Harvey K. Littleton and the American Studio Glass Movement

Harvey K. Littleton and the American Studio Glass Movement

Harvey Littleton is internationally acclaimed and recognized for his tireless work in  %%founding%% and promoting the American Studio Glass movement.  The movement was “born” in 1962, during two seminal glassblowing workshops at The Toledo Museum of Art.  The workshops were led by Littleton, a Cranbrook-trained ceramist and professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Dominick Labino, a glass research scientist at the Johns-Manville plant near Toledo, Ohio.  The aim of the workshops was to introduce artists to the use of hot glass as a material for contemporary art.

Harvey Littleton

How did Littleton and Labino give artists access to glass?  Although artists were already fusing glass in small studio kilns, hot glassworking techniques, such as glassblowing, moldblowing, and glass sculpting, required factory facilities.  Littleton and Labino’s secret was a small furnace, which Labino helped to develop, and a low temperature melting-point glass, which Labino supplied.  Littleton‘s impeccable organization and marshalling of funds, equipment, and artists, as well as his profound belief in the feasibility of studio glassblowing, insured the success of the workshops.

During the 1963 academic year, Littleton introduced the first university program for glass in the United States at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.  The interest that he and his students generated in glass was immediate, and Littleton encouraged his graduating students to go out, find academic employment, and start more glass programs. 

One of those students, studio glass pioneer Marvin Lipofsky, started glass programs at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964 and at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland in 1967.  Another student, the internationally known artist Dale Chihuly, went to study at the Rhode Island School of Design after leaving Madison.  After graduating, he headed the glass department there, from 1969 to 1980.  In a 1998 article on Harvey Littleton by William Warmus for GLASS Quarterly magazine , Dale Chihuly remembers:

Without a doubt, Harvey Littleton was the force behind the %%studio glass movement%%; without him my career wouldn't exist. He pulled in talented students and visiting artists; I used the same concept when I taught [at the Rhode Island School of Design].  Also, Harvey was a big thinker—if he wanted a special piece of equipment, he would spend the money; he taught us to think big instead of thinking small.  Some of that rubbed off on me. And he encouraged us to be unique—Harvey liked that.

With Littleton’s active encouragement and promotion, glass programs sprang up at universities, art schools, and summer programs across the country during the late 1960s and early 1970s.   From the 1970s through the 1980s, the %%Studio Glass movement%% became an international phenomenon.  What began nearly 50 years ago as a small group of artists who shared an unusual interest has grown into an international community of thousands. 

Harvey Littleton in Corning

Littleton was born in 1922 and raised in Corning, New York.  Throughout his childhood, he had many opportunities to observe glassworking processes and to learn about the properties of glass at the Corning Glass Works.  His father, Dr. Jesse T. Littleton, known as J.T., was an expert in the infrared properties of silicon and the first physicist to join the newly established research team at Corning Glass Works headed by Dr. Eugene C. Sullivan. 

J.T. Littleton often discussed the properties of glass as dinnertime conversation, and Saturday morning visits to the glassworks were routine for Littleton when he was young.  In 1936, he and his brothers witnessed, with his father and many others, the dramatic failure of the first casting of the 200-inch mirror for the Hale Telescope at Mount Palomar in California.     

Littleton’s mother, Bessie Cook Littleton, was instrumental in developing Corning’s Pyrex cookware.  J. T. Littleton had the idea that Corning’s low-expansion borosilicate glass, which had been developed for use in battery jars (used in rural areas before widespread electrification), could be used for cooking.  He took home a battery jar that had been cut into a round, shallow pan, and he convinced his wife to bake a cake in it.  Her success led to the development of Corning’s Pyrex housewares. 

As a college student, Littleton applied for summer employment at the Corning Glass Works’ Fall Brook plant, where he inspected mold-blown coffee %%pots%% that, at that time, still involved some production by hand.  Littleton recalls: “The beauty of the glowing form of the gather and the sinuous movement of the growing bulbous shape as it was readied for the mold by the gaffer has always remained vivid and clear in my memory.”

The following year, Littleton worked as a moldmaker in the Vycor multiform project laboratory, where Dr. Fred Bickford directed the production of experimental mechanical and electrical parts.  The multiform process involved slip-casting a powdered 96% silica glass and fusing the castings in a high-temperature furnace.  It was at this time, in 1942, that Littleton made the small  Vycor torso in the Museum’s collection.

