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Influencing Glass History

Dorothy Thorpe (1901-1989): Glassware Designer

By Maxine Carter-Lome, publisher


We toss around the term “influencer” today to refer to someone we follow on social media who catches our attention, however fleeting, and introduces us to something or someone new. Their role is primarily to market products to someone else by using their influence with targeted buying groups. That, however, is a 21st century interpretation of the word. In the more traditional sense, influencers are visionaries. In the glass world, they are the men and women whose art, vision, and body of work influenced future generations of artisans, and changed the way we forever look at glass. Here is a brief look at six influencers worth admiring:

Dorothy Thorpe (1901-1989): Glassware Designer

Dorothy Thorpe (1901-1989): Glassware Designer
Dorothy Thorpe (1901-1989): Glassware Designer

Dorothy Thorpe, born in Salt Lake City in 1901, is a noted mid-century glass designer well-known for her floral patterns, sand etching techniques, and collaborations with such premier glass companies as Heisey and Tiffin. Her timeless and modern designs, particularly her iconic wide-band sterling overlay glass pieces, made her work instantly desirable for the cocktail crowd and today, highly recognizable and collectible for their “of-the-era” style.

Like many of her mid-century contemporaries, Thorpe was a designer, not a manufacturer, of glassware. She purchased simple blank glassware, mostly crystal, from U.S. and European manufacturers and decorated them with her personal designs using sandblasting, etching, and stenciling techniques. The same applied to her design work on ceramics such as dinnerware. Thorpe bought large lots of blank dinnerware and decorated them. She also decorated tableware for other companies and released several of her own lines.

Of all the glassware she decorated, Thorpe is perhaps most famous for her 1950s “Roly-Poly” tumbler collection, so successful that other labels replicated it. Each glass featured a sterling-silver overlay band called “Allegro” around the top. A runner-up bestseller was the glassware line “Atomic Splash,” which featured “explosions” of silver overlay around the tumbler. She eventually dabbled in Lucite and ceramics, but it is her elegantly designed glassware that continues to enthrall vintage barware and glassware collectors. Dorothy Thorpe is also the designer behind Heisey’s most famous and highly prized stemware line called “Hydrangea,” which features a base created in the form of a hydrangea flower. These were offered by Heisey in a few shades.

Thorpe’s naturalist inspirations in her design work extended to other floral motifs, including eucalyptus, irises, roses, and narcissus flowers. In 1945, she wrote to a collector that many of her floral motifs were inspired by the flora and fauna that surrounded her on trips she took to Hawaii.

Although Thorpe’s work is highly collectible today as the market rides the mid-century retro wave, buyers and collectors should be aware: while some of Thorpe’s work can be identified by her signature trademark logo of a small, upper-case “D” next to a larger upper case “T” sandblasted into her glassware pieces, that is not always the case. Some pieces, not sandblasted with her logo, were paper labeled (many lost to time) while other pieces sold directly from the manufacturer did not include the designer’s mark, which often confuses her work with other U.S. glassware companies that produced glassware that was in the style of Thorpe but did not carry Thorpe’s signature.

Collectible items include cocktail pitcher sets, teacups and saucers, punchbowl sets, candy dishes, glasses (champagne coupe/cordial/
tumbler/martini/rocks/TomCollins/goblet/flute/highball), decanters, ice buckets, candle holders, sugar and cream sets, shrimp cocktail stems, handkerchief bowls, plates, salt-and-pepper shakers, cocktail shakers, pitchers, tea sets, platters, carafes, relish serving dishes, and vases.

Harvey K. Littleton (1922-2013): “Father of the Studio Glass Movement”

Harvey K. Littleton (1922-2013): “Father of the Studio Glass Movement”
Harvey K. Littleton (1922-2013):
“Father of the Studio Glass Movement”

Harvey Littleton is considered the father of the studio glass movement in the United States. Born in 1922 in Corning, New York, Littleton fell in love with glass at the age of six while seeing it produced at Corning Glassworks, where his father headed Research and Development during the 1930s. At home, the properties of glass and its manufacture were frequent topics at the family dinner table. Dr. Littleton was fascinated by glass and believed that the material had almost unlimited uses. Today, Dr. Littleton, Harvey’s father, is remembered as the developer of Pyrex glassware and for his work on tempered glass.

