The American Studio Glass movement started with Harvey Littleton, ceramics teacher at the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin in 1958 when he started experimenting with molten glass. In 1962 he joined the Toledo Ohio Museum of Art with the introduction of two glassblowing workshops using a smaller economical furnace designed by a glass scientist Dominick Labino. What grew out of this was a glass program that included early students like Dale Chihuly, Marvin Lipofsky and Fritz Dreisbach. Growing pains ensued as the students went from changing their idea of traditional associations between glass and functionality and lack of technical knowledge to experienced and creatively expressionistic as they sought after knowledge from Sweden, Czechoslovakia and of course Italy .
As Courtney Ahlstrom Christy stated in her article in 2018, “The market for Studio and Contemporary glass is shifting from a niche interest to a more widely-recognized area of art collecting. With the exception of a handful of esteemed makers and studios, works by early Studio pioneers and established second-generation artists command values on the higher end and will likely do so for the foreseeable future”1. However, historically, industrial glass meaning mass produced like Lalique and studio glass like Fujita, Chihuly or William Morris have not yet reached the artistic status of painting or sculpture. Then, she goes on to say that first- and second-generation Studio artists are more stable in auction prices than emerging or mid-career artists
With that being said, I want to turn to one artist, Kyohei Fujita (1921-2004). In 1957 the year before Littleton started experimenting with glass, Fujita, who had been living a life of poverty on the streets, had his first solo Exhibition at the Matsuzakaya Department Store. The sold out show was mostly vessels. However, it was in 1974 with a chance encounter by a customer who brought one of his glass boxes for his personal collection at home in Japan, that this customer met with Jørgen Schou Christensen, curator of the Danish International Art Museum in Copenhagen who was planning an exhibition the following year. Mr. Christensen was convinced immediately that Fujita had to be the representative of Japan and embodied “Japanese Beauty in Glass”. It was that exhibition that jumpstarted his career by bringing him to the international stage. He became a leading figure in modern art glass and was made a Cultural Treasure of Japan in 1997.
As stated by the British Museum, “The use of gold and silver and bold dotting of red and white plum ‘blossoms’ evokes the great tradition of Rinpa art and design, to which Fujita was always attracted to since a younger age, as epitomized by the work of Ogata Korin (1658-1716) and, in more recent times, Kamisaka Sekka (1866-1942).2
Fujita believed, “If there is anything to be learned, it would have to be the word ‘tradition’. In contemporary glass art, all effort and passion seem to be placed on transcendental distinctiveness with this distinctiveness rooted in a form of historical sensibility. One must acknowledge and treasure their past in order to enrich their present. What the future may bring is thus negligible.”1
He is known for his “wish boxes” as they are called in English. In Japanese they are called Kazaribako or ornamental caskets. Each box is made of various colors of glass molded with gold and silver leaf. The rims that define the opening of the box with the corresponding lid are made of sterling silver. One sees the influence of the traditional glassblowing technique known as tesserae (Italian word for mosaic) which rose to popularity in the 1950s. This meticulous approach to patterning a glass vessel entailed cutting geometric shapes from colored sheets of flat glass, arranging them into a mosaic, laminating it seamlessly into the surface, after which the bubble would be blown into its final shape. During the blowing process, the metal expands at a slower rate than the glass and breaks, creating patterns. Fujita’s long experience gave him a certain degree of control over the abstract imagery that decorates the box. In a final step he would take the “bubble” to fit into a geometric mold to give the box its outer shape.
Overall, Fujita’s market peak was the last 20 years of his life from 1984 to 2004. Most sales appear to be in Japan with other sales in the United States, United Kingdom and Germany. The market in Studio Glass is driven by a group of about 1,000 serious collectors. This group actively follows artists’ careers, collects in depth and belongs to several art associations devoted only to glass. Upon his death the market has stabilized below his original retail price but is holding strong at auction based on size, complexity, condition and color. He is still considered one of the fathers of Studio Glass even though he is not a household name like Chihuly.
1 Fujita, Kyohei. Glass Dream. Kyoto Shoin Co Ltd, 1986.
2 Kohakubai (Red and White Plum Blossom).” British Museum, 2015, https://research.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=3699204&page=1&partId=1&searchText=murano%20glass
3 Japanese Kazaribako Glass Box by Kyohei Fujita, https://www.1stdibs.com/furniture/dining-entertaining/glass/japanese-kazaribako-glass-box-kyohei-fujita/id-f_25550602/
4 “Dreams on the Lake” by Kyohei Fujita sold by Neal Auction Company, https://www.invaluable.com/auction-lot/kyohei-fujita-japanese-1921-2004-11-c-7c84ad69d7