Glass is everywhere. It’s an indispensable part of the modern world; integrated and infused into our lives and technologies. In modern society, glass is mostly functional. We come in contact with it every day; take a drink of water, dial your cell phone, tap your iPad, or simply look out the window.
Modern glass was born in the Roman glassmaking center at Trier in Gaul (modern Germany). Glass was so highly prized by the Romans that when one unlucky slave broke a valuable cup during a meal, his aristocrat master fed him to the eels.
For all its’ practicality, glass is beautiful. It has been molded, cut, blown, and shaped for centuries and not simply for everyday use, but for aesthetics. Glass decorating techniques include use of various colors, texturing such as frosting and satin surfacing, and overlaying (cameo, cut-back, cutting and engraving).
Cities such as Milan, Venice in Italy and Waterford in Ireland built entire industries around art glass. There is no shortage of renowned artists who have embraced this medium: Tiffany, Lalique, Steuben, Daum, and Galle, to name a few. Their work is not only stunning, but nearly priceless.
Factory art glass is typically a repetition of patterns. Some of this work was done by machine. Up through the 1930’s, most decorative art glass involved some handwork. The older the glass, regardless of manufacturer, the more likely it was decorated by hand. Factories would alternate standard designs but obtain differentiation through combinations of colors, designs, and patterns.
In the United States, names like Corning are still familiar to consumers. Factory glass from regional U.S. companies such as Fostoria and Fenton are popular with collectors of Americana and those working with smaller budgets.
“Art cut” is a very recent exception. Art cut glass is usually one of a kind and is commissioned work crafted by an exceptionally talented artist. It goes without saying that this work is extremely expensive. Even glass manufacturers such as Steuben and Lalique continue to produce limited edition pieces for high-end consumers to increase their marketing reach.
Studio glass is another category of art glass and is usually considered the pinnacle of the medium. While major factories possess art glass “studios,” the term “studio” typically distinguishes it from factory art glass. While some studio glass is made in very limited runs, the highest end works are one of a kind and almost always decorative in nature.
The studio glass movement began in early 20th century America and spread around the world. Frank Lloyd Wright is strongly associated with the movement. In the 1950’s, Harvey Littleton pushed the movement to critical mass. Techniques used in studio glassmaking include blown, flame worked, cast, slumped, stained glass, etching and blasting.
Robert C. Fritz was a founding father of the 1960’s revival of studio glass movement. Artists such as David Patchen, David Reekie, and Dale Chihuly continued this tradition to the present and their work is found in private and public collections worldwide.
Take a closer look at your family heirlooms or turn a more critical eye to a garage sale find. You might be pleasantly surprised at what you find – and richer for it.