A View of Glass in the 1940s through 1970s American Mid-Century Modern

By Tom Cotter
Photos by David Cleveland, Alex Kizewski, Tom Cotter
   From 1945 to 1970, people in the United States celebrated the end to World War II and return to a new normality with change. Automobiles expanded ease of travel; suburbia flourished. New, more open homes meant new designs, different colors, and life-changing creations; dish-washers, clothes washers and dryers, microwave ovens, and bigger refrigerators with bigger freezers. Television revolutionized the visual world. The formality of the “old world” fell to a more casual life-style, fueled by increased leisure time with more disposable income. The Bauhaus and International Styles of architecture evolved into simplification of lines; less is more, with a focus on design rather the decoration. Art Deco’s angles became curves. This became the Mid-Century Modern (MCM) movement. Companies turned away from artisans and salesmen, anointing trained architects and industrial designers as the Chosen Leaders. Arne Jacobsen, Charles and Ray Eames, and Eero Saarinen were among those. Danish Modern furniture begged for dramatic changes in glass designs. Advances in insulation, heating, ventilation, artificial lighting, and air-conditioning allowed more windows, which generated more brightness, which demanded new shapes and colors.
   Sometimes form overcame function, although function was still a driver, but Increasingly with “wow” emphasis. The scientific achievements in travel and space exploration and microscopy (the Atom and the Amoeba) inspired designers. Increasingly, biomorphic inspiration changed the design medium and consumer tastes. U.S. designers looked east to Italy and Scandinavia and west to California for inspiration, creating a world of openness and light. The glassblowers from the island of Murano created often outrageous, eye-popping mixes of colors, shapes, and techniques. In the north, the winter ice, water streaming, and wood bark inspired flowing shapes in glass that harmonized with the new architecture and interior design. Companies from Sweden, Denmark, and Finland all contributed to a feeling of exceptional design first and foremost. The grand openness of Palm Springs architecture like the Elrod House and the Kaufmann Desert House called for complementary glass, whether with little color but unique shape, or with both subtle and dramatic colors and forms.
   The inspiration of Scandinavia, water, bark, and ice, showed early in Mid-Century Modern history when Steuben Glass devoted its entire production to the highest quality lead crystal, letting a piece’s unique shape and refractory capability carry the message of the Best Glass. Hiring designers like John M. Gates, sculptor/designer Sidney Waugh and others and separating them from the production area created an un-fettered atmosphere of form creativity. Spirals, dynamic curves, unusually applied feet and handles, and other “bits” differentiated Steuben’s new creations in its formula 10M from previous lead crystal. (photo 1) Also committing to Northern European innovation was Tiffin, which hired glassworkers from Sweden. While Swedish Optic was similar to some of Kosta’s Elis Bergh designs, Tiffin expanded into Spiral Optic, Offhand, and Empress lines in crystal and generally paler colors including Copen and Cerulean Blue, Wistaria, Pine, Twilight, Golden Banana, and Desert Red. (photos 2 & 3, or photo 2-3) Taking hints perhaps from 1920’s and 1930’s Fenton, color names became increasingly important for marketing. The obvious exception was Killarney Green, a walk through a sunless primeval forest. Tiffin showed exceptional creativity with its Bubble Optic creations, Fantasy and Fantasy Ribbon styles, and unparalleled Sand Carvings. Lines such Brockway Glass’ Icelandic, Canton Glass’ cased Casual, and anything from Erickson Glass Works were part of the Scandinavian-inspired inventiveness. (photo 4) Elegant glass companies ventured from the tried-and-true etchings, cuttings, and colors of the 1920’s to 1930’s to keep up with trends. Duncan and Miller’s Raymore, Laguna, and Festive; Heisey’s smoky Dawn Lodestar and Crystal Satellite; Imperial’s Twist, Pinch, Dawn, Casual, and Elysian lines; and Fenton’s New World and Horizon drew from the Scandinavian roots of MCM.
   In an explosion of hues, shades, and shapes, Blenko built upon its vibrant roots in architectural and church window glass to generate colors and styles that epitomized the Modernist movement. From the 1947 hiring of designer Winslow Anderson, Blenko began an unparalleled Mid-Century plunge with a palette rivalling Murano shops. Wayne Husted took Blenko’s design lead another step or two beginning in 1952, then Joel Myers entered in 1963 to create an even more studio-glass character. All three graduated from the New York State School of Ceramics at Alfred, which seemed to be a breeding ground for Mid-Century Modern designers. Something in the water? Less than an hour from Corning and Steuben Glass? Husted’s “big-ass Blenko” Architectural vases to 38” with stoppers appeared to be decanters or perfume bottles for giants. Multi-curved “Gurgle” vases; bent-neck pieces; applied decorations and swirls; crackle, bodacious bumps and ridges, and other textures; “flat” decanters and bottles; fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, cats, and fish; faces in odd places; dramatic curvilinear creations; and stoppers short, tall, but never dull graced bottles, decanters, and vases. Tangerine, Olive and Sea Green, Persian, Lemon, Rialto, and Jonquil differentiated Blenko hues from other companies. (photos 5 & 6) Nearby Bischoff, under Lancaster-Colony from 1963, and later as Sloane, offered fanciful shapes similar to Blenko’s including a Barracuda vase, with colors like Peacock Blue, Poinsettia (ruby) and Lime (pale green). It happened that Wayne Husted was hired from Blenko as Director of Design and Product Development for Lancaster Colony in 1963, contributing greatly to Bischoff and Indiana Glass designs.
