The Artfulness of Utility

The Artfulness of Utility

Visitors to The Corning Museum of Glass may see everything from an edgy, disturbing sculpture by Sylvia Levenson to an Islamic perfume bottle from the Middle Ages.  At times, it can seem as if the vast array of objects has only silica in common.  There are objects that provoke debate and objects that advance notions of politics, philosophy, and religion.  But there are mundane objects as well—those designed to hold treasured scents, to illuminate one’s home, or to announce one’s affluence to guests.  We know artists find inspiration in all kinds of sources – nature, history, and personal ideology – but where does the utilitarian object fit into the picture?  Can an object that is designed to be useful also inspire?

Inspiration in Unlikely Places

Figure 1

Ask Mark Peiser, perhaps, who fashioned his Palomar series of sculptures in homage to the great engineering feat accomplished in 1934 by Corning Glass Works (fig. 1).  After many experiments and one unsuccessful pouring, Corning physicist Dr. George McCauley and his team of dedicated glassworkers did what others had been unable to do: they created a 200-inch blank for the Hale telescope mirror.  At the time, it was the largest piece of cast glass ever made.  Peiser’s Palomar series reflects his great admiration for the ideas, creativity, and perseverance of McCauley and his team.

A giant telescope mirror seems an unlikely inspiration for a contemporary artist, yet Peiser’s series captivates with its glowing energy and sculptural, honeycombed depths.  Studying the history of glassmaking can provide new inspiration for artists and designers, and the Rakow library, with its unique focus on glass art and history, is a wonderful place to study that history.  In the collection of the Rakow Library, for instance, the creation of the Giant Eye of Palomar is well documented through design drawings for the machinery, molds, and photographs.  There is also video coverage of the pouring, publicity shots of the annealed disk, and images of the mirror, which was polished, ground, and installed in the Palomar Observatory.

Beauty Plus Utility

Figure 2

Among the Library’s extensive collections are also thousands of design drawings of glassware from commercial designers.  These drawings document various shapes and designs in tableware through the years, as well as the variety of colors glass designers have dreamed up.

One of these rich collections is part of the archives of Frederick Carder.  Carder was a glassmaker who began his career at Stevens and Williams in Stourbridge, England, in 1880 and immigrated to the United States in 1903 to take leadership of a new company, Steuben Glass Works.  Over the decades that he worked at Steuben, Carder produced innumerable colors and designs for tableware.  The Carder archive at the Library includes hundreds of original drawings as well as Carder’s own notebooks on glassmaking.

Carder was fascinated with color and constantly experimented with the chemistry of glassmaking.  Drawings such as a delicate, blue perfume bottle are complemented by Carder’s notes on glassmaking.  On one page, Carder describes how to make a “good, bright” peacock blue (fig. 2).

In addition to the Carder notebooks, the Library has an impressive collection of batch books from other glassmakers.  They include well-known glassmakers such as Arthur Nash, who worked for Tiffany, as well as numerous, unknown factory managers and artisans.  For example, the Library collection includes seven notebooks by an unidentified French glassmaker who was experimenting with pâte de verre in the early twentieth century.

Shape, Texture, and Pattern

Figure 3

For glass artists who are intrigued by texture, images of decorated glass through the ages may prove a rich source of information.  A nineteenth century design book from an unknown Bohemian company displays hundreds of designs, including a simple %%drawing%% for a hanging lamp or vase, with gold flowers on a sky blue background.

Figure 4

Patents for glass designs illustrate the variety of cut glass patterns that designers used to decorate their tableware.  A cut glass patent, filed in 1890 by John Hoare, a cut glass maker from Corning, New York, includes two views of an intricate cutting pattern that Hoare used for a serving dish (fig. 3).

Shape is another design element that can be explored in the Rakow Library’s collection of drawings.  Note the wide, shallow bowl and rather princely looking foot in a watercolor %%drawing%% by Auguste Herbst, designer for Gallé (fig. 4).  In two appealing sketches by French artist Maurice Marinot, the designs seem almost three dimensional in nature (figs. 5, 6).

