Now on View: Higgins Glass

Jenna Gilley, Associate Curator of Exhibitions

Frances and Michael Higgins, American, b. Britain, 1908-1999; American, 1912-2004. Royally Wed. Fused and slumped glass, 1987. Gift of Edwin J. Simon in loving memory of his wife, Helene Lazar Simon, 2023.01. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

A few weeks ago, curators at the FWMoA switched out a handful of our many exceptional examples of contemporary studio glass in our new glass wing. While this display is permanent, every few months we plan to swap a handful of objects on display to keep things fresh. One recent addition is by Frances and Michael Higgins (left), a playful platter which features an abstract design in candylike pinks and purples. The raised lumps and bumps of the piece beg you to run your hands over its surface but remember, no touching! Titled Royally Wed, one can just discern two figures on the plate: one with head and two limbs outstretched in the top portion of the plate and a second whose four limbs extend in an “H” shape from a light pink head in the plate’s center. The simplified, dynamic shapes of these humanoid forms, along with the time period, give me Keith Haring vibes. The motif of “the dancing man”, however, began in the 1950s, with Higgins making it a trademark, or mark of authenticity.

If you know anything about glass (or know about glass from our content), then you have probably heard the name Harvey Littleton. Littleton is recognized as the “Father of Studio Glass”, the person without whom glass in America would be very different, if not nonexistent. While this is true, like many histories, it is an oversimplification. Littleton developed the small portable furnace, which was necessary to studio glasswork, and “spread the gospel of glass”, but he had a lot of help along the way. Before and during Littleton’s early experimentations, he traveled around the globe to talk to artists who had worked with the medium for decades, including his close friend, German artist Erwin Eisch. He also spoke to early Swedish glass designers (Ann Wolff, Edward Hald, Edvin Ohrstrom) and Italian masters in Venice. One key American connection was Frances and Michael Higgins, who started creating fused glass works in the 1940s[i].

Frances and Michael Higgins in their studio, c. early 1960s. Photo used with permission of Johnathan Wimmer at Higgins Glass.

Frances Stewart and Michael Higgins met at the Chicago Institute of Design. Frances was pursuing advanced studies in art and Michael was head of the school’s visual design department. As Michael described, their love was “not so much a whirlwind romance as a dust storm!”. The two were married in 1948. Together, they decided to dedicate their practice to fused glass. While an ancient technique, by the mid-twentieth century fusing was abandoned in favor of the less labor-intensive method of glass blowing. Fusing is the creation of a “glass sandwich”. On one piece of glass a design is created, either drawn with colored enamels or pieced with glass segments (Fran preferred to “draw” while Michael preferred to “piece”). Over this, another layer of glass is laid. Placed on a mold, the object is then heated and “slumps” to the shape of the mold. The design itself is fused between the outer glass pieces, meaning that it will never fade.

The Higgins’ first studio operated out of their Chicago apartment, with kilns set up behind the sofa– the same sofa that Harvey Littleton would often sleep on when he visited Chicago, according to Higgins’ current gallery director Johnathan Wimmer. At the beginning, they made a precarious living (as many artists do) selling everything from necklaces to church windows. By 1950 they began doing production items, selling bowls, plates, and other household goods at prominent Chicago department stores like Marshall Fields, Bloomingdales, and Georg Jensen for the low cost of $5 each. They worked in split shifts fourteen hours a day, 7 days a week to create new pieces.

Eventually, their hard work paid off. Customers to the large retailers found the Higgins’ wares to be exceptionally modern, from which the energetic and painterly Abstract Expressionist movement was emerging. Shoppers admired how familiar and functional everyday wares were transformed through an arresting mix of geometric, curved lines and bold use of color. Promoted in early advertisements as “an exclamation point in your decorating scheme”, the unique blend of artistry and practicality that Higgins glassware offered quickly attracted buyers. Fran and Michael tried desperately to keep up with the demand, even hiring a female assistant to copy their designs.

Realizing that they needed to expand their practice, in 1957, the Higgins decided to move to Dearborn Glass Company in Chicago. Through this partnership, the artist couple had access to all the staff and facilities of the large company; however, their role was restricted to “designer”. During this time, the couple made most of their best-known designs and objects, including the bursting “spoke” pattern and Rondelays, or circular discs designed to attach together to form larger panels. Works from this time are identified by a small gold “higgins” signature on the face of the piece– a joint artist name the couple adopted to encompass their collaborative process.

Bowl featuring the gold “higgins” signature on its rim, signifying that this work was made during the Dearborn years of 1957-1965. Photo courtesy of the FWMoA.

Soon, however, the Higgins missed having complete control over their own work. Production quotas at Dearborn Glass were exceptionally high. Over the course of their short 8 years with the company, over 70 designs and countless shapes of “Higginsware” were produced. Frances and Michael were also disheartened that quality was often compromised to keep up with demand. One line of candlesticks “fell apart on the shelves of the store” because screws were replaced with epoxy; it was time for a change.

After a short stint with Haeger Potteries, the Higgins decided to go back to where it all began– a private studio. They found their home in Riverside, IL in 1966, where their studio still operates today. From the kiln in their living room, Higgins work has come quite a way. Since Michael Higgins’ death in 1999 and Frances’ in 2004, the Higgins Studio is now, as per the Higgins’ wishes, under the ownership and direction of longtime design associates Louise and Jonathan Wimmer. The Wimmer’s continue to produce exciting, colorful, and innovative wares that hold up to the name of Higgins. In the words of Frances Higgins’ humble though daunting statement, “We just try to make what looks good – any time, any place.”

[i] Another important American artist to mention is the inspiring Edris Eckhardt, who began making all her own colored glass from scratch in 1952. If we ever get one of her works, (which I hope we do!) watch out for another blog post.

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