When Steuben Glass Went Clear, Clean and Modern

Steuben Glass, now celebrating its 100th year in business, was a token of high-end New York modernity from about 1930 to 1960.

Its elegantly contemporary and flawlessly executed products — cocktail shakers, drinking glasses, bowls, cigarette urns, olive dishes and the like — made the perfect gift for the upscale bride and groom. And the company, an offshoot of Corning Glass Works in Corning, N.Y., promoted its wares, even during the Depression, to an unabashed luxury market.

Possessing a Steuben piece could become "one of those evidences of solvency, like the ownership of a Cadillac or a house in the right neighborhood," counseled Walter Dorwin Teague, a leading industrial designer who worked early on as a design and marketing consultant for the company.

Competing with European glassmakers — especially Orrefors in Sweden, from which it took many cues — Steuben went all out to tailor its products to the Modern era: clean design, the use of biomorphic and abstract shapes, a revolutionary formula devised for optical glass that is said to produce the world's purest lead crystal. The company was so proud of an olive dish with a handle shaped like a snail's shell, designed by John Dreves of its staff, that it held a prominent spot in the futuristic Steuben pavilion at the New York World's Fair in 1939. (It's one of the very few items from that era still in production.)

In 1937 Steuben scored a coup by persuading a clutch of world-famous artists — among them Henri Matisse, Isamu Noguchi, Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dalí, Georgia O'Keeffe, Grant Wood and Jean Cocteau — to make designs that were engraved on special glass vessels. The list was put together by Matisse himself, and if the results of the project, called "27 Artists in Crystal," were not always salutary, well, the attempt was audacious.

Although its factory has always been upstate, Steuben has a close connection with Manhattan. The company opened a retail shop at 748 Fifth Avenue in 1934 and then, as business grew, put up the Corning-Steuben building at Fifth Avenue and 56th Street in 1937, with walls of Corning Pyrex glass blocks set in limestone.

In 1959 the company built a tower, at the time New York's tallest glass-clad building, just across the street from its glass-block building, at the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 56th Street. The new building was enhanced by an outside crystal wall, designed by George Thompson, made of nearly 300 glass flowers with metal stamens that were reflected in a pool of water. (That building was sold in 2000; Steuben is now represented by a shop on Madison Avenue between 60th and 61st Streets.)

So it seems fitting that the exhibition "Glass and Glamour: Steuben's Modern Moment, 1930-1960," mounted to salute the company's 100th anniversary, should appear at the Museum of the City of New York. Organized by Donald Albrecht, an independent curator specializing in 20th-century design and architecture, the show features almost 200 objects, including many of Steuben's well-known table and bar pieces, groups of its etched crystal vessels and plates, and original drawings (among them Matisse's designs for his vase), photographs, books and catalogs from the era.

Steuben's Modernist push got started in 1933, when Arthur A. Houghton Jr., a young member of the family that owned Corning Glass, decided that the unprofitable Steuben division (now Steuben Glass) should go contemporary. He was prompted by the example of other factories, like the furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, which had seen Modernism as the solution to falling sales. But he realized that while Steuben had skilled craftsmen and a special crystal formula, it lacked design and marketing expertise.

The ground had been prepared by Teague, who in 1932 had designed for the company a group of shimmering "lens bowls," cut like automobile headlights, and a group of unadorned vases in simple shapes that were chosen for the Museum of Modern Art's "Machine Art" show in 1934. (Some are on view in the current show.) But Houghton hired a New York City architect, John Monteith Gates, as managing director, and Sidney Waugh, a sculptor, as director of design. And Steuben was off and running, under the team that was to lead it for three decades.

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