Harvey K. Littleton, an artist who helped found the studio glass movement in the United States, developing and teaching do-it-yourself techniques that freed glassblowing from the cumbersome protocols of factory production and made molten glass almost as easy to work with in the studio as wet clay, died Dec. 13 in Spruce Pine, N.C. He was 91.
His death, which had not been widely reported, was confirmed by his daughter Carol Shay.
Littleton achieved equal renown as an artist and as a torchbearer for the movement he fomented. His work has been displayed in museums all over the world and includes the first pieces of modern glasswork acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York: “Amber Crested Form” and “Amber Twist,” both purchased in 1977.
The studio glass program he founded in 1963 at the art school of the University of Wisconsin at Madison — it began in a studio in his garage — is widely considered to have been the first college-level course offered in the United States in the ancient art of glassblowing. His students included future luminaries of the movement such as Marvin Lipofsky and Dale Chihuly.
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Beginning in the late 1950s, Littleton scoured the world to assemble the apparatus and knowledge he needed to melt glass beads in a backyard furnace and then to make art by himself, breaking with the glassblowing tradition in which three or four apprentices assisted a craftsman.
At the time, at large factories like Steuben Glass Works in upstate New York and at the small ones of Murano, in Italy, fine glassmaking was a collaborative effort: An artist gave his design or model to the factory, and glassmakers reproduced it. But with grants and fellowships and financing from the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, Littleton devised a one-man glass production line.
His friend Dominick Labino, an aspiring artist who was also a research scientist at the Johns-Manville Corp. near Toledo, designed the small brick furnace Littleton used and helped him acquire an ample supply of low-temperature melting-point glass beads.
Littleton attracted attention when he demonstrated the process on the grounds of the Toledo Museum in 1962. For the next two years he traveled around the country, accepting invitations from artist groups and college art departments interested in seeing it for themselves.
In a phone interview, Joan Falconer Byrd, Littleton’s biographer, said Littleton had “considered himself an evangelist of sorts.” He believed, she explained, that making his own glasswork was not enough to kindle the level of interest the medium deserved.
“He knew there had to be many artists, many galleries, college courses — a whole infrastructure — for studio glass to become a movement,” she said.
Since Littleton started the glasswork program at the University of Wisconsin, she said, dozens more have been founded, most of them by his former students.
Harvey Kline Littleton was born to Jesse and Bessie Littleton on June 14, 1922, in the shadow of glass, in Corning, N.Y. His father, a physicist, was director of research at Corning Glass Works and a developer of Pyrex.
Harvey Littleton expressed an early interest in art — and in the possibilities of glass art — but his father urged him to study physics when he entered the University of Michigan. He did so for two years, then was drafted.
After serving in the Army Signal Corps in World War II, Littleton returned to Michigan in 1945, switched his major to industrial design — a compromise struck with his father, he said — and graduated in 1947.
He worked for a time as an industrial designer but quit to attend the Cranbrook Academy of Art, in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., where he received a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1951, thanks to the GI Bill, which had paid his tuition.
“There were 10 million of us who came back” from the war, he said in an interview, “and suddenly free of our parents, we could go to the university, and we didn’t have to compromise.”
Writing in The New York Times Magazine in 1976, the novelist Beth Gutcheon described Littleton as the leader of “a small revolution” in glasswork “that has grown into an American design movement of international importance.”
Besides his daughter Carol, he is survived by another daughter, Maurine; two sons, Thomas and John; eight grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. His wife of 62 years, Bess Tamura Littleton, died in 2009.
Littleton was a member of the art faculty at the University of Wisconsin from 1952 until 1977, when he was named a professor emeritus and moved to North Carolina. He had been well known as a ceramics artist before switching to glasswork.
In a 1999 oral history interview for the Archives of American Art, he compared the centuries-old glassblowing technique craftsmen used in factories with the method he used and taught others. In the old system, he said, “they were taught to make each piece exactly like the previous one.”
“Our training,” he added, “teaches someone to make each piece different.”