   Companies like Viking, formerly New Martinsville, kept up the MCM pace with the Epic line of decorative pieces in a vast array of colors including Bluenique, Steel, Honey, ubiquitous Avocado, and Persimmon. Huntington’s Rainbow Glass, marketed by Viking from the mid-1960’s, handmade decorative lines such as “Twinkle-Lights,” Newport, animals, mannequin-like heads, and other forms, using diverse colors similar to Viking. Rainbow also incorporated an interesting combination of two colors titled “Duo-Tone”. Nearby Pilgrim in Ceredo offered hand sculpted, Murano-inspired concepts in cased and crackled glass. Dunbar’s Kanawha generated mold-blown, hand-manipulated Amberina and pastels in modern forms. L.E. Smith’s Simplicity line included bowls, compotes, and vases in translucent Peacock Blue (deep aqua), Flame, and chartreuse Green, along with opaque pieces in Lilac and easily recognizable Persimmon, an earthy orange. Some Smith “swing” vases reached heights of 48 to 60 inches! (photo 7) In the late 1960’s, Smith introduced finely textured Sandscroll. Touch-tempting, colorful combinations flourished within a number of companies such as Seneca Driftwood (Plum, Delphine Blue, Heather, Moss Green, Peacock Blue, Red Accent) (photo 8) ; Bryce El Rancho (Flame, Greenbrier, Caribbean, Cerulean, Dusk, and others); Fostoria Pebble Beach (Black Pearl, Mocha, Flaming Orange, and Lemon Twist); Anchor Hocking’s mass- and machine-produced Milano/Lido (Avocado, Honey Gold, and Ruby), and Morgantown’s reintroduction of El Mexicano as Crinkle, in a variety of colors. The Morgantown Glassware Guild produced a variety of modern shapes as Swirl, American Modern (to match Steubenville’s pottery pattern of the same name), Festival, Odd Balls (highball glasses), Hang-Ups, Malta, and the fantastic ever-slanting Décor line in Evergreen, Moss Green, another Peacock Blue, Pineapple, Gloria and Steel Blue, and Gypsy Red, as well as more mundane names. (photo 9) Moonscape was a space-themed offering from Morgantown. Many companies’ colors were intended to complement the Avocado and Harvest Gold appliances, as well as the ever-present shag rugs of the era. Michael and Frances Higgins went their own way in Chicago as pioneers in fused glass beginning about 1950. (photo 10)
   I want to leave you with a bit of fantastic news. Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Arts reopened to the general public on August 18. If you have not visited the location at 1201 Bannock Street in downtown Denver, you have missed one of the best museums west of the Atlantic Ocean. Or is that east of the Pacific Ocean? This is the place to indulge in art from the Arts and Crafts Period of the 19th century forward. If you have visited before, now is your chance to renew or ignite your love of Mid-Century Modern glass in an incomparable setting. Oh, and Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Modernism, post-Modernism… The Kirkland Museum is open to visitors who are 13 years old or older.
   I wish to thank special friends Michael Owen and Joe Lucente of Palm Springs, David Cleveland, Scott Montroy, Alex Kizewski, and Brian Sulley for all their advice, pictures, and help with this article. I extend my continuing gratitude to the Peggy and Jon DeStefano for supporting collectors through the Mountain States Collector. Normally, I write an article to be published in the Mountain States Collector just prior to the Front Range Glass Show, sponsored by Jodi and Mark Uthe. As with many enjoyable events from prior (and future!) years, the pandemic caused the Uthes to cancel the show. I had researched Mid-Century Modern (Bibliography available upon request at rmdgs.com) and pretty much had written the article prior to the Show’s cancellation. So, I’m sharing my effort; collecting and learning go on, even without a show.
   I will continue writing next year for the Collector with the theme of Mid-Century Modern Pottery and China. Thanks to Jodi and Mark, who plan to bring their show back to the Loveland Events Center in the early fall of 2021. I hope to see you then; the Rocky Mountain Depression Glass Society always has a presence at the Front Range Glass Show. Several books I highly recommend to whet your appetite are Kelly O’Kane’s incomparable Tiffin Glassmasters, the Modern Years, Dean Six’s Mid-Century Modern Glass In America, and Leslie Piña’s Blenko, cool ‘50s & ‘60s glass. Keep hunting and keep learning, please.

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