After serving with the U.S. Signal Corps during World War II, Littleton went on to study industrial design at the University of Michigan. After receiving his M.A. degree from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1951, he accepted a teaching position in the Department of Art and Art Education at the University of Wisconsin, remaining on the faculty until 1977.

Littleton’s initial specialty was ceramics, but by the late 1950s, he was exploring the possibility of creating studio glass. Through research sponsored by the Toledo Museum of Art in 1962, he developed equipment and a formula for melting glass at lower temperatures, enabling him to blow glass in a studio rather than in the usual factory setting. This breakthrough led Littleton to play a major role in introducing glass blowing in college and university craft programs. His own program at the University of Wisconsin fostered the talents of a generation of glass artists, including Dale Chihuly and Fritz Dreisbach.

Littleton’s first pieces in blown glass were, like his earlier works in pottery, functional forms: vases, bowls, and paperweights. His breakthrough to non-functional form came in 1963 when, with no purpose in mind, he remelted and finished a glass piece that he had earlier smashed in a fit of pique. The object lay in his studio for several weeks before he decided to grind the bottom. As Littleton recounts in his book Glassblowing: A Search for Form, he brought the object into the house where “it aroused such antipathy in my wife that I looked at it much more closely, finally deciding to send it to an exhibition. Its refusal there made me even more obstinate, and I took it to New York … I later showed it to the curators of design at the Museum of Modern Art. They, perhaps relating it to some other neo-Dada work in the museum, purchased it for the Design Collection.”

Perhaps Littleton’s best-known body of work is his “Topological Geometry” group of series made between 1983 and 1989. Included under this heading are his signature “Arc” forms and “Crowns,” as well as his late “Lyrical Movement” and “Implied Movement” sculptural groups. In 1989, chronic back problems forced Littleton to retire from working in hot glass but not continuing to create and educate.

Max Erlacher (1933-2022): Master Engraver

Max Erlacher (1933-2022): Master Engraver
Max Erlacher (1933-2022): Master Engraver

Max Roland Erlacher is considered an engraving legend in the “Crystal City” of Corning, New York but his reputation and influence as a master engraver extend far beyond upstate New York. Today, his work can be found in the homes of past Presidents and dignitaries, Stueben collectors, museums around the world, and in the shop and studio he and his wife Kitty opened in downtown Corning, NY in 1974, and where his work is still on display.

Born in Austria in 1933, a young Max witnessed Austrian master engraver Herman Schiller create an engraved glass work of art. Instantly, he realized he wanted to pursue a career as an engraver. Later, Schiller became his teacher at a glass technical school in Kramsach, Tyrol, Austria.

While working on his artistic skills, Max also studied anatomy to understand the human form. Max recalls, “First, I had to model my engraving in clay bas-relief to envision the depth and scale of the engraving. Then I engraved my design in glass.”

In 1957, Erlacher moved to Corning, New York after being certified as a Master Engraver to work as a master engraver for the Steuben Glass Co. He learned about Steuben Glass from advertisements and from its esteemed reputation within art glass circles.

Over the years, Erlacher became one of the most renowned engravers at Steuben; a master of cold working techniques and copper, stone, and diamond engraving.

While at Steuben, Erlacher engraved such one-of-a-kind, landmark pieces as a portrait of Albert Einstein that is now in the Smithsonian, the Crusader Bowl bought by President and Mrs. Reagan as a wedding gift for Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles (which took 670 hours), PT109 engraving for President John F. Kennedy, a piece President Johnson gave to Nikita Khrushchev, and a longhorn steer and cowboy called Trail Rider for President Johnson.

In 1974, Max started his own business, Erlacher Glass, with his wife Kitty, creating beautiful works of art in engraved glass that were given as gifts to former presidents and other dignitaries. Until his passing in 2022, he continued to be inspired by his craft through numerous glass
collaborations with other artists and working on projects for museums and private collectors.

On its blog in a tribute to his passing, the Corning Museum of Glass wrote of Erlacher, “To the people of Corning and the wider, global glass community, he was a true pillar of glassmaking craft.”

