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The History of Glass V10 | European Glass Designers of the 20th Century

European Glass Designers of the 20th Century

By Dr Jessamy Kelly, glass artist and educator

In this month’s blog post we will explore a series of renowned European glass designers, architects and artists who worked with the glass industry from the 1920s onwards.

Figure 1 Savoy Vase, Alvar Aalto, manufactured by the Ittala Glassworks, Finland. Designed 1936. Collection of the Corning Museum of Glass (97.3.62).

We will examine the work of Simon Gate and Edward Hald from the Orrefors Glass Factory in Sweden; Alvar Aalto, Timo Sarpaneva, Tapio Wirkkala from the Ittala Glassworks in Finland, Kaj Franck and Gunnel Nyman at the Nuutajärvi Glassworks, in Finland and Pavel Hlava, Rene Roubicek and Jan Kotik from the Borske Sklo Glassworks, in the Czech Republic.

From the 1920’s onwards, many Scandinavian glass manufacturers created their own, unique design language and style by integrating artists, architects and designers into their factories. This approach helped the development of a new technical approach to glass making, which was focused on practical design thinking that linked progressive artistic experimentation directly with the economics of the glass industry. These early artistic collaborations with industry can be seen an early precursor of the studio glass movement.  Of particular interest in Sweden, was the work of Simon Gate and Edward Hald at the Orrefors Glass Factory.

In 1916, Simon Gate, was recruited by Orrefors as a glass designer, he developed a range of techniques including Graal, the glass is made in two steps, firstly the blank is made and the design cut through, then the glass is reheated and encapsulated in clear glass to suspend the first layer in glass. He also developed cutting and engraving techniques cutting away the surface of the glass to create intricate patterns such as the beautiful decanter (see figure 2). A year later, the painter Edward Hald joined Orrefors, his approach was more contemporary and modernist in style, his ‘Fish-Graal’ glass which has fish swimming through pond weed was one of his most famous designs (see figure 3).

Many European glass factories followed suite integrating designers and artists into the glass industry. At the Ittala Glassworks in Finland the renowned architect Alvar Aalto created the Savoy vase which became a Finnish design classic and symbol of Scandinavian Modernism (see figure 1). Other outstanding examples include the work of Timo Sarpaneva, of particular note was his orchid vase, usually working in clear glass he celebrated the sculptural qualities of free formed glass. For this piece he used a steam stick, which he used to pierce the molten glass letting the steam blow out a small bubble of air into the glass (see figure 4). Tapio Wirkkala was another prominent designer at Iittala, his work was often inspired by nature and contributed to the style of organic modernism, his Chanterelle vase represents this approach (see figure 5). 

Equally, the work of Gunnel Nyman and Kaj Franck at the Nuutajärvi Glassworks was raising much interest, Nyman’s Serpentine Vase is minimal in its styling, combining clear crystal organic forms with often fluid trails of coloured glass or trapped bubbles in the glass (see figure 6). 

In Eastern Europe at this time, Pavel Hlava, Jan Kotik and Rene Roubicek worked extensively at a range of glass factories including the Borske Sklo Glassworks, in Czechoslovakia. Czech glass was celebrated throughout Europe, and became renowned for its originality. Pavel Hlava’s developed his style from functional glassware to more sculptural modernist forms, such as the single bloom vase (see figure 7).

René Roubícek spontaneous sculptural style in glass was widely celebrated, his quirky sculptural forms in blown glass challenged preconceptions of glass as a purely functional medium (see figure 8). In 1948, the Communist Party gained control of Czechoslovakia, many artists were closely scrutinised by the regime and were not allowed to create abstract art. However, glass was overlooked as functional, many glass artists worked more freely as it was not considered to be a politically subversive medium.


Many of the designers and artists discussed today were practicing within the confines of a glass factory; it was not until the 1960’s with the advent of the studio glass movement, which led new discussions in glass making away from the factory, creating a new generation of studio glass makers. In our next series of blog posts we will introduce the studio glass movement and explore its prominence as it spread internationally throughout the US, Europe and East Asia.

Below, Glass (Dutch: Glas) is a 1958 Dutch short documentary film by director and producer Bert Haanstra. The film won the Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject in 1959. The entire film is about the glass bottle industry.

This is the final instalment of The History of Glass series. Thank you for following it. We hope it has been as interesting as it has been informative and allowed you to understand the history of the material that is part of everything we do at Cumbria Crystal.

To read the entire series, visit here.

By Dr Jessamy Kelly

Jessamy Kelly is a glass artist and educator based in Edinburgh, she has worked as a freelance glass designer for Cumbria Crystal since 2016. She is the designer of the Loop and Palm collections.

A big thank you to Jessamy for sharing her knowledge of this subject with us all.


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