||Issue Date: 1 / 2006
Orrefors and the Tradition of Glassmaking
Glassmaking is an ancient art, but one that continues to thrive in the workshops of artists throughout the world. European glass, particularly Italian and Czech glass, is highly prized, but perhaps no other country produces more beautiful and innovative contemporary glass than Sweden. There, the Orrefors company carries on the rich tradition of great glassmaking.
An Orrefors fruit bowl,
designed by Ingegerd Raman.
Click image to enlarge.
And it is a very long tradition. In fact, we could say that glassmaking first started, almost from the beginning of time, with the formation of obsidian, a natural glass. Obsidian is created spontaneously when sky-high temperatures melt sand, conditions found in active volcanoes. Obsidian was probably first discovered in or near volcanoes by prehistoric man, who used the hard substance, which cleaves to a razor-sharp edge, to carve his arrow tips for hunting.
Man learned the secret of producing glass early on, in an area centered around the Mediterranean Sea. Glass beads dating back to the year 12,000 B.C. have been found in Egypt, and the ruins of Pompeii were strewn with glass objects. In those days, manmade glass, usually produced in sand molds, was a valuable commodity, concentrated in the hands of rulers and the very rich. Glass remained rare for hundred of years, until the development of glassblowing around 100 B.C.
The centers of glassmaking were in the Middle East, especially in remote parts of the Roman Empire. However, glassmakers also quickly established themselves in Rome and other cities in what is today Italy. Ancient glass objects from throughout the Roman Empire are now avidly sought after by individual collectors, but most are in the hands of museums.
Glassmaking reached a high point in the Fertile Crescent, in what was then known as Mesopotamia and now encompasses Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Cut glass, engraved glass, glass brilliantly colored and shaped, glass gilded and enameled--all were produced in this region. This apogee of glassmaking was during the sixth to ninth centuries, a time of active trade between the European Mediterranean regions, China, and points between, with goods carried along the Silk Road. Traders who brought silks, spices, teas, and other prized items to the Middle East and Europe from faraway Asia carried back glass beakers and jewelry to China, Tibet, and Japan. So highly valued were these glass objects that they were placed in the tombs of Chinese nobles and aristocrats.
Techniques that make beautiful glass
Blown glass. Glassblowing is an elegant process, simple in concept but difficult to execute. And it is dangerous work. The glassblower typically uses a hollow pipe, enlarged at one end to form a mouthpiece. A glob of molten glass that has been heated to sizzling hot temperatures, is placed at the other end of the pipe. The glassblower, very careful not to inhale, blows through the tube, inflating the molten glass to its desired size as he forms it into its destined shape. In some ways, cooling the glass requires as much knowledge as blowing it, because glass can crack as it hardens. Smaller vessels generally harden in a matter of minutes.
Glassblowing was one of the earliest specialized techniques man learned to make glass. Just imagine the brave and clever person who first tried blowing molten glass through a pipe.
Stained glass. Stained glass was developed in Europe during the Middle Ages to fill a specific need: church windows. Daylight was needed to illuminate churches and cathedrals, but it was extremely difficult and very costly to make single sheets of glass to fit large window openings. By using small pieces of flat glass and attaching them, mosaic-style, with lead borders, several difficulties were overcome. Smaller pieces of glass could be used, the leading added strength to the windows, and they could be conveniently fitted in the arched window openings typical of many churches.
But a view through the windows to the world outside the church could be a distraction to parishioners. So stained, instead of clear glass was used in the windows. Stained-glass windows let in light and afforded privacy from outside, eliminating distractions. Importantly, the windows inspired worshippers with their beauty and biblical themes. These richly ornamented stained-glass windows, most hundreds of years old, continue to inspire and amaze, attracting tourists and worshippers. Some European towns, such as Chartres in northern France, are famous primarily for the beautiful windows of their cathedrals.
