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Harvey Littleton

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Harvey Littleton

Harvey Littleton
Harvey Littleton, c. 1983
Harvey Littleton hot-working glass, c. 1983
Born June 14, 1922
Corning, New York
Died December 13, 2013(2013-12-13) (aged 91)
Spruce Pine, North Carolina
Other names Harvey Kline Littleton, Harvey K. Littleton
Alma mater University of Michigan
Occupation Artist, educator
Known for Founder, American studio glass movement

Harvey Littleton (June 14, 1922 – December 13, 2013) was an American Toledo Museum of Art. His aim was to take the manufacture of glass out of its industrial setting and put it within the reach of the studio artist.[2]

In his role as an educator, Littleton was an "...outspoken and eloquent advocate of university education in the arts."[3] He organized the first hot glass program at an American university (the University of Wisconsin–Madison) and promoted the idea of glass as a course of study in university art departments in the Midwest and northeastern United States. Several of Littleton's students went on to disseminate the study of glass art throughout the U.S., including Marvin Lipofsky, who started a glass program at the University of California at Berkeley[4] and Dale Chihuly, who developed the glass program at the Rhode Island School of Design and later was a founder of Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, Washington.[5]

Littleton retired from teaching in 1976 to focus on his own art. Exploring the inherent qualities of the medium, he worked in series with simple forms to draw attention to the complex interplay of transparent glass with multiple overlays of thin color.[6]

Early life

Harvey Kline Littleton was born in Corning, New York where his father, Dr. Jesse T. Littleton, Jr., was Director of Research for Corning Glass Works. A physicist, Dr. Littleton is remembered today as the developer of Pyrex glassware.[7] Harvey Littleton's introduction to the world of glass began when he was six. On Saturdays his father would take Harvey off his mother's hands for a few hours by bringing him to the laboratory. There he was turned over to the laboratory stockman who entertained him or, at least, kept the little boy out of trouble. At home, the properties of glass and its manufacture were frequent topics at the family dinner-table. Dr. Littleton was fascinated by glass and believed that the material had almost unlimited uses.[8]


When he was eighteen, Harvey Littleton enrolled at the University of Michigan to study physics.[9] His choice of major was influenced by his father, who wanted one of his children to follow him in his profession (Littleton’s two elder brothers chose medicine and business as careers; his sister was an industrial psychologist). According to Littleton, "I always thought I would be a physicist like my father".[10]

Littleton's interest in art began in high school, where he took life drawing and sculpture classes. He also took a sculpture class during his freshman year at the University of Michigan.[11] His growing preference for art eventually proved stronger than his respect for his father's wishes. After three semesters of physics he transferred to Cranbrook Academy of Art for its 1941 spring semester. There he studied under sculptor Marshall Fredericks and worked part-time as a studio assistant to Carl Milles.[11] Dr. Littleton was not pleased by his son's decision. Littleton enlisted his elder sister Martha's aid in pleading his case to their father, and a compromise was reached. Littleton would return to the University of Michigan that fall, but not to physics. The study of fine art was not part of the compromise; instead, Littleton agreed to major in industrial design.[12]

During summer break in 1942 Littleton worked as a mold maker at Corning Glass Works in the Vycor multiform project laboratory. There he cast his first work in glass, an academic torso, in white Vycor. That fall Littleton was forced to delay his education for three years when he was drafted into the U.S. Army Signal Corps. He served in North Africa and Italy and, near the end of the war, received a commendation for his work in encoding. In early 1946 he was in England, waiting his turn to be shipped home. To fill the time he attended classes at the Brighton School of Art, where he modeled and fired a small clay torso that he carried home in his barracks bag. Once back in Corning, New York, Littleton cast the torso, again in Vycor, as a small edition.[13]

He finished his degree in industrial design in 1947 at the University of Michigan. With his father's encouragement Littleton submitted a proposal to Corning to create a workshop within the factory to research the aesthetic properties of industrial glass.[14] The proposal was rejected and instead Littleton and two friends, Bill Lewis and Aare Lahti, opened a design studio in Ann Arbor.[15]

As a ceramist

A selection of Harvey Littleton's 1950s work in ceramics

In 1949 Littleton enrolled as a graduate student in ceramics at Cranbrook Academy of Art.[16] That same year, he accepted a position teaching ceramics at the Toledo Museum of Art School of Design commuting between Toledo, Ohio and Bloomfield Hills weekly. For that portion of the week that Littleton was in Toledo, he stayed at the apartment of artist Hal Lotterman. There, at one of Lotterman's Wednesday night poker games, Littleton met Dominick Labino, who would be important to the success of Littleton's first glass workshop a dozen years later.[17]