J. T. Littleton was impressed by his son’s application of the multiform technology, and he encouraged him to submit a proposal to Corning Glass Works after his graduation from the University of Michigan in 1947, where he majored in industrial design.  Littleton’s idea was to establish an experimental studio at the factory, which would be open to every department and division for the development of new concepts.  Littleton remembers:

My idea was that there ought to be continuing, ongoing, aesthetic experimentation in material apart from production.  But [Corning Glass Works] didn’t buy my proposal. They believed that architects made the best designers, where you made your designs on paper and didn’t fool around with the material...I thought form was born in the material and in the hands of the artist, and that a pencil was a...poor substitute...[resulting] in a very obvious and simplistic solution.

At the time, Littleton was convinced that blowing glass outside the factory was out of the question.  This widespread belief was summarized by Steuben Glass designer Sidney Waugh, who wrote in The Making of Fine Glass (1947) that, “It must be emphasized that glassblowing as described on these pages is not within the scope of the amateur or even the most talented artist or craftsman working alone.”  In a 2008 interview, Littleton explained, “They really believed—everybody at Corning, and I included—that glass was an industrial material, and that it required a much bigger investment than was possible by the individual artist.  It wasn’t a material like clay that you could buy, or even mix. And then model, and fire.”

At this juncture, Littleton turned away from glass, which was “practically impossible,” to ceramics.  He earned an M.F.A. in ceramics at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1951, the same year that The Corning Museum of Glass opened to the public.  In the fall of 1951, Littleton joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. 

Littleton did not forget about glass, however, and in 1957, when he took a leave from teaching to study ceramics in Europe, he was introduced again to the idea of blowing glass in the studio.  In Paris, he visited the Catalonian artist Jean Sala.  Although Sala no longer worked in glass, “he mixed his batch, founded his glass, blew it, and decorated it at the furnace single-handed” for Littleton.  This visit was a turning point for him, as it proved that his idea of a one-man hot shop had validity. 

Later, Littleton traveled to Venice, where he spent two and a half months visiting nearly 60 small glassworks on the island of Murano.  He even tried his hand at glassblowing with the team at Fratelli Toso, and before leaving the island, he bought blowpipes and other tools that a hot glass studio would require.

Glass 1959 and Preparation for the Toledo Workshops

Littleton was inspired once more to turn his dream of glassblowing into reality upon seeing the exhibition, Glass 1959: A Special Exhibition of International Contemporary Glass, which was organized by The Corning Museum of Glass.  The exhibition—and especially the American design—was a disappointment to Littleton, and in a 1959 letter to Harold J. Brennan, head of the School of American Craftsmen at the Rochester Institute of Technology, he wrote:

Design in this field has been so sterile and all attempts to instill life and freedom have been blocked by the seemingly insurmountable problem of the designer-artisan relationship.  In pottery, this was solved by combining the two in the artist-potter.  As a teacher, I am burning to prove that the “mystery” of glassworking is as teachable to artists as we have proven the mysteries of pottery were.

Brennan agreed, replying to Littleton that, “our glass lacks the manner and conviction of the best Scandinavian and Italian glass; indeed, our work is a rephrasing largely of Orrefors.”  

Later that year, Littleton attended the national conference of the American Craft Council, where he spoke about his trip to Europe and his own experiments with glassblowing.  While he was convinced of the potential of glassblowing in the studio, other members challenged him to make his vision a reality.  Littleton left the conference determined “to develop the techniques necessary for a person to work alone as an artist in glass,” and that summer, he built his first glass furnace.

In 1960, Littleton applied to the Guggenheim Foundation for funding, in support of  his proposal for a university program in glassblowing, and wrote that, “Glass as a material was in the mainstream of the arts of the past, but has now been diverted to a backwash area of semi-industrial catalogue items as uniform throughout the world as peas in a pod.”  In his endorsement of Littleton’s proposal, Otto Wittmann, director of The Toledo Museum of Art, stated:

Harvey Littleton’s project seems to me to be among the most interesting and exciting to come to my attention in many years. He has the background, the technical ability, the point of view which could produce the beginning of a new craft.

To Littleton, Wittmann, wrote, “I do hope you would give serious thought to spending the year, or at least part of it, with us here. It seems an ideal place to experiment.”

At the American Craft Council conference in 1960, Littleton announced his intention to attempt to “take a group of five graduate students in independent study...in 1962-1963...and explore some of the glassworking methods...within the framework of the graduate program of the University of Wisconsin.”  To prepare for this program, Littleton took Wittmann up on his offer and approached him with the idea of holding two experimental glass workshops at The Toledo Museum of Art in March and June of 1962.  Wittmann agreed, and American studio glassblowing became a reality.   

Littleton, Erwin Eisch, and Early Studio Glass

After the success of the Toledo Workshops, Littleton received approval for his   independent study course in glassmaking at the University of Wisconsin, which was slated to start in the 1963 academic year.  A critical element of Littleton’s goal to introduce glass to artists in their studios was the introduction of glassblowing into American art school and university curricula. This would insure that glass would gain acceptance as a medium for art, rather than as a material only suitable for industry.

