Art Deco with Attitude
Amazing Variety in Schneider Art Glass Designs
Looking back at the verve and dynamism of the Art Deco movement during the Roaring Twenties gives me a sense of exhilaration. As I read the history and view the art, I seem to hear jazz pulsating in a syncopating rhythm. It fills me with a sense of awe how an art style permeated cultures so quickly and transformed their milieu. When Art Deco swept the world, the arts were changing before our very eyes, rejecting the tried and true and forging new directions across the entire spectrum of fine art, applied art, the crafts. In the process, the trend affected other disciplines like architecture, and the design of everything from furniture to fabrics, jewelry, and porcelain to pottery. Style changes prior to Art Deco seem strained by comparison, like timid attempts at new visions, a quiet evolution. But this time the transformation burst forth like a flood, an elementary force, spontaneous and vigorous, changing concepts and challenging limits, leaving in its wake glorious tributes to human creativity.
It was a fertile period for creating art glass, and nowhere was Art Deco’s vibrant spirit displayed more flamboyantly than in France, and no one was a more fervent, and more controversial, champion of Art Deco than Charles Schneider. As he was leading the charge into a new age, ahead of his time, he produced an immense variety of spectacular designs. Imagine for a moment the effect of the innovative chalice (Coll047 pictured below), created ca.1920 - bright blue with a multi-color band at the rim, a beige stem divided by a green disk, on an orange foot, - on a public that is still accustomed to a world of Art Nouveau. Whether termed eye opening or dismissed as an aberration, it certainly must have provoked comment.
The award-winning artist and glass designer Charles Schneider opened the family glass works at Epinay-sur-Seine in France together with his brother Ernest. Called up for service in WWI, they did not begin the production of art glass until after the war, and they continued until the early thirties, when the worldwide depression derailed their business along with many others. Charles was the genius behind designing two lines of art glass, one signed Schneider, the other signed variously as Le Verre Français, Charder, or with a small tri-color (red-white-blue) glass rod fused into the piece. These two different lines of glass co-existed throughout the short production period, 1918-1933. Their firm was destined to become a strong force in the French art glass field, both commercially and because of its creative impact. During its heyday around 1925 the Schneider glassworks employed approx. 500 craftsmen. Charles Schneider was awarded the Legion of Honor for his contributions to French decorative arts. During his lifetime (1881-1953), his peers repeatedly recognized Charles Schneider for his achievements.
To see one piece of Schneider glass can be fascinating, perhaps even exciting if it is the right piece. But to view an entire exhibit, or to be fortunate enough to peruse an extensive Schneider glass collection, makes one realize the undeniable fact that the sheer variety of Schneider glass, produced during the amazingly short span of about 15 years, is simply unequaled by any other glass artist. His glass designs span the entire range of creative possibilities.
There are several broad categories of Charles Schneider’s work, within which exist literally hundreds of variations. Listing the general types in somewhat of a chronological order, we start with the early hand-carved cameo pieces in the then popular Art Nouveau tradition. He also offered an extensive selection of footed bowls and chalices with the trademark (black looking) translucent amethyst foot (coupes a pied noir), but sometimes also anchored in wrought iron. Quite popular was a very artistic series of decorative vases and footed bowls called coupes bijoux (jewels) with stylish shapes and applications. These usually had an amethyst stem and foot, but occasionally were also executed in other colors, at times finished matte for added distinction. The most intricate segment of Schneider’s work are pieces with applied wheel-carved decorations. He designed several cased glass series (Filetés, Marbrines, Jades, Ėcaille) showing vases with extremely colorful internal decorations, again some with fanciful shapes. One cased glass series called Cloisonné (with décors Love, Menuet, Parmélie) is extremely rare. Toward the end of the 1920s Schneider’s work changed into pieces with deeply etched or engraved ornamentation. And in the early 1930s, thick-walled pieces, embellished by heavy structural applications, completed the 15-year span of work. Until early 1926, Schneider also created miniature pieces - perfume bottles, small bud vases, delicate footed bowls, etc., - all ca. 4" or less, blown before the lamp and decorated with applied blossoms, vines, leaves and external glass powders.
The result is an extensive, exceedingly varied, hand-blown body of work produced within a short period of time, demonstrating a cross section of glassmaking and decorating skills. His work used every known decorative glass technique, i.e. ‘hot’ work such as internal decorations, applied glass, imbedded glass, overlaid glass; and ‘cold’ techniques like enameling, acid treatments, wheel-carving, etching, engraving. This is only a broad outline of the variety of his designs. During the same time many other types and styles were produced with some appeal for everyone.