Littleton's production as a potter focused on functional stoneware that he sold in Chicago-area art fairs and in galleries from Chicago to New York City. His work was included in group shows in the United States, including "Designer Craftsmen U.S.A.," sponsored by the American Craft Council in 1953 and the Ceramic National exhibition at the Syracuse Museum of Art in 1954. His pottery gained international exposure in 1956 at the First International Exposition of Ceramics in Cannes, France.[18]


After earning his master's degree in ceramics, Littleton began teaching at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1951. In 1957 a university research grant allowed him to visit Europe, where he studied the influence of Islamic culture on contemporary Spanish pottery. However, he first stopped in Paris to visit Jean Sala, who had been recommended to Littleton as an artist who worked alone in glass.[19]

After four and a half months of research in Spain, Littleton visited the site of his war-time service in Naples. He was surprised to find seven small glass factories there. On a later visit to the island of Murano, he visited more than fifty glass factories. He was fascinated by the little demonstration furnaces that some of the factories placed outside their walls. The furnaces would be staffed by a couple of the factory's glassblowers, who would perform their craft for tourists. Prior to this Littleton believed that glass could only be made in an industrial setting, by a team of workers. His Murano experience convinced him that a single artist could melt and work glass in a private studio.[20]

Upon his return to his Verona, Wisconsin studio Littleton began melting small batches of glass in his ceramics kiln, using hand-thrown stoneware bowls as crucibles.[21] As a result of these experiments, the American Craft Council asked him to chair a panel on glass at its Third National Conference in 1958.[22] The panelists were glass artists and designers Michael and Frances Higgins and Earl McCutchen, who worked in laminated glass at the University of Georgia. Paul Perrot, director of the Corning Museum of Glass, was the fifth panelist.[23] By the time the American Craft Council convened its fourth conference in 1961, Littleton not only presented a paper on his own work in glass but also exhibited a sculpture made of three faceted pieces of cullet[24] that he had melted, formed and carved in the previous year. After the conference, Littleton began applying for grants to get his vision of a hot glass studio program off the ground.[25]

1962 glass workshop

In March 1962, Otto Wittmann, director of the Toledo Museum of Art, offered Littleton the use of a storage shed on the grounds of the museum for a one-week glassblowing workshop.

According to former student and Littleton biographer Joan Falconer Byrd, "Littleton brought a small pot furnace he had built at his farm and hooked it up in the museum garage with the help of Norm Schulman, pottery instructor at the museum school.[26] Dominick Labino, then director of research for Johns Manville Corporation...volunteered a low-melting glass formula."[27]

Because of a misreading of Labino's formula, the first batch of glass was ruined. Labino himself oversaw the conversion of the pot furnace into a day tank, supplying it with low-melting-point glass marbles he had developed for use in the production of fiberglass. This glass proved easy to work for glass blowing, and the workshop participants experimented with it in shifts for the remainder of the week. On the final day of the workshop, Harvey Leafgreen, a retired glassblower from the Libbey glass plant in Toledo, presented an unexpected two-hour demonstration of the craft.[27]

The ten attendees at the March 1962 Toledo workshop included Littleton, Dominick Labino, Norm Schulman, Tom McGlauchlin from the University of Iowa, Karl Martz from Indiana University, John Stephenson from the University of Michigan, William Pitney from Wayne State University, Clayton Bailey, Littleton's Graduate Assistant from the University of Wisconsin, artist Dora Reynolds and Edith Franklin, one of Schulman's ceramics students at the Toledo Museum of Art. A second, better advertised Toledo workshop that attracted more participants was held that June. Littleton, Labino, Leafgreen and Schulman shared teaching duties at the second workshop.[27]

Glass at the University of Wisconsin

In the summer of 1962 Littleton once again traveled to Europe, this time to research how glass was taught in universities there. He found nothing that he could bring back to the U.S. to help him educate art students at the University of Wisconsin. At that time, European glass programs were geared solely toward industrial production. Students were not taught hands-on techniques with the material; the craft of working with hot glass was still taught at the factories, under the apprenticeship system. What Littleton did find in Europe was a kindred spirit in glass art, the German Erwin Eisch, who is recognized today as a founder of European studio glass.[28] Eisch had set up a small work area in his family’s glass factory in Frauenau for the production of his own glass art. Trained as a fine artist in the academies of Germany, he was largely self-taught as a glass blower and at the time produced his work with the help of the factory’s craftsmen.[29]

Through the fall 1962 and spring 1963 semesters, Littleton taught glass in a garage at his Verona farm to six students under an independent study program. By the following year he had secured University of Wisconsin funding to rent and equip an off-campus glass department in Madison.[30] Through the University’s glass program, Littleton would train many prominent glass artists, including Bill Boysen, Dale Chihuly, Marvin Lipofsky, Fritz Dreisbach, Sam Herman, Tom McGlauchlin, Christopher Ries, Michael Taylor and Kent Ipsen.