As former Corning curator William Warmus remarked in a 1998 article on Littleton for GLASS Quarterly magazine, “The %%founding%% of studio glass may today seem obvious, even conservative, but almost everything about glassmaking is risky and difficult, and in 1962 the outcome was far from assured.” 

In the summer of 1962, Littleton traveled again to Europe.  While visiting Germany, and its well known glass school in the Bavarian town of Zwiesel, Littleton happened upon a “squashed” vase made by the artist and glassblower Erwin Eisch.  Like Littleton, Eisch had grown up surrounded by glassmaking, which was a 300-year old tradition in his family.  Eisch and his brothers had started a glass factory in the nearby town of Frauenau, and when Littleton visited there, he was shown a room full of Eisch’s work.  On seeing it, Littleton remembers that it was like “being hit over the head with a hammer.”  In a 2001 interview with Joan Byrd for the Nanette Laitman Project of the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Littleton recalls:

I saw [Eisch’s] work and I realized that he was doing what I wanted to do – play with the glass, to make forms that had no other reason for being than that he wanted to make them. Function was something to be used or not used. Totally free. Free with glass, glass. . . you know, the story in Corning was that it took 20 years to make a glassblower. Well, I said you could teach somebody to blow glass in three weeks.

Littleton and Eisch became close friends and colleagues, with Eisch playing a role in European studio glass similar to Littleton’s in American glass.  Both men encouraged young artists to take up the material, and to use it and develop it as a medium for art.

Littleton’s goals for American studio glassblowing are summed up in a letter that he wrote in 1963 to his colleague and friend, Dominick Labino, who had done so much to insure the success of the Toledo Workshops:

I again wish to say that we appreciate the help that Johns-Manville has given us in donating the “475” glass marbles to make possible this renaissance of an almost forgotten art form...There has been an increasing public response to the revival of glassworking by the individual artist.  The artist has been shut off from this material too long and design for industry without the artistic stimulus has become increasingly sterile...My aim has been to demonstrate that the modern potter, artist-craftsman, teacher, could easily learn the skills of working with hot glass, develop equipment, and develop techniques for working alone. And further, that there were unique possibilities for aesthetic expression in this material that were beyond the limits of economic industrial production.

Objects in Founders of American Studio Glass

The Museum’s exhibition, Founders of American Studio Glass: Harvey K. Littleton, on view November 17, 2011 – January 6, 2013, features 19 vessels and sculptures and five vitreographs (prints made from glass plates) spanning the arc of Littleton’s career in glass from the 1960s through the 1980s. 

The earliest objects in the exhibition are two experimental cast female torsos (^^78.4.38^^ and ^^2008.4.105^^ ), dating to 1942 and 1946, which are the first works in glass made by Littleton. The torsos are made of a high-silica Vycor glass, and they were executed during Littleton’s brief employment at Corning Glass Works. Also featured are glass vessels from the early 1960s, dating to the years just after the seminal Toledo Workshops in 1962. This group includes two early vases (^^2008.4.104^^ and ^^2001.4.256^^) , made in 1963, one of which is representative of the very simple, basic glass forms characteristic of early American studio glass. The other vase, made of blue cased glass, is more technically accomplished, and reflects Littleton’s increasing confidence with the material. 

In 1966, the Museum collected its first pieces by Littleton, which were both made in 1965 (^^66.4.47^^ and ^^66.4.46^^).  One small vessel decorated with silver oxide, a purchase, has become an iconic representation of early American %%studio glass%%.  A small round bottle, made of copper ruby glass tinted with silver oxide, was made by Littleton and donated to the Museum in memory of his father.

At the end of the 1960s, Littleton re-evaluated his work, making the decision to turn away from the vessel in favor of sculptural work based on a vocabulary of geometric forms.  The exploration of columns and tubes, color, and motion in glass occupied him for the rest of his career. The 1968 sculpture, %%Cut%% Cylinders, and the 1969 sculpture, Eye (^^2007.4.166^^), reflect this new direction in Littleton’s work in glass.  All of the blown glass from this period was made with the low temperature melting-point Johns Manville #475 glass marbles originally supplied by Dominick Labino. 

Technical refinement, experimentation with material, and the exploration of color and motion characterize Littleton’s work from the 1970s, which ranges from small vessels to large-scale sculpture.  An experimental melt of selenium glass was used to form the Selenium Amber %%Cut%% Vase made in 1974, while commercially produced plate glass was slumped to form Upward Undulation (^^79.4.145^^), one of Littleton’s first studies in motion.  Distortion Box, also made in 1974, further explores the manipulation by Littleton of plate glass inside the kiln.