We cannot assume for even a moment that the existing Schneider literature covers all of his works. Even all books and articles published thus far do not constitute a Catalogue Raisonné. Having collected and studied Schneider glass for many years, I continue to see previously undocumented pieces surface. This holds true for both the Schneider and the Le Verre Francais lines. Because of undiscovered examples, the variety of Schneider pieces may even be greater than we realize. This fact tends to support the ‘vast variety’ contention, but it also attests to the popularity of Schneider glass. Pieces are apt to remain in collections, or at least in the family. Handed down from generation to generation, they rarely emerge from behind the screen of privacy. One reason for the tendency to hold on to inherited Schneider works may be the fact that Schneider art glass seems to be timeless, complementing our present lifestyles just as readily as it did those of the Roaring Twenties.
There are a number of informative books about Schneider’s work. In the early 1980s Helmut Ricke published his catalog of the first (traveling) Schneider exhibition in Germany, Schneider France - Glas des Art Deco, a scholarly presentation in German designed to introduce the reader to Schneider art glass and to put into context its importance for the glass movement of the 1920s. Edith Mannoni, in her book Schneider, covered the Schneider line of glass exclusively. Most recently, Marie-Christine Joulin and Gerold Maier with their book Charles Schneider present a detailed overview of both lines of Schneider glass, which is very useful as a reference, especially since the volume presents the greatest selection published so far, all in color and with commentary in French, English and German.
While these published materials have been a helpful and educational reference for Schneider enthusiasts, they merely showcase the body of work without addressing the question of why Schneider’s work progressed in such varied fashion. What were the driving forces behind the enormous variety of designs? What experiences influenced his artistic direction? Per chance, is there some explanation that would account for the constantly changing progression of Schneider’s work in terms of colors, subject matter, shapes, and processes, thereby revealing a rationale for the profusion of models and motifs? Certain factors indeed come to mind, and while there may never be conclusive evidence, they offer us points to ponder. One influence was undoubtedly the times he lived in. Not only was Charles Schneider an imaginative, innovative designer and glass artist, but he was also keenly aware of the artistic, social, and commercial circumstances that shaped his era.
Clearly, the social aspects of life during the 1920s provided the backdrop for artistic and commercial stimuli. After World War I the French economy was recovering, and its citizens turned from the horrors of war to joie de vivre. The growing middle class was gaining more leisure time and the means to afford some luxuries. Such newly found extra time, combined with the wherewithal to enjoy it, allowed them to pursue artistic interests and they were eager to appreciate the arts at their level. In turn, this provided commercial opportunities for the Schneider Glass Works as the new, higher standard of living made the burgeoning middle class a viable market segment for art glass. Schneider was also very much aware of the excellent prospects in the emerging markets overseas, primarily North- and South America.
Furthermore, Charles Schneider was a prolific designer. His personal effects reveal that novel ideas and themes constantly sprang to his mind, many of which remained on paper, because he never actually executed all of them. It is said that out of 700 designs he perhaps used 50. Therefore, one can assume that sheer creative exuberance drove him to ‘push the envelope’, much like contemporary glass artists continuously test the boundaries of their art. At the same time, he did not work in an artistic vacuum. Surely he was aware of the work of his peers, some of them studio artists like Marinot, Thuret, et al, which may have given him the impetus to strive for new directions, to test himself, and to experiment with new concepts and processes. Additionally, he may have considered it a personal challenge to be able to create significant art glass in a competitive commercial environment rather than in a studio.
Artistically, in addition to his passion to create, the defining factor in explaining the prodigious variety of designs was the transition from the realistically decorated Art Nouveau style to the more stylized and streamlined Art Deco movement. An early disciple, Schneider embraced Art Deco enthusiastically, and ultimately executed it so imaginatively that his creations have been termed the quintessential Art Deco glass. Since Art Deco is a style, not a defined time period, it arrived in different parts of the world at different times. And since public taste did not change overnight, Schneider not only had to modify his work to add new Art Deco models, but he also had to continue to create designs in the Art Nouveau style. Even as late as the 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, he exhibited some pure Art Nouveau works, if only to demonstrate that his team was equal to creating the technically challenging realistic applications and décors. At the same time, as early as 1920, he created pieces that truly pointed the way to the future. Thus, for a period of several years, we see enormous variety through the parallel creation of works in both styles.