With the launching of the first college glass department Littleton said that he "...became a kind of evangelist for the medium."[31] He gave lectures at university art departments throughout the midwest and northeast United States about the potential of glass as a medium for the studio artist. Littleton served as the chairman of the University of Wisconsin art department from 1964–1967 and from 1969–1971. He retired from teaching in 1976, and in 1977 was named professor emeritus. It was around this time that Littleton, in addition to his work in glass, began to develop the technique of vitreography — printmaking using glass plates.

"Technique is cheap"

In 1972 Littleton was at the Seventh National Sculpture Conference in Lawrence, Kansas when he uttered the words, "Technique is cheap." The statement touched off a debate that still finds currency among glass artists: Should technique, or content, take precedence in glass art?[32]

This was a question that Littleton had evidently been thinking about for some time. In his 1971 book, Glassblowing: A Search for Form, he wrote:

"The method used by the contemporary artist is a constant probing and questioning of the standards of the past and the definitions of the present to find an opening for new form statements in the material and process. It is even said that this search is an end in itself. Although knowledge of chemistry or physics as they apply to glass will broaden the artist’s possibilities, it cannot create them. Tools can be made, furnaces and annealing ovens can be built cheaply. But it is through the insatiable, adventurous urge of the artist to discover the essence of glass that his own means of expression will emerge."[33]

The offhand phrase "technique is cheap" soon took on a life of its own. For some it was a rallying cry to discover the inherent possibilities of a "new" medium for the artist; for others the statement expressed nothing more than arrogant disdain for the timeless value of craftsmanship. In a 2001 interview for the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, Littleton commented on what he termed the "misinterpretation" of the phrase:

"All I meant by that is that technique is available to everybody, that you can read technique, if you have any background. Technique in and of itself is nothing. But technique in the hands of a strong, creative person, like Voulkos or Dante Marioni, takes on another dimension."[34]

Behind this point is another, as expressed by writer and curator William Warmus: "It might even be argued that Littleton sought long-term to put the artist back in control of the factory, even as he sought to put the furnace into the artist’s studio."[35]

For Littleton, the epitome of technique vs. content was to be found in factory-made art glass, where the division of labor was inflexible. Traditionally the art glass designer was a draftsman who made a conceptual drawing for a glass object, and then passed it along to industry craftsmen for execution. According to Littleton, the factory designer “ frustrated by the peculiar misplacement of his skill, and his inclusion in a process where little experimentation or interference is permitted.[36] As for the factory craftsman, his training under the apprenticeship system "limited him to one phase in the production of glass. This training could not prepare anyone to function as an independent artist, but only to serve as a cog in the industrial machinery."[37]

Work in glass

Harvey Littleton, Yellow Ruby Sliced Descending Form (c. 1983) This four-part glass sculpture is typical of the artist's "Arc" forms

"Littleton's Yellow Ruby Sliced Descending Form, c. 1983

In 1962 Littleton’s first pieces in blown glass were, like his earlier works in pottery, functional forms: vases, bowls and paperweights. His breakthrough to non-functional form came in 1963 when, with no purpose in mind, he remelted and finished a glass piece that he had earlier smashed in a fit of pique. The object lay in his studio for several weeks before he decided to grind the bottom. As Littleton recounts in his book Glassblowing: A Search for Form, he brought the object into the house where "it aroused such antipathy in my wife that I looked at it much more closely, finally deciding to send it to an exhibition. Its refusal there made me even more obstinate, and I took it to New York ... I later showed it to the curators of design at the Museum of Modern Art. They, perhaps relating it to some other neo-Dada work in the museum, purchased it for the Design Collection."[38] This led to Littleton’s mid-1960s series of broken-open forms, and "Prunted," "Imploded" and "Exploded" forms.

These sculptures, especially the "Prunted," or "Anthropomorpic," forms were influenced by Littleton’s colleague Erwin Eisch, who visited and worked with Littleton in his Wisconsin studio for a month in late 1967. Several weeks after Eisch’s departure, Littleton realized that he had unconsciously adopted his friend's strongly personal figural style in his own work.[39] Littleton reacted to this discovery by turning to simple, clean shapes in 1968, forming tubes, rods and columns of glass that he cut and grouped together on bases of plate glass or steel.

