albrecht writes in the exhibition catalog published by Abrams.
Reflecting these principles is the stunning Gazelle Bowl by Sidney Waugh, still available through Steuben but for $32,000 -- as opposed to the $650 it sold for at its debut in 1935.
Steuben, meanwhile, was setting the table inside the glass-walled "House of Tomorrow" at Chicago's 1933-34 Century of Progress Exposition and, with important new pieces like John Dreves' Olive Dish at the 1939 New York World's Fair, showcased what would become a signature style of monumental bowls whose single decorative flourish was their handles.
In the late 1930s, Steuben approached Salvador Dali with a commission that would become his Sleep of Nautilus. The bravura engraving on a large bowl of a man sleeping, and a beautiful woman growing from his dreams, is one of the major works in the show.
Gates also solicited other leading artists for drawings that could be engraved in limited-edition vases, bowls and urns. Twenty-seven opted to participate (including a second commission for Dali), and the results were unveiled in a 1940 show that established a tradition of artist series for Steuben.
About half the pieces from that show have been reunited for this exhibition. Stylistically, they range from the heavy, mythological feeling of Grant Wood's peasant woman with ducks to the airiness of Matisse's exotic figure, clad only in flowers and blowing through a pair of pipes.
After the war, the company brought in more designers to come up with fresh, functional objects for upper-middle-class homes and offices. An entire wall of punchbowls, cruets, candy dishes, decanters, martini pitchers and more attests to its efforts. Some are accented by a suspended bubble or a double helix of trapped air.
A score of such functional designs from the 1930s through the 1950s have remained in Steuben's line, and a handful more have recently been reissued in conjunction with the company's 100th anniversary and this show.
Of course, you may be lucky enough to have had some of these pieces handed down to you. You may be especially lucky if they hail from the 1930s, according to James Zemaitis, director of Sotheby's 20th-century design department.