On Wednesday, October 19 people filed into the library at the Swedish American Hall in San Francisco to hear Nina Stritzler-Levine lecture on the history of Swedish glass. The intimate setting allowed for a captivating presentation, accompanied by slides, describing how the making of fine glass and crystal is actually a cultural identity. The lecture was co-presented by SWEA, San Francisco State University, and the Consulate General of Sweden.

Ms. Stritzler-Levine is the chief curator and executive director of gallery publications at the Bard Graduate Center in New York. She is a published author and works closely with numerous museums in the United States, Europe, and Scandinavia.

She began her presentation by showing a map of Sweden and pointing out the “Kingdom of Crystal” which is synonymous with Småland. The salient points of her lecture illustrated the delineation between art and commodity.

The earliest glass blowers came to Sweden from Venice, Italy in the 17th century. The craft grew through apprenticeships and glass companies grew up through families, most notably Kosta and Orrefors.

Through key visionaries such as Ellen Key, who organized exhibitions of art and architecture, and Fregor Paulsson, who wrote books depicting tastefully-designed furniture and rooms, people began to place greater importance on the beauty of the décor in their homes.

Reformers, industrialists and enlightened businessmen began to move the glass industry towards producing artistic yet functional glass pieces for the common population. Orrefors solicited artists from other glass companies including Kosta, and opened studios to teach and promote the creative process. The companies took their direction from the artists, not the other way around.

The emphasis on artistic design over mass-production continued through the 20th century with new innovations in glass blowing, engraving and function of the glass pieces. These were advances were unveiled and celebrated at grand exhibitions in cities such as Göteburg, Skansen, Paris and New York.

Sweden’s remarkable advances in the glass industry have had an enormous impact on the American applied arts industry. And in the question and answer period at the end of Ms. Stritlzer-Levine’s presentation, this topic was explored in greater depth by both presenter and audience. The differences between “globally successful” companies and smaller, artistic-focused companies were discussed and debated.
By Ann Marie Richardson