Higgins: A Glass Act

Higgins: A Glass Act

Fused Glass from the Fabulous ‘50s
Text by Donald-Brian Johnson; Photos by Leslie Pina

Stardust, Barbaric Jewels, Arabesque, Mandarin. The titles glow with color and imagination. The glass objects they refer to make good on that promise. This is Higgins glass, the fused marvel that attracted buyers by the droves in the 1950s and ‘60s, and continues to delight collectors today.

With its arresting mix of geometric and curved lines, and bold use of colors ranging from eye-popping oranges to cool blues, Higgins glass transformed ordinary table and giftware into something vibrant and exciting. Why settle for a tableful of drab china bowls and plates, when for the same price that table could be transformed into a “glass act?” From chip bowls to candleholders, cake stands to cigarette boxes, Higgins glass provided all that the ‘50s modern homemaker could wish for, and did so with affordable dazzle. Early ads called Higgins glass “an exclamation point in your decorating scheme,” and the ads had it right. Higgins glass harnessed vivid imagination to innate practicality. That team-up came courtesy of the team behind the Higgins signature, Frances and Michael Higgins.

First Steps

Born in London in 1908, Michael Higgins studied at the London Central School of Arts and Crafts before immigrating to the United States in 1939. After serving in Washington during World War II, Michael was named Head of Visual Design at the Chicago Institute of Design. There, he met Frances Stewart.

Frances, a Haddock, Georgia native born in 1912, had graduated from the Georgia State College for Women. An Assistant Professorship in Art at the University of Georgia led to a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, which led to the Institute of Design—which led to her instructor, Michael Higgins. The attraction was immediate. As Michael once said, “it wasn’t so much a whirlwind romance as a duststorm!” Determined to make a living as independent craftsmen, the two married, and left the Institute in 1948.

Today, it seems there are craft shops and art fairs on every corner. In 1948, the situation was much different. As Frances dryly noted, “we were about starving to death.” Setting up kilns behind the sofa in their apartment on Chicago’s Oak Street, the Higgins determined to make a go of it. Following small orders for glass plates, they attracted the attention of a buyer from Marshall Field & Company. Soon, Michael and Frances were working in split shifts, fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, to keep up with orders from Marshall Field, Georg Jensen, Bullock’s Wilshire, and other major retailers of the day. The attraction? Familiar glass objects fashioned in an unfamiliar manner, exotically colored, expertly made, and affordably priced. As Chicago Life magazine put it, the Higgins were adapting an “old craft for modern tastes.”

Fusing Facts

The Higgins were pioneers in the use of fused glass. Although it had been around for thousands of years, the technique had been abandoned by many mid-century artisans in favor of blown glass. Essentially, fusing is the creation of a “glass sandwich.” A design is created on one piece of enamel-coated glass, either drawn with colored enamels or pieced with glass segments. (Frances favored “drawn” designs; Michael, “pieced.”) Over this, another piece of enameled glass is laid. Placed on a mold, the object is then heated. Under heat, the glass “slumps” (or “bends”) to the shape of the mold. The design itself is fused between the outer glass pieces.

Among the varied advantages of fused glass is a most important one for the type of houseware items the Higgins were producing: because the patterns are sealed between glass layers, colors will not fade with time. Fused glass plates, bowls, and serving dishes could be subjected to daily use, and still remain brightly colorful.

The Higgins turned out an inventory of over 100 different household items at breakneck speed. Their schedule was grueling, but relief was at hand: an offer to adapt their handcrafted talents and techniques to the arena of mass production.

Dearborn Days

Prior to its association with Frances and Michael Higgins, the Dearborn Glass Company of Bedford Park, Illinois, specialized in the production of industrial glass components. As the Higgins’ work gained wider recognition, Dearborn took note. Already experienced with bent glass for industrial use, the company could combine this with the Higgins’ fusing expertise to create a line of consumer giftware. Michael and Frances accepted the challenge—and the Dearborn line of Higgins handcrafted glass, “Higginsware,” hit the market in 1957.

Much of the Higgins glass available today was mass-produced at Dearborn and is readily identifiable by a gold, lower-case “higgins” signature on the front of each piece. Michael and Frances invariably signed their work with the inclusive higgins, because, as Michael once noted, “our ideas have so blended that we can’t always tell which pieces are hers and which are mine.” (Engraved signatures on the reverse of an item identify it as non-Dearborn. Those produced prior to 1957 also often carry a raised “dancing man” symbol.)

Michael and Frances quickly learned that mass production had its own harried timetables. Frances noted that the goal set for Higgins glass at Dearborn was “a new line every six months.” If a pattern sold well, the Higgins were then urged to adapt it to every size and shape imaginable. Promotional postcards of the period indicate entire tables set in Arabesque and Buttercup dishes.

Popular trends were also embraced. In the smoke-happy ‘50s and ‘60s, smoking accessories were standard equipment. At Dearborn, the Higgins operation turned out a seemingly endless stack of cigarette boxes and ashtrays. From 4” individual Dinner Dwarf ashtrays to whopping 15” freeform ones, householders were kept well-stocked for chain-smoker invasions.

