Volume 43, Issue 5 - May 2008

Experiencing Glass 
from a New Perspective
Museum Exhibit Opens Eyes 
to Many Meanings of Glass

by David H. Martin 

Starting with the glasses on the nose in front of your face, glass is the substance of our lives, and not just because most of us make a living creating, handling, fabricating, embellishing and otherwise enhancing the stuff everyday. Even those who market and sell the processed glazed products for homes and buildings need to, every now and then, step back to pay homage to its rich history, artistic values and ongoing evolution. 

“The Glass Experience” opened March 13 at Chicago’s massive Museum of Science and Industry, the largest building of its kind in the United States. Why not Toledo? Why not Pittsburgh? Or Corning, N.Y.? While these smaller cities have played outsized roles in the development of U.S. flat glass technology, Chicago is filled with the artistic achievements of such giants as Louis Comfort Tiffany and Frank Lloyd Wright. Their inspirational windows, glass doors and skylight domes bequeath splendor to hundreds of the churches, buildings and homes of Chicagoland. 

From Scientific Marvels … 
Pilkington is one glass producer taking part in the exhibit, and its architectural and automotive glass products are included in The Glass Experience’s Industrious and Innovative section. The manufacturer’s display features a 20-by-16-foot “Wall of Glass,” resplendent with various types of contemporary architectural glass treatments. Among those products are the Pilkington Planar Structural glazing system, Pilkington Profilit U-channel glass and all of Pilkington North America’s specialty low-E glass as well as decorative glass and tints.

Rachel Hepner, the sponsoring company’s marketing and communications manager, says, “The Wall includes examples of structural glazing, high-performance glass, protective glass, coated and tinted glass, as well as our new non-glare glass. We are today seeing a trend in which architects are getting away from colored or tinted glass in favor of clear glass.”

Also included in the exhibit is Pilkington’s float glass video, batch samples, tintable glass, a towel warmer, a heated insulating glass unit, a retail storefront highlighting anti-reflective glass and a fire-rated piece of burnt glass. 

Visitors can also walk across a section of the Grand Canyon Skywalk—or at least a clear 2-inch thick structural glass platform identical to the one suspended 4,000 feet above the floor of the Canyon. The Skywalk holds 72 million pounds. The 2-inch-thick sandwich is comprised of a 0.31-inch tempered top surface with anti-slip coating, followed by four 0.05-inch layers of DuPont SentryGlas® Plus interlayers alternating with 0.39-inch layers of St. Gobain Diamant heat-strengthened glass.

… to Works of Art
Visitors to the exhibit will be able to view magnificent Tiffany stained glass lamps and windows with a sense of depth achieved by layering plates of textured glass in varied thicknesses and lead lines.

In addition to these products, visitors can watch live glass artisans from the Botti Studio of Architectural Arts refurbish and reassemble priceless Tiffany antique stained glass lamps and windows before their eyes. Chris Botti is president of this company with historic Old World roots that is based in Evanston, Ill., with satellite studios internationally. “Our studio was picked for The Glass Experience because of our expertise in antique art glass conservation and restoration. Our family’s art glass history goes back to 1684 in Italy. Much later, my mother and father worked for separate family-owned studios in New York, when they met, married and founded the present Botti Studio, based near Chicago,” Botti says. 

He adds, “Here you can watch our people work on a section of original Tiffany mosaic art glass from the dome of Preston Bradley Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center.” According to Botti, it is the largest Tiffany dome in the world. “The Kokomo Opalescent Glass Co. in Kokomo, Ind., was able to match broken and missing pieces of the original glass perfectly though modern technology,” he explains. “Theirs is the same company that made the original glass for Tiffany over 100 years ago.”

Antique glass tiles, made by the Luxfer Prism Co. to bring daylight into the interior of late 19th century factories, storefronts and office buildings, provide another interesting, and practical, work of art to display. The simple idea: make window glass with horizontal prismatic ribs on the inside. These ribs redirected light from the front windows, and moved it deeper into the room using the optical principle that light changes direction when passing from one medium (air) to another (glass). The relatively expensive product appeared at a time when the excitement of modern technology was merging with a growing desire to live a simple life, in harmony with nature. Luxfer tiles were presented as a more natural, healthier and even more spiritual alternative to modern technologies. 

Frank Lloyd Wright was hired by Luxfer as its product manager. The company appealed to Wright because it embraced some of his own ideals: sensitivity to the natural environment and an interest in new materials and technology. Wright designed two types of Luxfer products—the single 4-inch square prism tiles and entire prism plates that combined different tile patterns to create a more complex decorative grouping. His 41 designs consisted primarily of simple ornamental line drawings reminiscent of the system of geometrical and organic developed by his former employer, architect Louis Sullivan.

Wright’s presence is seen again in the museum’s exquisite examples of his Prairie School windows. The “light screens,” as they were called, were designed to open buildings to light and nature—before daylighting was called daylighting—while providing a delicate separation between the two realms.

Blending Artistic and Architectural 
The exhibition joins together glass history and technology, as well as contemporary and antique works of art from all over the world. There’s a lens from the most advanced telescope system every built to explore our solar system. There’s even a “forest” of 20 large, colorful blown-glass sculptures from world-renowned glass artist, Dale Chihuly. Not to mention live glass-blowing demonstrations every half hour by artisans from The Corning Museum of Glass, who melt glass batches into a 2,300-degree Fahrenheit fluid to be gathered and worked by these glass masters. 

There’s a lot more to see and learn about glass for everyone. Bring your employees and family. And don’t forget your glasses. 

Words Near the Entrance to Chicago’s Glass Experience …
Glass is thoroughly integrated into our modern world. Since its discovery, it has helped advance civilization through its impact on medicine, architecture, science and industry. The versatility of glass and its ability to harness and employ light are still its most inspirational features, challenging inventive minds to find new and exciting uses for this seemingly limitless resource. Glass has the power to join together technology, art and humankind. While glass artists have advanced from a long history of crafts to the thought-provoking world of fine art, it can be said that technology has influenced art, and that art has influenced technology. Although advancements in technology have been extreme, glass has not changed. Certain traditions and principles have remained constant. Many applications of glass involve utilizing past knowledge. Many still continue to surprise us as we discover how glass will be used in the future. 

Want to Experience the Exhibit for Yourself?
WHEN: Continues through September 1, 2008
WHERE: Museum of Science and Industry, 57th and Lake Shore Drive, Chicago
WEBSITE: www.msichicago.org 

David H. Martin is a freelance writer for USGlass magazine.

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No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.