Another explanation for the variety in his offerings is Charles Schneider, the businessman. He was, after all, the head of a commercial enterprise and unlike his studio artist peers, he was not in a position to let artistry alone determine his direction. Just like his competitors, the glass houses of Daum and Lalique, Schneider had to consider the public taste of his time. And the public, swept up in the Art Deco tide, was ready to look at the world through new eyes. By constantly tempting this public with new visions, he proved that he was also a superb marketer, able to generate demand and to exploit market niches in Europe and America. Arriving at new designs was never a problem for master glass artist Charles Schneider. The economic incentives and creative imperatives galvanized his artistic senses into creating a multitude of designs, arriving at a synergy which benefited his reputation and his firm, but even more importantly, left a glorious legacy for coming generations.
One of Schneider’s masterstrokes as a businessman was to create a second, totally separate, line of glass that he called Le Verre Francais. He realized early on that the intricate glass line signed Schneider might well be too sophisticated for some, and not easily affordable for others. Yet, as an artist he wanted the public to live with his creations, and in order to keep his business solvent, he also needed to sell. For a number of years, until the worldwide economic depression, he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Using the acid-etching process exclusively to decorate the pieces, he created cameo designs with streamlined décor and with vivid, for the most part contrasting, yet harmonizing colors. Immediately, the number of his designs nearly doubled and if there were a prize for the greatest variety of designs, it would be Charles Schneider’s beyond any challenge.
Many of the same factors that influenced the changes in the Schneider line also applied to the Le Verre Francais line, continually producing new designs. The earlier patterns carried Art Nouveau images of plant and animal life in subdued colors. The ‘Cats’ motif is an example. Gradually the colors brightened -as in the butterfly and fuchsia patterns- and the subject matter became more stylized, ending with absolute Art Deco designs, as seen in the ‘Poissons’ and ‘Kronos’ models.
Not all variety was driven by creative or marketing decisions. Business issues also forced adjustments on Schneider. In the latter part of the 1920s noticeable changes can be seen in his work. The reasons are not known, so we can only speculate. But the entire production from these last years suggests simplification. Such new economy could have been dictated by the expanding Art Deco trend, but it may also indicate economic pressures like rising manufacturing costs, which resulted in production streamlining. Whatever the stimulus, circumstances again produced changes in designs.
The first adjustment was the cessation of miniatures, which traditionally were blown and decorated before the lamp, a labor-intensive process. Gone also is the special department which used to fabricate their metal lamps and the wrought iron frames for reticulated pieces. These designs are being replaced by futuristic-looking patterns like ‘Godron’. ‘Hot’ processes are largely giving way to ‘cold’ work as most applied decorations are being replaced by ornamentation achieved through etching and engraving. When applications are used, they are usually the same color as the vessel. As pieces are becoming less colorful, internal decorations are reduced to wisps of color floating in a sea of bubbles. The character of the piece is now defined less by colored applications and contrasting hues, and achieves its impact more through its silhouette and externally rendered geometric decorations. To compensate for loss of color, features may now include a square base for a round vessel, or asymmetrically placed heavy applications. Increasingly, clear glass is used with one additional color, only to arrive finally at unicolor pieces for both lines of glass, Schneider and Le Verre Français.
These changes did not take place from one day to the next. They seem to have been grudgingly offered, a gradual process, most likely dictated by necessity. And it must not have been an easy task attempting to keep the business profitable by streamlining production, yet determined to maintain an artistic niveau that continued to emphasize imaginative direction through exciting designs. While circumstances caused Schneider to change his artistic approach, he never lost sight of his trinity of design principles: shape, color, and décor. Thus, regardless which stage of his creation we examine, he caused the viewer to be startled by a nuance of his work, be it breaking up curves through angles, juxtaposing vivid colors, or emphasizing a given silhouette through added applications or subtle effects like a satiny surface or ornamental engraving. Difficult as it may have been for Charles Schneider, the evidence demonstrates that he succeeded in keeping his work fresh and appealing throughout, thereby continuing his reputation as a leader of innovative glass design during that period.
The Schneider Glass Works closed even before World War II, and after the war his son Robert took over leading the re-opened company as well as the artistic effort. But the era of dramatic colored glass artistry was history. Much like art glass producers all over the world, save for the Italians, the Schneider firm switched to the serene elegance of clear crystal. Charles Schneider contributed occasional designs until his death in 1953, but he never resumed the position of influence in the glass world that he occupied during his glory years from 1918–1933. Therefore, that short span of fifteen years remains as the focal point of his lasting contribution to Art Deco glass. His spectacular designs added zest to life in the 1920s, and they continue to be relevant in our time through their compelling sophistication and stylish exuberance. The tremendous variety of Charles Schneider’s offerings during such a brief time is a testament to his talent as a glass artist, who not only demonstrated mastery of the key elements of his art, but who also understood clearly the factors shaping life in his time.
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Copyright © 2004 by Thomas Karman All rights reserved.