Something For Everyone

With the success of basic tableware items, Dearborn encouraged the Higgins studio to broaden its horizons. In addition to Higgins bowls, plates, and ashtrays, there were Higgins compartment servers, trivets, relish servers, and butter dishes. Also available: Higgins candy dishes and bonbon servers, candleholders, wall sconces, table lamps, and much more. One novel addition was the “Rondelay,” described as “fused squares and circles of richly-colored Higgins Handcrafted Glass, with a simple do-it-yourself system of hanging and fastening.” The Rondelay catalog suggested their use as “room dividers, partitions, wall treatments, view breakers, decorative borders, or mobiles.”

Higgins experimentation wasn’t limited to their work at Dearborn. Over the years, other Higgins projects have included clocks for General Electric and Haddon, bookends and glass-topped ceramic dishes for Raymor, tables, backgammon boards, ornaments, jewelry, plaques, mobiles, sculptures, mirrors, church windows, and exterior building ornamentation. Imagine what can be done in glass, and the Higgins have probably done it.

Back To Basics

Although their Dearborn career gave Michael and Frances Higgins a national distribution and name recognition far beyond that of many of their contemporaries, mass production had its drawbacks. The Higgins were kept at a brisk design pace. During their Dearborn tenure, they introduced at least 70 known patterns in a dizzying variety of sizes and shapes.

The process was exhilarating, but at the same time exhausting. More importantly, the demands and pace of mass production sometimes meant that objects went to market without meeting the Higgins standard of excellence. Candlestick holders, for example, initially had glass tops and bases fastened to a wooden stem with screws. In the interests of economy and speedier production, the screws were replaced with epoxy. The results were disastrous. According to Michael, “The pieces all fell apart on the shelves of the stores.” Added Frances, “That really hurt us. If you give buyers a lot of trouble, they shy away from your line.”

By 1965, the time was right for change. The Higgins—kilns, molds, and all—changed their base of operations to Haeger Potteries of Dundee, Illinois. Haeger seemed an odd match for glass artisans, even though Haeger president Joseph Estes trumpeted glassware and ceramics as “cousins under the glaze.” For the Higgins, the move represented an opportunity to experiment with new fused glass designs and possibilities. For Haeger, it simply meant an opportunity to manufacture the same pieces that had been produced at Dearborn, but under a “higgins Haeger” label.

Disheartened, the Higgins decided at the end of 1965 to return to where it all began: their own private studio. There they would be free to set their own goals, meet their own standards, and design in the direction their hearts and minds led them. Since 1966, the Higgins Glass Studio has been located in Riverside, Illinois.

Rainbow’s End

Upon first entering the Higgins Glass Studio, a young visitor once exclaimed, “It’s like walking into a rainbow!” That description was right on target. The Higgins showroom is a kaleidoscope of color, with hanging mobiles, brilliantly-hued bowls and platters, glass clocks, lamps, jewelry, plaques, and unique “dropout” vases, each competing for the customer’s attention. The air is particularly electric each holiday season, as new pieces fill the shelves in preparation for the Holiday Open House, a Higgins tradition for 70 years.

For Michael and Frances Higgins, Riverside truly proved to be the end of the rainbow. With a showroom in front, studio in back, and apartment overhead, the Higgins at last found the ideal environment for their work, and Higgins Glass became part of the Riverside fabric of life.

In the studio, the pace is relaxed, the attitude unassuming. Riverside brides-to-be, stopping in to register their wedding patterns, are treated with as much down-to-earth friendliness as are representatives of the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan or the Corning Museum of Glass, all of which include Higgins pieces in their collections.

Michael Higgins died in 1999, Frances Higgins in 2004. The Higgins Glass Studio is today under the direction of their longtime design associates, Louise and Jonathan Wimmer. That direct line of continuity ensures that collectors will continue to enjoy glassware created in the style that is uniquely Higgins. New pieces celebrate and expand on the traditions and techniques of the past.

The Higgins inventory is vast and varied, which means whatever your price range or taste, there is a Higgins piece just right for you. Many items, particularly those from the prolific Dearborn era, frequently show up as bargains on eBay, at modern shows and auctions, or even at garage sales, thanks to their early widespread popularity as wedding and anniversary gifts. (Frances Higgins reported running across one of her early pieces at a flea market and picked it up for a better look. The eager salesperson enthused, “That’s Higgins, you know.” “I know,” said Frances. “I’m Higgins.”)

Frances Higgins once said, “We just try to make what looks good – any time, any place.” Did they succeed? Add a piece of Higgins glass to your décor. You’ll know the answer right away. These “modern miracles with everyday glass” live on.

Donald-Brian Johnson and Leslie Piña are the co-authors of numerous books on antiques and collectibles, including Higgins: Adventures in Glass and Higgins: Poetry in Glass. All are published by Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. Please address inquiries to donaldbrian@msn.com. Photo Associates: Hank Kuhlmann, Ramon Piña

Photo’s courtesy of: Garry Henderson, and Higgins Glass Studio)

Higgins: A Glass Act