Founders of American Studio Glass: Dominick Labino

Founders of American Studio Glass: Dominick Labino

At the time that [studio glassworking] began, not one of us involved was aware of the speed with which it would spread. Not only nationally, but internationally.

— Dominick Labino, undated manuscript

Dominick Labino’s contributions to 20th-century glassmaking were wide-ranging and innovative. Although Labino is best known for his role, with Harvey Littleton, in the pivotal 1962 Toledo studio glass workshops, he made significant advances in both the art and the science of glass.

As an artist, Labino produced sculptures that were featured in many museum and gallery exhibits, helping to place studio glass in the public eye. One of the glass sculptures in his Emergence series, for example, was selected for the cover of National Geographic in December 1993

As an inventor and scientist, Labino developed pure silica fibers that were used to insulate NASA spacecraft, making it possible for Apollo astronauts to reach the moon. In all, Labino was awarded 60 U.S. and foreign patents for glass furnaces, tools, and machinery.

Labino has had a lasting influence on scientific and studio glass.  His experiments with color, glass composition, and furnace construction propelled glass in new directions.

Personal History

Labino was born in 1910 in Clarion, Pennsylvania.  At the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, he studied mechanical and electrical technologies. During his freshman year, he created the “world’s smallest engine,” a minute electric motor that he kept inside the shell of a hickory nut and carried in his pocket.  “I worked nearly 10 months completing the motor,” the 19-year-old Labino told a newspaper reporter. “It is three-eighths inches high, its base is one-fourth inches square, and it develops about one-half gnat power.”

An editor at Popular Mechanics wrote to Labino, asking him to diagram a small engine made of paper clips. The resulting article, published in 1931, described how anyone could make an engine from thumbtacks, paper clips, and copper wire—and all for just a penny.

After graduation, Labino was hired by the glass manufacturer Owens-Illinois. From 1934 to 1940, he worked at the company’s container manufacturing plant in Clairion, Pennsylvania. His responsibilities included supervising batch and furnaces, and experimenting with glass formulas and glassmaking equipment.

He married Juletta Blanche Murphy in 1935. In 1946, after the death of his wife, Labino and his two daughters moved to Ohio, where he began his career in the fiberglass industry. He married Libby Ann Elizabeth Smith in 1949.

At the Waterville, Ohio, plant of Glass Fibers Inc., Labino designed the furnace and made the first glass fibers for the company. He also worked with refractories and on technologies for pot and burner development for flame-blown fibers. In 1952, he developed the first glass paper from quartz fibers. Labino’s glass fibers were used, most notably, to insulate NASA spacecraft from the Apollo missions in the 1960s and 1970s to project to the space shuttle program that began in 1981 and ended July 21, 2011.

The company became Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Fibers in 1955, and four years later, the name was changed to Johns Manville Fiberglass. As vice president and director of research and development, Labino created new glass compositions, burners, manufacturing processes, glass wool, pots, housings, and insulation.  He retired in July 1965.  Although he continued to serve as a research consultant for Johns Manville, he turned his focus to studio glass.

Early Work in Glass and the 1962 Toledo Museum of Art Workshops

Dominick Labino

Labino first attempted to blow glass at Owens-Illinois in 1940.  Later, when he was at Johns Manville, he built a furnace at home. By 1960, he had melted a batch of glass and created a primitive blowpipe. Seven years later, he applied for a patent for a paperweight-making technique he had developed.

In early 1962, Labino received a letter inviting him to attend an experimental glass workshop to be held at The Toledo Museum of Art from March 23 to April 1 of that year. Harvey K. Littleton, a friend of Labino’s and a ceramics professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, had begun to investigate the possibility of glass as a medium for artistic expression in the late 1950s. By October 1961, Littleton had secured the Toledo museum as the venue for a glassblowing workshop. In this seminar, with Labino’s help, Littleton introduced the idea that glass could be blown and worked by an artist in a studio, outside the glass industry.

The first melting of batch at the workshop was unsuccessful. Labino suggested adding a hard brick liner to the furnace and using Johns Manville #475 fiberglass marbles instead of batch, which solved the problem. “The results of this five-day seminar were meager in number and crude in appearance,” Labino noted.  “But the enthusiasm was high, the hot glass intriguing, and at the end of that session, plans were already being made for another [workshop].”

In a 1966 letter to the editor of The Craftsman, published in St. Louis Missouri, Littleton wrote: “Mr. Labino has been most generous in sharing his broad technical background with the artist-craftsman and many of our current effects we owe directly to his advice and encouragement. In turn, we have attempted to encourage Mr. Labino to develop as a creative artist in glass. This exchange between a researcher in modern industry and the artist has been most fruitful and it is certainly an exciting guide for development in all craft media.” 

Labino and Studio Glass

Dominick Labino Emergence

Labino’s introduction of a small, portable furnace capable of melting glass at low temperatures was crucial to the development of studio glass, providing artists easy access to glass and glassblowing techniques.

Labino continued to work in studio glass, and to encourage its development by artists and by university programs, until his death in 1987. His influential book, Visual Art in Glass (1968), was an important early reference for studio glass artists, collectors, and other enthusiasts. Placing studio glass in the context of glass history, the book included discussions of the compositions and colors of ancient and modern glass, the history of glassmaking from ancient Egypt to the 20th century, the glass industry in the United States and Europe, and the early studio glass movement. 

Littleton and Labino continued a rich collaboration after the 1962 workshops. At Johns Manville, Labino supported cash grants and donations of #475 fiberglass marbles to help establish Littleton’s glass program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The marbles developed by Labino remained an essential element of early studio glass, and he ensured that Johns Manville would sell the marbles to both university programs and independent artists.

In his own studio, Labino produced blown and hot-worked glass, formulated his own glass compositions and colors, and designed and built his own furnaces, annealing ovens, glassblowing tools, and finishing equipment. Students were always welcome. His comprehensive research of glass and glassmaking included investigations of historical techniques, such as the early core-forming process and the unusual dichroic composition of the renowned Lycurgus Cup, dating to the fourth century, in The British Museum in London. 

Published on October 21, 2011