Glass Plus: The Furniture Design of Henry P. Glass

Originally posted April 30, 2009 on

“In contrast to good music, good literature, good food, or even good art, which are all subject to personal taste, style, fashion, or fad, good design is governed by indisputable, eternal rules, unalterable by conditions of historic environment or location.” -Henry Glass, from “The Shape of Manmade Things” (1994)

While debatable, the above assertion is explicable in terms of Henry Glass’s mindset and life experience. At root, Glass was an industrial designer, not a craftsman or artist, and he brought an engineering sensibility to bear on all aspects of his work, including furniture design. Born in Vienna in 1911, and schooled in architecture at the Technische Hochschule, Glass arrived in America in 1939 via Buchenwald. His experience in a concentration camp likely exaggerated any tendency he had to see his own work in absolute terms, and his rescue likely fueled his desire to spread the benefits of good design to the general public, another part of his lifelong agenda.

An ardent environmentalist, Glass was heavily influenced in his thinking by Buckminster Fuller, a debt explicitly recognized in “The Shape of Manmade Things.” From Fuller, Glass drew lessons in nature, structure, economy, and ecology. In nature, Glass found a model for man-made objects: all things serve a purpose, little is superfluous in terms of ornament or material, and the results are often beautiful. Rigid economy is fundamental in design for serial production; more so when resources are recognized as finite, as they are on Spaceship Earth. As Glass observed, “It is hard to think of an object that was designed with economy in mind, which wouldn’t also respond to ecological considerations, and vice-versa.” Glass built a solar house for himself in 1948, one of the first such structures in the country. Clearly, he was an early proponent of what is now green design.

Glass was best known for his knock-down furniture designs, chairs and tables that folded, nested, and stacked. There was a wartime rationale for
such designs involving space-saving flexibility and easy mobility, but he continued developing this paradigm throughout his career. Austere and visually interesting, these designs utilized inexpensive materials such as plywood, masonite, and canvas, and through tensile strength and production technique, reduced waste to a minimum. Here, too, Glass was plainly influenced by Fuller, by the geodesics and tetrahedrons, riffing off the idea of “tensegrity,” inter-connected wires in tension, and non-connected struts in compression.

Glass’ most popular design, the Cricket chair of 1978, distills forty years of thought and experiment into a timeless-looking piece that uses an absolute minimum of material—in this case, tubular metal and canvas—and folds down to 1 inch. Represented here by a prototype in wood from Glass’ own collection, the production version was manufactured by Brown Jordan. Not all of Glass’ designs hit their mark commercially, however, and a fair amount of his work exists only in renderings, scale models, prototypes, and catalogs.

I first encountered Glass design in a basement in Mineola in 1993, when I found myself surrounded by a suite of modular and highly colorful children’s furniture. Research proved that I’d uncovered a trove of Swingline collection pieces, designed by Glass and produced by Fleetwood Furniture in the early 1950’s. I think I paid about $150 for six or eight pieces, which I promptly sold for $400-$500 a piece, a tidy profit at the time but far less than the $4,000-$6,000 a piece that these items command now at auction. Still, it whetted my appetite for work by Glass, and when the Form + Function Gallery acquired a group of prototypes from Glass in 2000, I sped over and picked up a few.  Three are shown here.