Engraved and etched glass. Artisans soon discovered that glass could be a medium on which to create designs, illustrations, or lettering. For engraving, craftsmen employed two techniques: in one, a diamond-tipped instrument was used, and in the other, a rapidly turning grinding wheel. To produce etched glass, they applied acid to specific areas on the glass, creating a distinct surface that created the design.
European glass and the glass of Sweden
Venice. The beginnings of the Venetian glass industry are somewhat obscure. We do know that by the year 1255 there were enough Venetian glassmakers to form a guild, an early union of artisans and craftsmen. But the Venetian authorities feared the expanding industry. They worried that with so many glassmaking furnaces operating, fires could easily spread in the congested city. Glassmakers were made to move to the nearby small island of Murano, where to this day world-famous Murano glass is made.
Bohemia. The region of Bohemia is today a province of the Czech Republic. Glass production became centered there in the seventeenth century, because of the abundance of raw materials used in glassmaking: dense beech and pine forests to provide fuel for the furnaces, and loams of white sand to be melted into glass. Soon, Bohemian glass was competing with Venetian glass. Brilliantly colored goblets etched with landscape and drinking scenes, were the specialty of the Bohemians. At first, only the aristocracy or wealthy merchant class could afford Bohemian glass, but as the industry grew, new kinds of glassware were developed, such as paperweights, and the market for Bohemian glass expanded to the middle class through much of Europe.
The art of Swedish glass. We know that glass was produced in Sweden, at least since the late seventeenth century. Kungsholm glass, named for the Swedish company that first produced it, is the earliest Swedish glass of which we still have examples. It has a distinctly Venetian look. Large wine glasses or goblets, usually decorated with crowns or the king’s initials were characteristic of the period. Kungsholm glass was heavy, often impure and showing major imperfections. But Swedish aristocrats were happy to own it.
In 1742, the firm of Kosta came on the scene. Kosta was located in the southern Swedish province of Smaland, a rural region rich in woods, sandy soil, and large lakes and other water resources, all elements essential to glass-making. It later joined with a competitor, Boda. Compared to other glass producers, Kosta-Boda was a much more egalitarian establishment, making glass objects for the burghers who lived nearby and for the greater masses. Kosta-Boda thus brought the enjoyment of beautiful glass to those who before could not afford it. The company remained active until 1997, when it was absorbed by Orrefors, a much larger enterprise with a worldwide marketing arm.
Orrefors' history began in 1898 when the company founders bought a steel mill and decided to build a glass foundry in its stead. At first, they concentrated their efforts on making beautiful tableware, which to this day is the mainstay of the company. But the owners of Orrefors, supported by company management and creative teams, aimed for the rarefied world of art glass. They dreamed of winning trophies, of having Orrefors judged among the best in the world.
How Orrefors works
The creation of award-winning art glass has many components.. It is the result of the combined efforts of artisans--glassblowers, etchers, engravers. It calls for collaboration between graphic artists who create the designs and production managers who oversee their manufacture. Only a successful relationship can produce the glass shapes and colors that result in the excitement of true works of art, and that demand the prices worthy of fine art.
The need for collaboration does not end there. The actual production of the glass objects requires several artisans working in rhythmic unison. In fact, glassmaking is very much like a dance. Typically, three men work around a chair (an elevated table) and each performs a specific function, gathering materials, blowing, gaffing (making a final thorough inspection) in orderly procedure. One chair of workers will make drinking glasses, another vases, still another bowls, and a final one paperweights. While glassmaking may look easy, expert artisans work years learning their craft. Perfection is required. The dimensions of the same objects produced throughout any given day, differ by less than 2 millimeters (0.07874 inch).
Special pieces produced only in limited numbers are made by the most experienced craftsmen, working hand in hand with the designing artists. Together, they try out new component materials and procedures, achieving innovation as well as beauty.
Cut glass was produced at Orrefors from the very beginning, in 1898. Today, the demand for cut glass has waned, but the popularity of engraved glass has grown. Much of the etching and engraving at Orrefors is still done by hand, following the techniques developed hundreds of years ago. The craftsmen usually are graphic artists, who are specially trained in glasswork, right at the Orrefors plant. Competition for training is intense, and applicants must submit samples of their work to see if they have the potential to meet Orrefors standards.
