It is said that the greatest period of glass artistry in America began in 1903, when Frederick Carder brought 30 years of glassmaking experience from his native England to Corning, N.Y., where he co-founded the Steuben Glass Works. Carder is revered as one of the monumental artisans and pioneers of an art glass movement that began in the 1890s and unfolded into the 1930s.
I discovered the art of Frederick Carder (1863-1963) about seven years ago, and have since journeyed into the incredible legacy of a man whose 80-year career was marked by un-matched contributions as a glass chemist and prolific, adventurous glass artist. Carder is known for his beautiful, classic creations of iridescent, translucent and transparent glass in arrays of colors, shapes and styles, and for his staunch belief in craftsmanship and quality.
Art for the Common Man
When Carder and American executive Thomas E. Hawkes established Steuben Glass Works, they could not imagine that more than a hundred years later, the company would still stand as the leading American glass producer. But they were confident about the merit of Carder’s vision for producing fine, affordable glass pieces that the general public would be able to acquire and appreciate.
In the beginning, “… Steuben Glass Works was a one-man operation with Carder devising the glass formulas, designing the ware, supervising production and dictating sales policies,” Carder’s former assistant wrote in The Glass of Frederick Carder (Shiffer Publishing). “New colors, classic and exotic forms, and drawings for engraved and cut decorations poured out of Carder like salt from the legendary little red mill.”
The gold iridescent glass he named Aurene was Carder’s first commercial hit, and he gained both financial and artistic success early on at Steuben Glass Works. But while most famous designers have a distinctive, identifiable style, Carder’s designs during 29 years at Steuben successfully spanned the public’s changing taste, from Art Nouveau and Art Deco to Victorian, Venetian and neo-Classical. He was compelled to re-explore ancient glassmaking secrets from Rome, Egypt, Greece and China, and often he married old methods and design elements to his own stylings and new techniques.
The Power of Light and Color
“Frederick Carder believed that glass was a wondrous thing, given almost a life of its own by its ability to reflect and refract and transmit light. He also believed that it was color that could then escalate the innate beauty of glass to greater and greater heights,” wrote Thomas Dimitroff, honorary curator for the Rockwell Museum’s Frederick Carder collection.
Aurene, Cluthra, Cintra, Florentia, Irvene and Moresque are just a few of the types of glass Carder invented during his tenure at Steuben Glass Works, in addition to creating 140 brilliant and complimentary colors. He is also credited with designing a staggering 8,000 shapes for his pieces, which would come to be known — and treasured — as Carder Steuben glass.
Nature of the Man
A self-trained chemist, physicist, draftsman and potter, Carder was born into his grandfather’s pottery business in Staffordshire, England, in 1863, and he became passionate about glassmaking while still a child.
Because he wanted more freedom to experiment and develop his art, Carder left the family business at 15 for a job as a draftsman and designer at a local glassmaking firm, Stevens and Williams. There he began mastering colorizing agents and new designs in colored, cameo and engraved glass, and his work brought Stevens and Williams commercial success. Carder stayed with the firm for 23 years, but his creative freedom was limited there and he wanted to take his craft further.
It was on a trip to the United States that Carder met Hawkes, the president of a cut-glass company in Corning. Hawkes offered to establish a glass factory for Carder, who accepted, and in 1903 made the move to the United States with his wife and two children.
The Steuben Glass Works began production almost immediately, and it provided Carder with the freedom he had always desired to pursue his art to the fullest. There, at the age of 40, he began the most creative and innovative period of his career.
Remembered as short, lean, wiry and brusque, Carder was known to have a strong temper, a sharp tongue, and a quick mind. He was also considered very generous to those who wanted to learn. At Steuben Glass Works, Carder was a keen and effective businessman. By employing his own traveling salesmen, he was able to place Steuben glass in the best stores in America. The profits from its popularity enabled Carder to experiment constantly with new colors and glassmaking methods.
The Ensuing Years
Although Corning Inc. purchased Steuben Glass Works in 1918 for war-time glass production, Carder remained there as artistic director until 1932, when he was forced from his position at age 69. The company provided Carder with an on-site studio, an assistant, and any resources he wanted. However, for the next 25 years — until his retirement at age 96 — the artist worked in this studio, mostly in pursuit of the “lost wax” process. A yet unperfected process of casting glass in the same manner that metals were once cast into statues, Carder’s successful development of the lost wax process resulted in limited productions and one-of-a-kind clear crystal pieces which today are rare and valuable. In his last years, Carder painted using oils and watercolors. He died in 1963 at the age of 100.
A man who pursues his passion — good or bad — for 80-plus years is bound to leave some kind of legacy. Frederick Carder left behind a vast and diverse gift of beauty and artistry. Part of the joy of researching, hunting for and collecting his art is knowing that in doing so, we are preserving something of infinite value for the coming generations.
Alan Shovers is senior attorney with the law firm Kahn, Dees, Donovan & Kahn LLP, in Evansville, Ind., and serves as president of the national Carder Steuben Club ( www.cardersteubenclub.com ). Alan and his wife, Susan, co-authored the book, Objects of Desire — The Art of Frederick Carder, published in 2005 by the Evansville Museum of Arts, History & Science. The book explores the Shovers’ Carder Steuben glass collection, exhibited at the Evansville Museum from September through November 2005. To inquire about Objects of Desire, contact the museum gift shop at (812) 425-2406. Alan Shovers may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .