Swedish Studio Glass 1968 - 1990

Åsa Brandt.Tvätt på lina.1986

Vitalization of Swedish Glass

 Around 1960 the glass works were doing well in Sweden. The key word was “Scandinavian Design”, but a different-looking glass was emerging. Daring managers at the works were hiring new, young designers and gave them free reins: Erik Höglund, Bertil Vallien, Monica Backström, Göran and Ann Wärff, just to mention a few. They all designed tableware glass, art glass in series and unique glasspieces, as has been the tradition in Sweden since the 1920’s. In spite of this, the studio glass movement spread in Sweden and strongly influenced the Swedish glass. Why did this happen?

Background and history

 In 1968 Åsa Brandt started the first studio glass workshop in northern Europe, with inspiration and experience from the studio glass movement. Others were to follow during the first part of the 70’s: Ulla Forsell, Anders Wingård, Eva Ullberg and Paula Bartron and others. All these artists came directly to the free glass, not by way of the factories, all were connected to the studio glass movement and most of them had their practical training from Orrefors Glass School and their arts education from the University College of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm.

In the 70’s the good times for the industries were over. The import of cheap machine-made glass and a high level of salaries in Sweden were some of the reasons. The freedom for the artists and designers in the factories became substantially limited. There were signals that manual glass work had to be more or less given up for economical reasons. From that time on, artists and master blowers from the industries began to leave and build up their own studios.

The glass industry experienced a short recovery period during the last years of the 80’s, but since the beginning of the 90’s, there has been a constant crisis in the glass factory world: closing down, selling out and mergers.

But during the 70’s and 80’s the studio glass flourished and grew, in quantity and in quality, and from the beginning of the 80’s it was seen as an indisputable fact that the free glass, the studio glass, played an important role for Swedish glass.

The first exhibition of studio glass at the National Art Museum in Stockholm was held in 1984 and was called Four Free. The concept Studio Glass – A Vitalizing Phenomenon, comes from the 1984 exhibition catalogue

Ulla Forsell 1976

What has been the role of the studio glass during this period? What do we mean by its vitalizing effect on Swedish glass?

The first point is of course that Åsa Brandt, Ulla Forsell, Anders Wingård and the other pioneers showed that it was at all possible to manage ones own glass studio and that it was possible to create glass of high quality in a small studio. This opened up a path for many others to follow, as glassblowers or working in cold techniques.

The second point is that these pioneer glass blowers, of whom several happened to be women, created an enormous interest in the public. At first, the very phenomenon of free glass blowers was described in articles in all sorts of newspapers and magazines, but soon a genuine interest for the actual studio glass, and for glass in general, developed. This opened up a new market for glass, especially for handmade unique pieces or unique drinking glasses, but of course also for the new art glass with its allusions to the ordinary, often female and everyday world, with its telling of stories, its humour.

Ulla Forsell. Stege

The studio glass movement brought us from America a new attitude to glass, a new spirit, which has often been pointed out as one of the most important contributions from the studio glass to Europe. The playfulness, the cheerfulness, the fantasy in motives, in forms and in colour and decoration expressed this new attitude to glass. It was well received by the public which assimilated this new attitude to glass.

The introduction of colour is one of the most manifest contributions. Of course there had been brightly coloured glass in Sweden before, even clearly inspired by pop art. But the uninhibited use of coloured glass was something new on the Swedish glass scene.

It goes without saying that basic principles of the studio glass movement, laid down by Harvey Littleton: "Glass should be a medium for the individual artist", and by Erwin Eisch: "glass as a medium for expression for its own functional sake", have been as important for the development of studio glass and factory glass in Sweden as everywhere else.

Conserving the glass handicraft, the manual skills, was close to the hearts of the studio glass pioneers, and here the free glass artists partly stood on common ground with the employees of the works, artists and glass blowers. The success of the studio glass movement helped to maintain the craftsmanship in the glass work to a larger extent than would otherwise have been the case. Experiments were possible in the studios to an extent which could not be equalled in the factories. This included revival of old techniques as well as new methods.
When form is considered, and to some extent also artistic expression, the Swedish studio glass is firmly rooted in the Swedish glass tradition as well as in the Swedish crafts tradition.

Anders Wingård

The internationalism of the studio glass movement brought inspiration to the Swedish glass in general through exhibitions, competitions, meetings and frequent professional and social contacts. Highlights like London 1976, Coburg 1977 and 1985 are often brought out. This internationalism included training: many young glass artists went to Pilchuck and other centers. The glass training in Sweden was influenced in a positive way by the studio glass concept.

The reactions of the glass industries to the studio glass

Around 1970, the managers of the glass works took no notice of the emerging studio glass. But when people started to leave Kosta and Orrefors to run their own studios, as Ann Wärff/Wolff did in 1976, the managers admittedly felt threatened. Others followed Ann Wolff´s example and, very important; so did some of the master glass-blowers. When studio glass grew more popular, was written about, exhibited and bought, and when the managers became aware of what was going on outside Sweden, the free glass studios came to be seen as competitors.

There are several testimonies to clearly hostile attitudes towards the studio glass from around 1975. Free glass-blowers were not allowed to enter the factories. The studios were not allowed to buy crude materials. Used machines and tools, advertized for sale, were not sold to studio glass artists.

The growing popularity of studio glass during the 70’s and 80’s led to actions inside the factories. The artists and designers in the factories were given better working conditions and greater freedom, including time for experiments which had been questioned around 1970, even by the most progressive managers.

The appearance of the studio glass led to modifications of the production. Forms that were close to studio glass entered the factories and glass with a look of being handmade was produced. In addition, the popularity of the studio glass led to a new terminology inside the factories. The stress was laid on what could be called handmade, unique.

The way studio glass artists used colour in their glass clearly inspired the production from the glass works. You can see that with your own eyes, but it is also evident if you read the presentations from the glass works of the new collections after 1976: “colourful, full of joy and fantasy". Colour virtually exploded in the late 80’s.
Fragility, lightness and playfulness were ingredients in the early studio glass that could not be easily reproduced in the factories, but they sometimes reappeared in a coarsened way.

"Designers at the glass works have drawn closer to the techniques and idioms of the studio glass."  (Lotta Jonsson, 1980)
It should be stressed that the studio glass artists in Sweden, did not look upon themselves as being some sort of opposition movement directed against the factories, and that especially in the 70’s and early 80’s, the factory employed and the free glass designers shared an interest in preserving the glass as a handicraft. They travelled together to meetings in Scandinavia and abroad and they exhibited together. But in later years this has not been the case.

Beautiful glass is still being created at Orrefors, Kosta, Boda and at a few other surviving glass works. Their marketing resources are important, but their glass is not synonymous with Swedish Glass, not since 1968 and definitely not today. This applies to art glass as well as to utility vessels.

Kerstin Molin May 2002
( extract from a lecture at The GAS 2002
Conference in Amsterdam)