But today, some traditional glassmaking operations are being automated. Robots working twenty-four hours a day are used when only simple etching or cutting is needed. Sandblasting has replaced routine engraving. However, the glass artist remains in high demand.
Orrefors of the artists
In the art world, technical innovations often produce new dimensions in creativity. This is particularly true for art glass, and so tracing the development of new techniques by Orrefors' glass artists is illuminating. Over the last century, Orrefors has been a leader in such innovation.
During a three-year period culminating in 1916, Orrefors artist Simon Gate developed a technique which he called Graal (meaning Holy Grail). In the process, an undecorated glass object or blank, is overlaid with several layers of molten colored glass. The master blower then reheats the entire piece, creating the shape of the final vessel. Graal objects by Simon Gate had characteristic floral and animal designs.
Another new technique called Ariel was developed by Edwin Ohrstrom. It called for cutting a design in a multiple-layered blank, then covering with more molten glass. This traps air into the design, causing interior surfaces to refract the light and creating an impression of silver. Building on the Graal and Ariel approaches, artists who followed at Orrefors designed variations that won trophies throughout Europe and America.
New styles created by Orrefors artists set trends worldwide. In the 1920s, Orrefors artists focused their efforts on producing bowls and flasks elegantly carved with Renaissance and Baroque figures. The style of these figures was striking and new, full of movement, unlike earlier representations that for centuries had been stiff and static. From this new development in design, it was a small step for glass artist Edward Hald to make glass with scenes of sporting events, then glass with such diverse subjects as gondolas, fireworks, and balloons. Artist Vicke Lindstrand enlarged upon these developments by perfecting the art of painting with enamel. In the 1930s, he produced a group of vases with a circus theme, called, appropriately enough Circus Vases.
During the 1940s, Orrefors' signature was the Tulip glass, very long-stemmed glasses that tested the ability of designers as well as glass blowers. The simple, graceful shape of tulip vessels went perfectly with the sleek lines of Scandinavian furniture, which was very popular at the time but could complement any style of interior design.
The 1950s brought Orrefors its first woman designer, Ingborg Lundin. She was to introduce her Apple, an apple-shaped design that created an elegant glass sculpture of the simple fruit. But Lundin's work extended beyond the apple model and included many impressive, highly original glass designs.
More innovations were to follow. Gunnar Cyren's Four Pelicans employed a new acid-polishing technique to produce deeply engraved ornamentation. Sven Palmquist encapsulated bubbles into cut-glass blocks, creating beautiful sculptures that were also used as structural materials in contemporary buildings. Yet another Orrefors artist, Jan Johnston, took prevailing concepts in minimalist art and applied them to glass, with simple, dramatic sculptures the end result. Olle Alberius moved even further from orthodox design, incorporating a wide range of colors into his objects. He is best known for cylindrical vases in orange and black, green, lapis lazuli, orange, and subtle ranges of white.
It was a thrill for me to visit the Orrefors facilities in the brilliant sunshine of a summer's day a few years ago. Although the manufacturing plant is off limits to the public, I had the privilege of seeing Orrefors' young design artists Erica Lagerbielke and Bengt-Goeran Kronstam working up new ideas. With a continued influx of such talented glass artists, and the nurturing environment of Orrefors, Sweden is destined to maintain its enviable, exalted position in the world of glass.
Fred Stern has explored the creative efforts of artists and
writers worldwide. His work has appeared in European and
publications as well as on artnet.com. He writes a bimonthly
column on the arts for Commuter Week and is a frequent
contributor to The World and I. He has given courses
American writers and has taught poetry and creative writing
the Institute of New Dimensions. He has lectured widely on
these topics. A volume of his verses is scheduled for
appearance in 2006 under the title Corridors of Light.