The Library’s collection contains not only original design drawings for tableware but also for stained glass.  What could be more utilitarian than a window?  Yet the complexity, beauty and, frequently, the narrative brilliance of stained glass windows hold a unique place in the history of glass.  Most of us think of church windows when we think of stained glass, and the Library certainly has thousands of nonsecular designs in its collection.  But the Library collection also includes purely decorative designs, such as a %%drawing%% for a library window executed by John LaFarge (fig. 7) or a lunette created by Harry Clarke, an Irish stained glass artist (fig. 8).

Figure 5 Figure 6 Figure 7 Figure 8

Figure 5. Maurice Marinot, design for a decanter, 1929. Rakow Research Library.
Figure 6. Maurice Marinot, design for a decanter, 1927. Rakow Research LIbrary.
Figure 7. John LaFarge, design for a library window with wreaths, ribbons, and shell, 1882 - 1885. Rakow Research Library.
Figure 8. Harry Clarke, colored sketch for one of the two lunettes about the Eve of St. Agnes window, 1924. Rakow Research Library.

Scientific Glass

With stained glass, it is easy to find motifs, designs, or even stories that inspire, but inspiration can also come from something incredibly utilitarian – such as scientific glass. A well-known example is the work of the father-son team of Rudolf and Leopold Blaschka, two lampworkers from nineteenth-century Bohemia, who designed and made thousands of scientific models of sea creatures and botanical specimens.  The Rakow Library holds the Blaschkas’ archives, including business correspondence and a collection of detailed drawings for the models.  Their %%drawing%% of sea anemones shows the Blaschkas’ incredible attention to detail (fig. 9).  At the Rakow Library, one has the ability to compare these highly accurate scientific drawings to Emile Gallé’s impressionistic botanical watercolor, sketched about the same time (fig. 10).

More prosaic, by far, are the Library’s collection of trade catalogs from manufacturers of scientific glassware. Yet, for the artist fascinated by the art of science and the science of art, these catalogs can be oddly compelling for the simple forms they display and for the stories they convey of the scientific practices of their time. A page from a Spanish trade catalog shows the graceful curving forms in nineteenth-century laboratory glass (fig. 11).

Rare Finds

Figure 12

The Rakow’s trade catalog and glass advertisement collections include scientific glassware, tableware, perfume bottles, eyeglasses, scientific instruments, and even ornate glass furniture.  The strangest catalog may be the one illustrating a glass casket by a company in Muskogee, Oklahoma, in the mid-1930s (fig. 12).  An article from the April 20, 1896, New York Times explains that a plate glass manufacturer in Indiana had proposed large-scale production of glass coffins, arguing that glass coffins are “more durable” and cheaper than wood or %%metal%%.  In addition, they have an advantage “in %%cases%% where death is due to contagious diseases and the law requires a hermetically %%sealed%% casket.”  Mostly, glass coffins were a passing fad, as they turned out to be extremely heavy indeed.  The Museum’s glass coffin weighs 500 pounds!

Whether you are inspired by color, pattern, nature, forms, or science, you will find sources of inspiration in the Rakow Research Library.  In documenting the history of this versatile substance, the Library has also assembled in its state-of-the-art collection rooms an encyclopedia of design and aesthetics, which are reflected often in the everyday objects of beauty and utility that artisans have crafted through the centuries.  We invite you to come find as-yet-undiscovered treasures in the vast collections of this unique library.


This article originally appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of The Flow and is reproduced here with the publication's permission.

Published on August 15, 2012

Regan Brumagen
Reference & Emerging Technology Services Librarian
As a member of the Rakow Library’s public services team, Regan Brumagen answers reference questions, coordinates e-reference and provides expertise and leadership in the identification, assessment, and recommendation of emerging technologies and...
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