Friday, October 5, 2012

Designer of the Month: Harvey Littleton

You may not know this about me, but I'm a glassblower. I began taking glassblowing classes while still in college, coming down to UrbanGlass, in Brooklyn, on the weekends. In the years since, I've continued my education both locally and at the Penland School of Crafts, and have both participated in and taught classes whenever possible while subsequently learning as much as I could about its history and craft through a Master's program in the History of Decorative Arts and Design. Glassblowing even introduced me to my husband, who I was fortuitously partnered with in one of my classes. Unfortunately, the studio that I worked out of for many years is now closed, leaving me without a good place to exchange my assistance for studio time. And as the option of renting time and space is currently prohibitively expensive, it's been a while since I've actually been worked in a glassblowing studio. Despite all that, however, my passion for the craft remains as strong as ever, and I still very much consider myself a glassblower. Then again, I have absolutely nothing on October's Designer of the Month, Harvey K. Littleton (b. 1922), a man without whom the modern craft of glassblowing would look very different indeed.

Harvey Littleton at the 1962 Toledo Workshop. Courtesy of the Corning Museum of Glass.

I mean, just look at the man. Because of the fact that glassblowing is such a hot and sweaty pursuit, you have to admit that working in pleated pants, a white dress shirt and a tie is a pretty bad-ass move. But Littleton is a pretty incredible glassblower. Widely recognized as the father of the American Studio Glass Movement, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, Littleton took glass from its place in the factory, introducing it to artists as a material for the creation of contemporary art.[1] 

Harvery Littleton, Red/Blue Combination Arc, 1984, Gift of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser AC1997.249.12.1-.2. Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The son of a Corning Glass Works scientist, "a fascination with all aspects of the medium" was the driving force of Littleton's life.[2] An artist from a young age, Littleton was greatly influenced by his life at Corning and by the work of such figures as Frederick Carder, whose last years at Corning coincided with Littleton's early years, and whose work Littleton's mother purchased when it was being dispersed of by Steuben Glass.[3] Not only did Littleton grow up around Corning, but he took summer jobs there as well, learning as much as possible from these experiences about all aspects of glass and how to work with the material as much and in as many different ways as possible.[4] But Littleton had different ideas about glass than most people at the time. To give you an idea of the mindset and how radically different Littleton's thoughts about glassblowing were, Joan Falconer Byrd explains:
As 'a child of Corning,' Harvey had been tantalized by the vision of working creatively with glass. At the same time, he had been indoctrinated with Corning's dictum that to blow glass outside the factory was out of the questions. Two books by Steuben designer Sidney Waugh, the earlier of which he had been given as a teenager, discussed glass design within the factory context A quotation from Waugh's later book, The Making of Fine Glass, would appear as a point of reference in Harvey's 1959 application for funding for studio experiments in hot glassworking: 'It must be emphasized that glassblowing as described on these pages is not within the scope of the amateur or even the most talented artist or craftsman working alone.'[5]
Of course, as we know, that didn't deter Littleton from his belief in the feasibility of operating a studio-sized, rather than factory-sized glass furnace. But we'll get to all of that in the weeks to come. Over the next month, we'll take a look at the life and work of the man who changed the very face of glassblowing as we know it. I hope you'll join me.

[1] Russel Panczenko, "Forward," from Harvey K. Littleton: A Life in Glass, by Joan Falconer Byrd (New York, Skira Rizzoli Publications, Inc., 2011), IX.

[2] Joan Falconer Byrd, "Chapter One: Family History and the Influence of Corning," from Harvey K. Littleton: A Life in Glass (New York, Skira Rizzoli Publications, Inc., 2011), 3. 

[3] Ibid., 8.

[4] Ibid., 10-11.

[5] Ibid., 12.

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