The Best of Midcentury Modern Glass

Otto Brauer -'Gulvvase' series for Kastrup-Holmegaard anni '60 - Eight 'Gulvvase' vases for Kastrup-Holmegaard 1960s. Otto Brauer -'Gulvvase' series for Kastrup-Holmegaard anni '60 - Eight 'Gulvvase' vases for Kastrup-Holmegaard 1960s. Sold for €1,300 EUR via Aste Bolaffi (Nov 2022).

It was the celebrated Midcentury American designer Charles Eames who said, “The details are not the details, they make the design” and while his furniture understandably hogs the limelight during that period, it’s Midcentury Modern glass that embodies his philosophy perfectly.

From Alvar Aalto’s Midcentury Modern vase to Allesandro Pianon’s bird ornaments, Midcentury Modern glass redefined expectations of glassware thanks to its sculptural detail, organic shapes, and its ability to refract natural light, with the same approach applied to everyday glass as it was to fancy decorative pieces. Essentially, it democratised glass production for the masses.

Blenko Glass Company collection of 27 vases.

Blenko Glass Company collection of 27 vases. Sold for $3,328 via Wright (September 2015).

The Midcentury style was developed in the 1930s, but it was in the years following World War II when the movement became most popular, through until the early 1970s. And at the heart of the movement was the Midcentury ideal that artistry in glass can be enjoyed while being used – an ethos which was applied with great success on two continents.

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Midcentury Modern Glass in America

Higgins Glass Studio Blue and Yellow Flower Bowl.

Higgins Glass Studio Blue and Yellow Flower Bowl. Sold for $70 via Atlanta Auction Gallery (December 2022).

Many famous names in Midcentury Modern glass emerged across the pond in Europe in the post-war years, as they added a delicate flair to Midcentury Modern glassware. It wasn’t just the preserve of the Europeans though, as the US produced a number companies, whose items have become increasingly collectible in recent years.

One such home-grown company that developed a collectible following its Midcentury Modern glass in America is Higgins, which has come a long way since it was founded in 1948, when Michael and Frances Higgins set up kilns behind the sofa of their Chicago apartment. Famed for pioneering the ancient art of glass fusing, which had largely been abandoned by the mid-20th century in favour of glass blowing, the Higgins ‘glass sandwich’ became a characteristic process that required one piece of enamel-coated glass laid over another and placed on a heated mold. This process added texture and color complexity to their glasswork, which transformed everyday items, like bowls and plates, through an arresting mix of geometric and curved lines, and bold use of color, into useful objects that were visually vibrant and exciting.

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Similarly, Blenko glass also enjoys a favorable reputation for producing a spectrum of Midcentury Modern glass colors with the help of designers like Wayne Husted and Joel Philip Myers, who established glassware to complement the groovy Midcentury Modern décor of the era. Among their oeuvre were large, stoppered decanters, vases and Midcentury Modern wine glasses with select pieces marked in the glass by Blenko. Keep a keen eye though as most only had a Blenko foil sticker when new, meaning that recognizing their vivid colors today isn’t always easy.

Elsewhere, the Hungarian-born American industrial designer, Eva Zeisel – who was largely known for her work with ceramics – transformed Heisey as art director in the 1950s with her Modernist approach. Like her ceramic pieces, even though her designs won many awards, they didn’t sell well, meaning they’re hard to find today and equally highly prized.

Midcentury Modern European Glass

Paolo Venini - Blue Venini Glass Vase.

Paolo Venini – Blue Venini Glass Vase. Sold for €300 via Fondaco Aste (June 2021).

While Midcentury Modern design is synonymous with Charles and Ray Eames’ pioneering design philosophy and enduringly modern approach, when it came to glass, it was the Europeans that embraced the form in a riot of color, with Italian glass holding a particular iconic status.

Paolo Venini is perhaps the most famous Italian name among modern glass collectors, as in the years following World War II his designs became increasingly coveted with artists like Fulvio Bianconi and Carlo Scarpa collaborating with Venini to create some of the most desirable Midcentury Modern glass pieces.

Dino Martens, Oriente for Aureliano Toso, Murano Art Glass.

Dino Martens – Oriente for Aureliano Toso, Murano Art Glass. Sold for $22,000 via Ripley Auctions (April 2023)

Similarly, Dino Martens’ designs for Aureliano Toso captivated collectors of Midcentury Modern glass since his first collaboration in 1939. The renowned painter’s designs are famous for his use of Aventurine (a form of quartz), filigree canes, and multi-colored murrines, but it’s his Oriente range that remains among the most popular at auction. Fontana Arte is another Italian glasshouse that typified the county’s luxurious and expressive use of color in subtly tinted glass, but on the other side of the continent, a Scandinavian cool approach to glassware proved so popular that it spawned a host of imitators.

Alvar Aalto - Savoy vase, model 3030.

Alvar Aalto – Savoy vase, model 3030. Sold for $500 via Wright (January 2023).

Midcentury Modern vases in Scandinavia

The rise in popularity of Midcentury Modern vases was given a stylised kick-start in 1936 by one of the most influential architects of Nordic modernism, Alvar Aalto. His Aalto vase (Savoy) was first displayed at the 1937 Paris World Exposition and since then it’s become an iconic symbol of Midcentury Modern glassware that has a proven longevity as it’s still being produced at the Iittala glassworks in Finland.

