Littleton know when he gathered a group of potters together in 1962 for a glass-blowing workshop that he was creating a new art form.
"I thought our results were interesting, although what we produced would look awful to people today," Littleton, 81, said this week from his gallery on U.S. 1 north of Fort Pierce. "I was very optimistic."
What came of the workshop in Toledo, Ohio, was the Studio Glass Movement -- based on the concept that glass could be mixed, melted and blown, and turned into works of art by artists in their studios.
Littleton's innovation gained him international recognition; and his work has been collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, both in New York, and the Smithsonian Institution and the White House, both in Washington, D.C.
Littleton's family ties to Fort Pierce stretch back two generations -- even further than his familial connections to glass.
His grandfather, Dr. J.T. Littleton, moved to Fort Pierce in 1916 after a career as a college professor and taught English at Fort Pierce High School, now the Fort Pierce Magnet School of the Arts on Delaware Avenue.
Littleton's father, Dr. J.T. Littleton Jr., moved to Fort Pierce in 1951 after retiring as director of development at Corning Glass Works in Corning, N.Y., where he helped develop what is now known as Pyrex.
"My mother baked a cake in (the prototype)," Littleton recalled, adding that because his father wasn't sure what the effects of cooking in leaded glass would be, the cake was fed to the family dog.
Littleton had become an accomplished potter and pottery teacher at the University of Wisconsin when he put together the fateful workshop.
"Basically, what we were doing was offering glass as a material for art students at universities," Littleton said.
Until that time, glassware was mass-produced in factories, a fact Littleton knew all too well from his background with Corning.
"In the factory, the idea is to blow each piece to match the other," Littleton said. "The artist's approach is that each piece draws on what was done before, but each one becomes richer and stronger. The product of the factory and the artist aren't comparable."
Littleton started the first college classes in glass blowing at Wisconsin. (Among his early students was Dale Chihuly, whose fame as an glass artist approaches rock-star status.)
"Now there are 50 or 60 universities and other schools that teach glass-blowing," he said.
It's one thing to be known as an innovator, Littleton said, "but the work still has to stand on its own."
Littleton's does. Critically acclaimed and highly sought after by museums and private collectors, his glass pieces in the Fort Pierce gallery range in price from $16,000 to $75,000.
"This place has an interesting past," Littleton said of the gallery. "It was built in the 1950s and has been a barber shop, a beer joint, all kinds of things. Every once in a while, someone will stop by and say, 'I used to live here.' "
From the upstairs apartment, Littleton can see the ocean and scan the Indian River Lagoon from Vero Beach to the south bridge in downtown Fort Pierce.
Littleton spends his summers in the hills around Spruce Pine, N.C., where he has a home and studio. A bad back keeps him from making glass pieces these days. Instead, he invites artists to his studio to try their hand at a more recent passion: vitreographs, prints in which images drawn on glass plates are transferred onto paper.
"I was asked once if I'm enjoying retirement," Littleton recalled. "My response was, 'Yes, I've enjoyed it several times.' "