Christian Dorflinger (1828-1915): American Cut Glass Industrialist

Christian Dorflinger (1828-1915): American Cut Glass Industrialist
Christian Dorflinger (1828-1915): American Cut Glass Industrialist

Christian Dorflinger, born in 1828 in Rosteig, in the Alsace region of France, grew up to build one of the leading glass companies in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, producing some of the finest cut glass tableware of the period.

Dorflinger began his apprenticeship at the age of 10 with an uncle at the Cristalleries de Saint-Louis in Lorraine to learn the glassmaking trade. In 1846, having completed his apprenticeship, he persuaded his recently widowed mother to emigrate the family from France to America in search of better opportunities, arriving in 1846.

Through an acquaintance he met in New York City, Dorflinger, with his glassmaking skills, was asked to lead a new company being formed to make lamps and lamp chimneys for the recently developed Coal Oil or Kerosene. In 1852, Dorflinger became one of the first glassmakers to specialize in manufacturing Kerosene lamps and lamp chimneys. A year later, he moved the business to a new location in Brooklyn and renamed it the Long Island Flint Glass Works. By 1856, Dorflinger had added a cutting shop and had begun producing rich-cut glass tableware in addition to the company’s commercial products.

In 1860, Dorflinger built a larger glass factory, the Greenpoint Flint Glass Works, on the northern edge of Brooklyn, and in partnership with Nathaniel Bailey, a vice president at the Greenpoint Savings Bank, formed C. Dorflinger & Co. to own and operate the new glass works. The Greenpoint works included a blowing shop to produce blanks for cutting, a cutting shop, wharf facilities, and housing for the factory’s workers. In less than a decade, Dorflinger had moved from being the new kid on the block to a leader of New York’s glass industry, operating the newest and most advanced glass factories in the city.

Dorflinger’s first big break came a year later, when in 1861 the new company received an order to produce a set of rich cut and engraved glassware with the U.S. Coat of Arms for the Lincoln White House.

The stemware for the Lincoln service was light and delicate, with fine diamond cutting and an elaborate ivy engraved border. Given its
exceptional beauty and craftsmanship, it is not surprising that the Lincoln set was used as the state glass service in the White House for 30 years. The Lincoln service established Dorflinger’’s reputation for excellence in glassmaking and set the stage for the company’s success for decades to come.

From that point on through the late 1880s, Dorflinger grew his business and opened a succession of new, modern factories outfitted with state-of-the-art glassmaking techniques. Another acknowledgment of his success came at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 when the Dorflinger Glass Company received a certificate of award for its glass table wares. The heavily cut glassware exhibited at the Centennial Exposition began what is now known as the “Brilliant Period” of cut glassmaking in America, which continued until about 1917. During this period, the Dorflinger companies made fine glass tableware for every U.S. Presidential Administration, foreign governments, and wealthy families across America.

Dr. Allen DeVilbiss (1840-1917): Glass Innovator

Dr. Allen DeVilbiss (1840-1917): Glass Innovator
Dr. Allen DeVilbiss (1840-1917): Glass Innovator

While most influencers in the glass trade had some background in glassmaking, Allen DeVilbiss was an outlier. Dr. Allen DeVilbiss was a medical doctor specializing in nose and throat medicine who devised a spray atomizer for medical purposes and in the process revolutionized the packaging of perfume and inspired the artistry of the perfume bottle.

Dr. DeVilbiss created the spray atomizer as an alternative to swabbing goose grease and Vaseline on the throats and nasal passages of cold sufferers. He held the atomizer, made out of a rubber bulb, a piece of metal tubing cut from a discarded surgical instrument, and the base from an oil can, over a flame to melt the semi-solid that he then sprayed in mist form directly on the affected areas. Dr. DeVilbiss took his invention to several leading medical supply manufacturing companies, but none were interested.

Not discouraged, he founded the DeVilbiss Manufacturing Company in Toledo, Ohio, in 1888. The company’s primary purpose was to manufacture and sell DeVilbiss-invented spray atomizers, designed to apply soothing medicinal coatings to patients’ throats. It was his son, Thomas, who joined the company in 1905, who convinced his father to go into the perfume atomizer business, capitalizing on the company’s spray technology and its established retail network of drug stores. Thomas got the green light for his ‘perfume atomizer’ in 1907 and was responsible for many of the unusual designs that would become the hallmark of the DeVilbiss atomizer. A number of his designs were unique enough to be patentable.

