There have always been two big things missing at the Museum of Glass: an extensive collection and a more-or-less permanent explanation of the history of this art form. Now, it’s a step closer to both.
The recently opened “Art Deco Glass from the Huchthausen Collection” increased the Tacoma museum’s collection by 30 percent and filled in a big gap in our region’s art glass history. And it does both in a stunningly beautiful way.
220 art deco glass works add to the Museum of Glass’ 700-piece collection.
First, though, it has to be said: This show isn’t very approachable for the average museum-goer. Around 220 vases, plates and lamps from that incredibly fecund design period between the two world wars are crammed into dozens of Lucite cases in a huge room with dull gray walls. Wall texts are informative but small and hard to read. Yes, the banquet of pastel glass is gorgeous eye candy. But unless you’re an art deco aficionado, you might miss the two big stories here: The creativity and courage of artists working in perilous times, and the astonishing trajectory of how Seattle artist David Huchthausen built this collection and decided to give it to the Museum of Glass.
First, the Huchthausen story. As a child, Huchthausen (now 65) had always collected things, but in architecture school, fascinated by the play of light through space, he started buying Frankart glass powder boxes. Pale pink and blue, these sit in the show alongside creamy lamps in bronze holders that are almost steampunk in feel.
Then the story gets even better.
As graduate assistant to glassmaker Harvey Littleton, Huchthausen began buying antique art glass at flea markets and selling it to his teacher at a profit. Many of those pieces were in the then-little-known Le Verre Français line by Frenchman Charles Schneider, now highly valued. The show opens with several cases of this line, and other Schneider works, with fantastical designs: maroon cockroaches under a hex-hive, flowers like umbrellas, swirly sperm-like fruit and elaborate seahorses.
Huchthausen’s own glass art career and his collecting (from early eBay to online auctions) have since gone hand in hand. Knowing more about techniques and history, he refined his collecting eye. Getting deeper and deeper into deco designs, his own artwork began to reflect its geometric lines and structural simplicity. With Huchthausen’s retrospective beckoning in the next gallery in the museum, the comparisons are marvelous (if a bit of a detective hunt): The pure geometrics of some 1930s Czech vessels — cylinders and prisms — and modernist red-black glass trays are echoed in Huchthausen’s mid-period works. A huge round Orrefors sphere, clear as a fishbowl with greenish fish swimming through blurry kelp inside, becomes, in Huchthausen’s own works, space-age spheres with internal kaleidescopes of reflected color.
None of this is particularly obvious on a walk-through of the gallery, though if you buy a catalog you can piece together the story.
But the other story — that of French glass-makers creating beauty despite the Depression, the Nazi threat, and finally bombed factories and endangered lives — is equally powerful, interwoven with the sheer ethereal beauty of these vessels.
There’s the swerve from the mystical designs of art nouveau (early Schneider, whose factory would eventually be looted by the Germans) to the hardness of art deco, as the world coped with the new politico-economic realities.
There’s René Lalique, working in a factory on the hotly-contested Alsace-Lorraine border, shown here with a 1927 vase Bacchante in blurry, creamy opal glass and a 1990 version from the same pressed mold, the circling nymphs now crisp-lined.
There’s the Daum family, refining sandblasting into a highly decorative technique with soft-cornered pentagons on limpid green, aqua and brown glass. The factory survived WWII, but grandson Paul Daum was killed in a concentration camp in 1944.
Then there are the pure visions of art deco design: a vase by Pierre d’Avesn with opal glass fanning out into scalloped wings, or the exotic birds, panthers and elephants of the Muller Frères factory, in jungle hues of tangerine and teal.
“Art Deco Glass” is a huge show, overwhelming at first glance. But it’s a window into an era of rebirth for art glass, and quite apart from adding substantially to the museum’s collection, it fills an important gap in the history of glass that this Tacoma museum should be telling.
And if nothing else, it’s a cathedral of beauty from a now-vanished world.
Art Deco Glass
Where: Museum of Glass, 1801 Dock St., Tacoma.
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, noon-5 p.m. Sundays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. third Thursdays through September.
Admission: $15 general; $13 AAA members; $12 seniors, military, students; $5 ages 6-12; free for 5 and younger and 5-8 p.m. third Thursdays.
Information: 866-4-MUSEUM, museumofglass.org.