The vibrant, shapely decanters, vases, and bowls turned out in the mid-20th century are as clearly beautiful as they are collectible.
In the two decades following World War II, glassware went wild. Decanters shaped like genies' bottles, amorphous bowls, and flamboyant pitchers became de rigueur. Turned out in Popsicle reds, acid yellows, and jewel-tone blues, it was as if glassblowers flipped a Technicolor switch. "These were the magic years," says Fritz Karch, Martha Stewart Living's collecting editor, "when glassblowers were at their most imaginative and creative." It also marked the final years of certain mineral-based colors, which were brighter than the synthetic hues that replaced them.
American, Scandinavian, and Italian colored glass took on exuberant forms after World War II. Most manufacturers never intended for these decanters to be filled with wine or spirits; they were marketed as decorative items. Indeed, some were produced on such a grand scale -- up to four feet tall -- that they would require several gallons of liquid (and be nearly impossible to pour from). Depending on their desirability and size, decanters now range from $150 to $1,500. "The trick is finding them with their original stoppers, which were often lost over time," says Karch.
Here, Italian examples, such as the tallest decanter, center, are displayed alongside American ones, such as the red Blenko piece with teardrop stopper, right, and one by Rainbow, second from left. Also shown is a rare scallop shell, right, blown from opalescent glass.
Most of this glassware was produced in the United States, Italy, and Scandinavia, but the industry in each region developed differently. In Italy, in the years between the two World Wars, the foundation for a glass renaissance was laid in great part by Paolo Venini, whose experiments with textures and colors gave rise to the magnificent Murano glass pieces produced after World War II. Glassmaking in Scandinavia developed in the years between the wars to become a major influence with its high design standards applied to mass-produced pieces. Having come out on the other side of two wars and the Great Depression to a thriving economy, Americans were optimistic, even giddy, and expressed this in fashion and design.
This bowl, by Murano's Barbini, was made by coating colored glass with clear glass.
The United States alone spawned more than 75 manufacturers, including Blenko Glass Company, the Fenton Art Glass Company, Pilgrim, Rainbow, Bischoff & Sons, and Viking Art Glass. And much of the glass made in Europe during this time landed in the United States. "The dollar was much stronger than it was before the war, and European manufacturers, facing a devastated economy, exported loads of mass-produced colored glass to the States to sell in department stores," Karch says.
America's newly flush middle class also began to travel overseas by cruise ships, which ferried passengers to the Continent's venerable glass factories. Near Venice, on the island of Murano, where the city's glassmaking companies had moved in the 13th century, tourists stocked up on distinctive pieces from companies such as Venini, Seguso Vetri d' Arte, Barbini, and Bitossi. In the Scandinavian countries, Orrefors, Iittala, Kosta, Holmegaard, and Riihimaki turned out diverse styles in the Pop Art vernacular that defined the period.
The colors in this sea of glassware were created using minerals. Cobalt, which has been found in ancient Egyptian colored glass, produced the rich blues. Chromium, which comes from the ore chromite, was responsible for the green hues. The shapes of these pieces are in some cases exaggerated versions of neoclassical designs. The two green-cased glass pieces, first and second from left, exemplify the Italian flair for the baroque. In contrast, Scandinavians tended to create more refined, minimalist pieces, including the blue and greenish-blue vases.
Many of the old factories, particularly in the United States, have been shuttered over the years. But the glass produced in the mid-1900s has survived every decorating trend to become a staple color statement by the world's interior designers -- and an affordable one at that. Pieces can go for anywhere from $5 to $200, excluding oversize and high-end Italian glass. Stickers can provide clues to the provenance of more common pieces, though labels on well-used glassware rarely survived repeated washings. Vases are generally the most widely available items, while pitchers, decanters, and jars are much harder to find intact. Still, even with the occasional missing stopper or dinged lip, this glassware looks as distinctive today as it did half a century ago. "The scale, the techniques, the colors," Karch says. "These pieces represent the last time great glass was mass-produced."
While vases, jars, and candlestick holders were clearly designed to be functional, some pieces from this time period were created as sheer ornament, as in the smiling fish sun catcher, left. Perhaps the most iconic piece is the hourglass, opposite, second from right, designed by Italian company Venini and released in a wide variety of colors over the years.
In the mid-20th century, glassblowers relied on old techniques to create innovative pieces. These techniques are still used by glassblowers today.
Molten glass is blown into a cage made of metal to produce a pattern.
Two layers of glass are blown and fused for a vibrant tone.
3. Controlled bubble and applied technique
The glassmaker strategically lets air bubbles into a piece of molten glass. The stem is blown separately and applied to the body.
Hot glass is plunged into cold water until it cracks and then passed through a flame to seal fissures.
Molten glass is blown into a mold, which results in pattern and texture.
Translucent glass with a matte finish is made by immersion in acid.
Slender rods of glass are melted together to make a swirl.
Pinched, puckered, fluted, or ruffled, candy dishes were often designed to show off artisans' whimsical sensibilities. "There are a lot of these wonderful little pieces floating around because they were the easiest to bring back from abroad," says Stephen Saunders, owner of the End of History, a vintage-glass shop in New York City. One of the most unusual pieces here is the clear free-form design, bottom left, by Winslow Anderson at Blenko, which looks as if it were cut from ice.
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