Allowing the pull of gravity to stretch and bend hot glass while on the blowpipe or punty[40] led Littleton to his "Folded Forms" and "Loops" series, which continued until 1979. His "Eye" forms, also from the 1970s, take the form of concentric cups of various colors in diminishing sizes that nestle one inside the next.[41]

Littleton explored cutting and slumping industrial glass, including plate and optic glass, beginning in 1970. In sculptures such as Do Not Spindle and Distortion Box, slumped squares of glass are transfixed by a brass rod. In Rock Around the Clock, a bent piece of optic glass bar from Corning Glass Works in Danville, Virginia, can be set rocking on its bronze plate glass base with a touch of the hand.

Littleton incorporated optical lens blanks manufactured by Corning with his own hot-worked glass. In each case he sandblasted and cut the optical disc draping, and in one case piercing, the disc with fluid, cased glass forms.[42] These were followed, in 1978, by Littleton’s Solid Geometry series, in which heavy cased glass forms were cut into trapezoidal, spheroid and ovoid shapes and highly polished.[43]

Perhaps Littleton’s best known body of work is his "Topological Geometry" group of series, made between 1983 and 1989. Included under this heading are his signature "Arc" forms and "Crowns," as well as his late "Lyrical Movement" and "Implied Movement" sculptural groups. In 1989 chronic back problems forced Littleton to retire from working in hot glass.[44]

Public collections

Littleton's artwork is in the collections of museums worldwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City; Corning Museum of Glass, Detroit Institute of Arts, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Milwaukee Art Museum, Museum of Arts & Design, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Smithsonian Institution and the Toledo Museum of Art, among numerous others. Overseas his work is in Glasmuseet Ebeltoft in Denmark; Museum Bellrive in Zürich, Switzerland; Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam, Holland; National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto in Japan; Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art in Sapporo, Japan; the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; Glasmuseum Frauenau (Sammlung Wolfgang Kermer)[45] and the Decorative Arts Museums in Frankfurt, Hamburg, Prague and Vienna.[46]


Littleton was married to Bess Tamura Littleton in 1947.[47] She predeceased him on October 8, 2009.[48] The couple had four children: Carol L. Shay, Thomas Littleton, Maurine Littleton and John Littleton. All work in the field of glass art. Carol L. Shay is the curator at Littleton Studios; Tom Littleton owns and manages Spruce Pine Batch Company, which supplies batch (the dry ingredients of which glass is made) to artists and art departments around the U.S.; Maurine Littleton is the owner and director of Maurine Littleton Gallery[49] which specializes in glass art, in Washington, DC.[50] With his wife and collaborative partner, Kate Vogel, John Littleton is a glass artist in Bakersville, North Carolina.[51]

Harvey Littleton died on December 13, 2013, aged 91 at his home in Spruce Pine, North Carolina.[52][53]