Always looking for something new and exciting, the public bought up these new inventions and in a few short years, the “perfumizers” outsold the company’s medical atomizers.

The first DeVilbiss atomizers were simple clear glass salt shakers that were fitted with plain metal atomizer mounts. DeVilbiss marketed these as “perfumizers.” You will most likely find these early atomizers stamped “DeVilbiss Pat Sept 15, 1908,” on the collars. These perfumes were affordably priced to the public for $1.25 each.

In addition to developing glassware designs of their own, DeVilbiss sought out relationships with the highest quality American and European glass manufacturers for its bottles, including Imperial, Steuben, Cambridge, and Vineland in the U.S., Brosse in France, and Moser of Bohemia. Czechoslovakia, Germany, Italy, and Japan also provided glassware for DeVilbiss atomizers. In all, DeVilbiss acquired glass and porcelain bottle blanks from at least 60 different suppliers from America, Europe, and Japan throughout its 71-year history.

DeVilbiss would send the glass houses their designs or models of the bottles and would commission glass houses to manufacture them on their behalf. It was there that they would then be made in the colors, shapes, and types of glass according to their specifications. Some of the bottles were finished products that just needed to be fitted with atomizer mountings at the DeVilbiss plant. The others were known as blanks and were given further decorative elements like hand painting, stenciling, or gilt encrustation at the DeVilbiss plant.

DeVilbiss discontinued perfume atomizers in 1969 when demand for atomizers waned. Today, DeVilbiss perfume bottles are highly desirable and collectible.

Amber Cowan (1981- ): Recycled Glass Artist

Amber Cowan (1981- ): Recycled Glass Artist
Amber Cowan (1981- ): Recycled Glass Artist

Forty-three-year-old Amber Cowan is having a moment today in both the art and glass worlds
with her use and repurpose of vintage glass in her artwork: “her entrancing sculptures illuminating the history and enduring possibilities of American glass art,” according to art critics.

Amber Cowan’s sculptural glasswork is centered around the use of recycled, upcycled, and second-life American pressed glass. She uses the process of flameworking, hot-sculpting, and glassblowing to create large-scale sculptures that overwhelm the viewer with ornate abstraction and viral accrual. Together, Cowan’s contemporary artworks, and the vintage artifacts displayed within them, illuminate a slice of history—the rise and fall of American factory production and ever-changing American tastes and styles—as well as the enduring possibilities of glass.

Treasure hunting is part of Cowan’s process. She collects antique pressed glassware from the heyday of American glass manufacturing (think vases, candlesticks, candy dishes, figurines, and knickknacks) from flea markets and thrift shops, as well as cullet, the gleaming, gemstone-like hunks of the scrap glass that remain after a factory’s production run. Cowan melts the cullet to create new elements, which fill her sculptures and continue to reveal themselves the longer you look.

“My work is based on the rejuvenation and reuse of American pressed glass,” says Cowan. “The majority of the material I use is “cullet” or the scrap glass left after the production run in a glass factory. I travel and search for cullet yards throughout the country where there are barrels and piles of old dead stock colors which I then re-melt scrap by scrap through the process of flameworking into the multitude of forms that create each of my sculptures. The glass that I use is generally procured from now-defunct pressed glass manufacturers … Nowadays, this material is out of fashion and relegated to the dustbin of American design. I take this material which is abundant on the shelves of thrift stores and flea markets and rejuvenate it into a new second-life.”

Cowan received her BFA in 3-dimensional Design with an emphasis in Hot Glass from Salisbury University in 2004 – the first woman to graduate from Salisbury University with this specific degree. She received her MFA in Glass/Ceramics from Tyler School of Art at Temple University in 2011, where she is currently a faculty member of the glass department.

Cowan’s work is included in the collections of the Corning Museum of Glass, the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, the Museum of Arts and Design, and the Shanghai Museum of Glass. She has been featured many times at the Heller Gallery in New York City, and the Museum of Craft and Design in San Francisco.