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Premier Glassmaker Steuben Looks Back at 100 Years of Glamour and Art - 2003-11-26

One of the world's premier glassmakers, Steuben, is celebrating its 100th anniversary by looking back to a period when the company's image was linked to the glamour of New York City and modern industrial design.

An exhibition of 200 objects taken from private and museum collections all over the world is showcasing Steuben's glory years, from the 1930s until 1960, years when the company promoted the clear, streamlined crystal that remains its trademark today. It was a time when much of the world was infatuated with modernism, be it in art, architecture, fashion or industry. Donald Albrecht served as curator for the centennial show currently at the Museum of the City of New York. He says Steuben promoted the modernist idea of combining function and beauty.

"Steuben at one point advertised its objects as being as characteristic of modern life as the airplane and the skyscraper," he explained. "One of the reasons is because this glass was an industrially produced glass."

Mr. Albrecht says the company also stressed its ties to New York City, a center of modern design, with publicity campaigns in fashionable magazines and newspapers. "Basically, what they promised you is if you bought a piece of Steuben glass, you bought a chunk of Manhattan glamour," he said.

The original company, begun in 1903, took its name from its home in Steuben County, New York. In 1918 the large Corning Glass Company bought it, but the name Steuben has remained with the decorative arts branch. Corning had developed a revolutionary glass process for use by the optical industry. Called 10M, the process produced a glass of great clarity. In the mid-1930s, Corning decided to try boosting Steuben's flagging sales by abandoning frosted and colored glass in favor of the clear glass produced by 10M.

Patricia Marti, head of public relations for Steuben, says 10M produces the world's finest crystal.

"It is a formula that allows the full spectrum of light to pass through the glass," she said. "Because our crystal allows the full spectrum to pass through, it is much more glittery, much more refractive and reflective than other types of glass."

In 1937, Steuben took its modern and artistic image further, commissioning world famous artists such as Salvador Dali and Henri Matisse to create art objects.

"Matisse agreed to do drawings for Steuben, which would then be engraved into Steuben glass. Steuben decided to enlarge this idea and have a whole series, what ended up being called '27 Artists in Crystal.' In addition to Matisse, they commissioned 26 other artists to do drawings and those drawing would be the basis of what was engraved," she said. "They included people like Georgia O'Keefe, Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, Isamu Noguchi, Salvador Dali."

In its preparations for the 100th anniversary celebration, Steuben tried to locate all 27 of the crystals done by the artists. After a worldwide search, 15 of the original 27 were found. Steuben is still searching for the remaining dozen.

Many of the art objects blend the romantic and the modern with engravings carved into the glass, presenting a three-dimensional image. Steuben's art glass became so popular that the company stopped making functional pieces. But Steuben president Marie McKee says beautiful functional items in the exhibition influenced her decision to reintroduce a line of functional glass this year.

"We have a wonderful rich heritage of functional items. I felt it was very important to bring back those functional items or to create new functional items," she said.

For it anniversary, Steuben is also showing off its crystal treasures at its store gallery in New York City and at its glass museum in Corning, New York.