  1. ^ Byrd, Joan (1984) “Harvey K. Littleton: A Retrospective Exhibition”, p. 6, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia 1984 ISBN 978-0939802203
  2. ^ Klein, Dan (2001) Artists in Glass: Late Twentieth Century Masters in Glass, p. 6 Mitchell Beasley, London 2001
  3. ^ Byrd, Joan (1980) "Harvey Littleton, Pioneer in American Studio Glass", p. 6, American Craft, Vol. 40 No. February 1/March 1980
  4. ^ Byrd (1984) p. 15
  5. ^ Klein (2001) pp. 9,10
  6. ^ Byrd (1980) p. 2
  7. ^ [1] "Pyrex", World Kitchen LLC accessed July 3, 2008
  8. ^ Byrd, Joan F. (2001) p. 3, "Interview of Harvey K. Littleton conducted by Joan Falconer Byrd, March 15, 2001", Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for Craft in America, Smithsonian Archives of American Art
  9. ^ Littleton's father had taught physics for two years at the University of Michigan prior to his employment at Corning Glass Works. June 11, 2008 conversation with Harvey Littleton.
  10. ^ Byrd (2001) p. 2
  11. ^ a b Byrd (2001) p. 3
  12. ^ Byrd (1984) p. 6
  13. ^ Byrd (1984) p.6
  14. ^ Byrd (1984) p.7
  15. ^ Byrd (2001) p. 10
  16. ^ Littleton studied ceramics under Finnish potter Maija Grotell
  17. ^ June 11, 2008 conversation with Harvey Littleton.
  18. ^ Byrd (1984) p. 23
  19. ^ Byrd (1984)
  20. ^ Grasberg, Stuart (1997) Harvey K. Littleton from Artseen!, video tape, Grasberg/Littleton, 2001
  21. ^ Byrd (1984) p. 9
  22. ^ The conference was held at Lake George, New York.
  23. ^ Michael and Frances Higgins began laminating and slumping glass in Chicago at their Higgins Glass Studio in 1948. In 1957 they began working as designers for the Dearborn Glass Company, where their functional objects were mass-produced. The Higginses were among the first American studio glass artists to be recognized in the international exhibition Glass 1959 at Corning Museum of Glass. Iovine, Julie (1999) "Michael Higgins, an Innovator in Glass Design, Is Dead at 90", The New York Times, March 7, 1999.
  24. ^ glass that has been melted and cooled. "Cullet" also refers to any waste or leftover glass. Littleton (1971) p. 142
  25. ^ Byrd (1984) p. 10
  26. ^ According to Harvey Littleton in his book, Glassblowing: A Search for Form, "Furnaces are of two types: pots and tanks. In a pot the glass is in a refractory container or clay pot; in the tank, the bottom of the furnace itself holds the glass." A day tank is charged each day that it is in use. Photos of a small day tank under construction are on p. 56.
    Littleton, H. (1971) "Glassblowing: A Search for Form" p. 55. ISBN 978-0442243418
  27. ^ a b c Byrd (1984) p. 11
  28. ^ Angus, Mark, "Erwin Eisch: My Life and Work", International Magazine of Studio Glass website, [2] Accessed 6/13/10
  29. ^ Eisch, Erwin (1992) “Harvey K. Littleton zum 70. Geburtstag” (unpaginated) Glasmuseum Frauenau, Frauenau, Germany 1992
  30. ^ Byrd (1984) p. 13
  31. ^ Grasberg (1997)
  32. ^ In glass sculptor Paul Stankard's words, "Is studio glass craft or art?" Stankard writes that he "...interpreted the statement ["Technique is cheap"] to mean that the idea was more important than the skilled virtuosity required to express it." Stankard, a well-known flameworker whose art lies in delicately rendered plant, insect and human forms encapsulated in crystal finds "...this philosophical approach to art-making in glass fascinating" but contrary to his own approach, where mastering a high level of skill was prerequisite to the execution of his ideas. " work demanded a commitment to technique, which was not cheap for me, because it required years of practice and experimentation to master..." Stankard, Paul (2007) p. 82 No Green Berries or Leaves, McDonald & Woodward Publishing Company, Blacksburg, VA ISBN 0-939923-55-6
  33. ^ Littleton (1971) p. 13
  34. ^ Byrd (2001) p. 23
  35. ^ Warmus, William (1998) "Harvey Littleton: Glass Master", p. 7, Urbanglass Quarterly, Special Harvey Littleton Issue, 72, Fall 1998
  36. ^ Littleton (1971) p. 17
  37. ^ Littleton (1971) p. 16
  38. ^ Littleton (1971) p. 134
  39. ^ Littleton (1971) p. 121
  40. ^ A blowpipe is a hollow steel tube used for gathering (taking molten glass from the furnace)and blowing glass. A punty is a solid steel rod. In addition to gathering glass from the furnace, it may be affixed with a bit of molten glass to the bottom of a blown glass object that is still attached to the blowpipe. After the blowpipe is struck from the glass object, the punty supports the object while it is reheated and its opening finished. Littlton (1971) p. 142
  41. ^ Byrd (1984) p. 46
  42. ^ Byrd (1984) p. 64
  43. ^ Byrd (1984) p. 72
  44. ^ Byrd (1984) p. 78
  45. ^ Alfons Hannes: Die Sammlung Wolfgang Kermer, Glasmuseum Frauenau: Glas des 20. Jahrhunderts; 50er bis 70er Jahre. Schnell & Steiner, München, Zürich 1989 (Bayerische Museen, Band 9) ISBN 3-7954-0753-2
  46. ^ Byrd (1984) p. 111
  47. ^ Byrd (1984) P. 7
  48. ^ Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers, Sunday, October 11, 2009, page B5
  49. ^
  50. ^ Brattner, Jesse "Kindred Spirits: The Littleton Family of Artists and Art Connoisseurs Find Their Own Connection to Art Glass," Florida Design, Vol. 17 No. 3, p. 72
  51. ^ Duncan (1995) unpaginated
  52. ^ In Memoriam: Harvey K Littleton. December 14, 2013
  53. ^ In Memoriam: Harvey K Littleton. December 15, 2013
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