Friday, October 12, 2012

Designer of the Month: Harvey Littleton

Week 2: ceramics and early experiments in glass

In 1949, the possibility of working with glass outside the factory was practically impossible. What was possible, however, was for Harvey Littleton to build his own wheel, make his own kiln, compound his own glazes, and turn his attention to ceramics.[1] And so, earning an MFA in ceramics from the Cranbrook Academy in 1951, Littleton joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin that fall and began his career as a professional potter.[2]

Harvey Littleton throwing pots. From the Harvey K. Littleton Papers, 1946-1975. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

But glass was never far from his thoughts, and 1957 was a turning point for Littleton, when he took a leave of absence from teaching to study ceramics in Europe, and was once again introduced to the idea of blowing glass in a studio setting when he visited the Catalonian artist Jean Sala in Paris.[1] Although Sala no longer worked in glass, he had created his own one-man hot shop, proving to Littleton that it was a feat that could actually be accomplished.[4] Littleton later traveled to Venice, where he spent over two and a half months visiting nearly 60 small glass studios on the island of Murano, trying his hand at glassblowing and even purchasing blowpipes and other tools that would be required if he were to set up his own studio.[5] Once he returned to the States, Littleton used a old kiln to melt his first few batches of glass, and began experimenting with the material in earnest before building his first glass furnace in 1959.[6]

Harvey K. Littleton, Toledo Bottle, 1962. FColorless glass made from #475 Johns-Manville marbles with slight aqua blue tint; blown, cut. Teardrop-shaped vessel with asymmetrical neck; rim cut so that one side extends higher than the other.. Courtesy of the Corning Museum of Glass.

These days, if you have the money and the space, it's a simple enough matter to order custom-built glass furnaces and equipment, not to mention glass itself in every color imaginable. In 1959, however, it was a different matter entirely. As one of a very few American artists at the time exploring techniques for working with glass beyond the factory, it was a very slow-going process for Littleton, particularly because there were so few other people to go to for advice. And raising the funds needed for his experiments was another matter entirely. With support difficult to come by, Littleton was looking into other ways to fund his newly-acquired glassblowing hobby. A supply company that he began in his garage in 1959 initially grew out of a strategy for controlling the costs of his pottery business, with Littleton purchasing clay from Ohio by the truckload and splitting the order with the public school system of Racine Wisconsin.[7] The company soon outgrew Littleton's garage and was moved to the neighboring town of Paoli, where it was formally established as the Paoli Clay Company, supplying ceramic materials and custom-build equipment to schools and universities as well as other ceramic artists.[8] Later, when Littleton became fully committed to glass, the company also became the first supplier of German Putsch glassblowing tools.[9]

Harvey K. Littleton, Vase, 1963. Transparent light blue bubbly glass; blown, cut. Courtesy of the Corning Museum of Glass.

1961 would prove to be another turning point in Littleton's career, when he attended the fourth national conference of the American Craft Council and presented some of his first experiments in glass to the public.[10] He opened with the statement that, "my experience is in inverse proportion to my faith in the medium. I have only been able to do enough work to assure myself that it is possible for the craftsman to accumulate equipment without a great deal of expense, to formulate simple glasses, to melt them, and to work them out entirely alone;" he closed by stating his hope that within the next year, he could take a group of graduate students in independent study to explore glassworking methods within his own shop.[11] By this time, Littleton's experiments with glass were not only getting results, but they were attracting attention. And while he wouldn't get to do so within his own studio, in 1962, Littleton was given the opportunity of a lifetime when Otto Wittman, director of the Toledo Museum of Art, in Ohio, proposed that he consider giving a glass seminar at the museum.[12] Naturally, he jumped at the chance.

[1] 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), 13.

[2] Ibid., 13.

[3] Corning Museum of Glass online, "Harvey K. Littleton and the American Studio Glass Movement: Harvey Littleton in Corning,", (accessed October 10, 2012).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Joan Falconer Byrd, "Chapter Two: 1939-61, Education, Marriage, Teaching Clay, Melting Glass," from Harvey K. Littleton: A Life in Glass (New York, Skira Rizzoli Publications, Inc., 2011), 34.

[7] Ibid., 36.

[8] Ibid., 36.

[9] Ibid., 36.

[10] Ibid., 36-7.

[11] Ibid., 37.

[12] Ibid., 37.

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