DESIGN

Crystal images of nature

MALCOLM GRAY July 6 1987
DESIGN

Crystal images of nature

MALCOLM GRAY July 6 1987

Crystal images of nature

DESIGN

Elegant items of crystal produced by Steuben Glass have graced the homes and offices of affluent collectors around the world almost since the New York-based firm began operations in 1903. Harry Truman gave a Steuben bowl to then-Princess Elizabeth in 1947—to celebrate her wedding—and since then U.S. presidents have chosen Steuben crystal to symbolize the highest standards of U.S. craftsmanship when presenting gifts to foreign dignitaries. Indeed, President Ronald Reagan commemorated Japanese Premier Yasuhiro Nakasone’s visit to Washington in April by giving him a $4,400 flask. Toronto-born James Houston designed that item, and last month Steuben celebrated the 66-yearold artist’s quarter-century association with the firm through a showing of designs that are executed by master glassblowers under Houston’s supervision.

The New York exhibition attracted such large crowds that the company extended its run to 26 days.

There, assembled from private collections and from items currently on sale at the firm’s store on Manhattan’s fashionable Fifth Avenue, were 40 pieces, including Excalibur—an eightinch sterling silver model of King Arthur’s sword sheathed in a block of cut crystal. Former president Richard Nixon kept one on his desk during his term in office. And the exhibition underlines the fact that Houston’s work is a thriving union of art and commerce—collectors can still buy identical versions of Excalibur for $3,300. Houston’s latest Steuben creations—a limited edition of 50 pieces titled Elephants of Kilimanjaro— sell for $16,000 each.

Houston can also take credit for helping artists in Canada’s Eastern Arctic achieve similar recognition. During a lengthy association with Inuit carvers on West Baffin Island from 1948 to 1962, Houston showed them how to use paper and paint to make prints from stone carvings. Then he worked to foster the growth in popu-

larity of their crafts among art dealers and collectors in the south—and at the same time helped the native artists obtain fair prices for their creations.

Houston received the Order of Canada in 1973 for his work with the Inuit, and his stay in the Far North has clearly shaped many of the objects he designs for Steuben. Among them are carved crystal pieces bearing the titles Ice Hunter and Arctic Fisherman, works that depict Inuit in pursuit of

seal and arctic char. In the same way, some observers say that Houston’s crystal engravings and glass sculptures of eagles, trout, salmon and snipe underline the artist’s strong preference for natural themes. Said Dwight Lanmon, the director of the Corning, N.Y.-based Museum of Glass: “Jim’s work is characteristically pictorial. That sets him apart in a house that does a great deal of nonrepresentational engraving.” Houston, who now lives in Stonington, Conn., says that he intends to keep visiting the Arctic—and Africa. Declared Houston: “Africa is much like the Eastern Arctic, really: all wildernesses speak to the spirit in the same way.” His continuing mission: to capture that theme in glass.

MALCOLM GRAY

BILL MARSANO