Foursquare (^^75.4.54^^), made in 1975, is one of the “Eye Forms” series of sculptures that began with the 1969 Eye (^^2007.4.166^^) sculpture in the Museum’s collection.  The series was inspired by Littleton’s interest in the refractive properties of glass.  As Littleton explains it, “The cut surface lets you see into the wall of the hemisphere, and the light is concentrated by the curving sides and reflected back out the cut edge.  This gives a rich, deep, intense colored circle of light.” 

At the same time, Littleton began his studies in printing on glass plates, a new concept that he called vitreography.  Having begun to try his hand at sandblasting plate glass, it occurred to him that the strength of glass under compression made it ideal for printmaking.  With the reluctant assistance of one of his old friends, a printmaker at the University of Wisconsin, Littleton inked one of the sandblasted  plates and ran it through the etching press.  The first plate broke, but Littleton was not deterred.  Trial II is one of the first successful prints that Littleton made with his printing on glass technique.  Later, he discovered that printmaking with glass had previously been attempted in the mid 19th-century, but that it was a short-lived effort.  Littleton continued to make his vitreographs, and to invite other artists to make them, through the 1990s. 

In 1977, Littleton retired from teaching and moved from Verona, Wisconsin to Spruce Pine, North Carolina, where he lives today.  In his new studio, he switched from melting his own colors to the German Kugler color bars, which gave him a much broader palette.  He began making the “Loop” sculptures—such as the Museum’s 1978 Interrupted Loop Series sculpture—in which he continued to explored color, movement, and form.  The 1977 sculpture, Inverted Tube/Cut Line (^^82.4.76^^), was included in the Museum’s 1979 traveling exhibition, New Glass: A Worldwide Survey. While he was making this series of work at the furnace, Littleton also experimented with kiln-forming.  For Pile Up (^^80.4.8^^), made in 1979, Littleton salvaged rejected glass blanks manufactured by Corning Glass Works.

In the late 1970s, Littleton began his next body of work that would become his most well-known. The color overlays that he used in his “Loops” series sparked his interest in color and in the relationships between colors that he might develop.  Some of these ideas were worked out in the Origami prints, made in 1983.  In these prints, inspired by light as it is seen through a glass prism, Littleton achieved his goal of making “a print that looked like it had come from glass, that there was some transparency.”  At the furnace, he made small solid sculptures that combined layers of color with a brilliant colorless glass.  These evolved into the long, twisted and bent sculptures made of thick, solid tubes of glass enclosing layers of color, such as the 1984 Red/Amber Sliced Descending Form (^^2007.4.168^^).

Ruby Conical Intersection with Amber Sphere Harvey K. Littleton (American, b. 1922) United States, Spruce Pine, North Carolina, 1984 Hot-worked and cased glass, cut, assembled H. 27.4 cm, W. 19.5 cm, D. 9.7 cm Collection of The Corning Museum of Glass (2007.4.169, gift of the Ben W. Heineman Sr. Family)With the artist Gary Beecham, who assisted Littleton in the making of the larger sculptures, Littleton began a series of veiled pieces in which two glass forms, each at a different temperature, were forcibly combined by shoving a cooler, hardened cone-shaped piece into a hotter and softer ovoid form.  This action created a distinctive distortion of the overlays, which is seen in the 1984 Ruby Conical Intersection with Amber Sphere (^^2007.4.169^^).  Blue Projectile Impact, made in 1984, also suggests a forced pairing, but in this %%case%%, the impact was made into the bulletproof glass by a bullet from a high-caliber rifle, rather than by a glass “projectile.”

The latest sculpture in the exhibition, Gold and Green Implied Movement (^^2006.4.112^^), reflects the gradual decrease in hot shop activity for Littleton, who had turned 65 in 1987.  The long, thin cased forms of the “Implied Movement” and “Lyrical Movement” series were easier for Littleton to manipulate, but they still required him to move quickly with the hot glass, emphasizing “action-reaction, and the force of heat and gravity.”  Littleton stopped working with hot glass, for the most part, in September, 1990.

Littleton, founder and promoter of American studio glass led by example.  Taking glass as his subject matter, he spent a lifetime investigating its properties and experimenting with form and color.  His studies took the form of unique, original, and complex works that document an extraordinary career.


Most of the research material for this exhibition comes from a new biography on the artist by Joan Falconer Byrd, titled “Harvey K. Littleton: A Life in Glass (Skira/ Rizzoli, New York, 2011), which is available in the Museum’s GlassMarket.

Published on October 18, 2011