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Over the border, Strombergshyttan has remained as one of the most popular makers of Midcentury glass in Sweden thanks to its eye-catching blue-silver tone that allowed the restrained elegance of its vases to shine, even with a slightly muted color pallet when compared to its European competitors. Equally, Orrefors earned a reputation for the quality of their Midcentury Modern deigns with their bulbous decanters and range of blown glass light fixtures, which were often produced in muted tones of olive green and smoky gray.

GUNNEL NYMAN Swedish art glass "Sharks Tooth" vase for Strombergshyttan. Sold for AUD $320 via Leski Auctions Pty Ltd (November 2021).

Gunnel Nyman – “Sharks Tooth” vase for Strombergshyttan. Sold for AUD $320 via Leski Auctions Pty Ltd (November 2021).

It’s the blown glass of Riihimäki in Finland that is among the most popular though thanks to the unique shape of many of the vases. Distinctive and often instantly recognisable, the largely cylindrical vases with typical bulges and indentations help to break up the straight lines of its glassware, which has earned it many fans over the years.

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Midcentury Modern British Glass

A Whitefriars Textured range Meadow Green Drunken Bricklayer vase.

A Whitefriars Textured range Meadow Green Drunken Bricklayer vase. Sold for £320 via Sworders (February 2023)

Battered and bruised in the years following World War II, it’s no surprise that Britain embraced the color of the Swinging Sixties to escape the bomb damaged reality of its day to day. And while England might not spring to mind as the center of mid-century cool glassware design, Whitefriars produced a range of memorable pieces through the 1950s and 60s, with their Textured line (introduced in 1967) proving most popular among its fans.

Made using unconventional materials like nails, scraps of wood, and bits of wire to form the textures found in the glass, one of the company’s most popular vase styles is the Banjo vase, while the icy-looking Glacier vase that draws on the Scandinavian tradition also remains hotly collectible.

A Geoffrey Baxter for Whitefriars textured 'Zig-Zag' vase.

A Geoffrey Baxter for Whitefriars textured ‘Zig-Zag’ vase. Sold for £65 via Wokingham Auctions (April 2019).

And like its European neighbors, British design in the 1950s in particular showcased a new hope and approach to life amid the gloom of the previous war torn wears. British glass designer, Geoffrey Baxter created some iconic pieces for Whitefriars Glass, which were exhibited at The Festival of Britain in 1951. His Drunken Bricklayer and Bark vases remain as exciting today as they were in the middle of the century, as they captured the spirit of the Pop Art movement, which had a distinct, exciting, and new influence on the color of glass from the period.

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Pop Art-Influenced Colored Glass

As the Pop Art movement made its mark on the art world, it also had an impact on glassware. From Midcentury Modern wine glasses to vases, drinking glasses, and more, a number of glassware producers are famed for adding a popular, mass produced splash of color to everyday use.

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Among the glass designers to experiment with more colorful glass influenced by Pop Art was Allesandro Pianon with his quirky bird designs for Vistosi glassworks. The five birds stood on black wire legs in a minimalist style, allowing the bursts of color in the body to shine. They still command high prices today and can achieve up to $5,000 at auction. A range of Scandinavian designers were also influenced by the Pop Art movement, and factories like Holmegaard in Denmark and Kosta Boda in Sweden experimented with colored glass, but it’s the Ariel technique, in which an image is suspended in the glass wall of a cased vase that has enjoyed the greatest longevity after first being developed by Edvin Öhrström in the 1930s.

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Allesandro Pianon - "Pulcini" Art Glass Bird.

Allesandro Pianon – “Pulcini” Art Glass Bird. Sold for $4,000 via Uniques & Antiques (April 2019).

While these innovations don’t perhaps have the same resonance today, at the time they transformed everyday items into exciting pieces infused with an artistic quality. And as the king of Pop Art, Andy Warhol so succinctly said, “You need to let the little things that would ordinarily bore you suddenly thrill you.”

Midcentury Modern Legacy

Experimenting with new glass making techniques, new designs, and Pop Art infused splashes of color, Midcentury Modern glassmaking helped elevate and transform simple everyday items into something far more special than their purpose required.

And not only did this have an effect on the glassmaking industry, but on the modern consumer too, who steadily grew an appreciation of the value of good design as they carved out a new approach to modern living. This was exaggerated by an emerging society that was both flush with spending power and a renewed aspiration as the economy grew in the years after WWII in the US, which in turn resulted in a huge growth in mid-century modern glass design and production.

Vistosi Art Glass Chick.

Vistosi Art Glass Chick. Sold for $1,998 via Skinner (June 2004).

Today, mid-century modern glass remains one of the hottest forms of collectible glass on the market. In fact, mid-century modern design in general is enjoying a renaissance and continues to influence modern designers of the 21st-century. The fusion of new technology and cutting-edge techniques with sculptural detail and organic shapes have made items like Midcentury Modern drinking glasses coveted pieces, as consumers continue to enjoy that level of detail and artistry in everyday items. And this Midcentury ideal that artistry in glass can be enjoyed on a day-to-day basis has ensured that original pieces continue to rise in price at auction, as we all seemingly enjoy adding that Andy Warhol “thrill” to our everyday.

Sources: Living Etc. | The Spruce Crafts | | | | |