Henry P. Glass 1911–2003

Henry P. Glass was one of the most innovative industrial designers in America, creating the era-defining “hairpin leg." Trained as an architect, Glass brought an engineering sensibility to his diverse designs, along with an attention toward environmentalism and a wondrous creativity.

Glass was born in Vienna in 1911 and studied architecture at the Technische Hochschule in Vienna from 1929 to 1936; his early work included designing modern interiors for Viennese high society, showrooms and hotels. In 1938, with the invasion of the Nazis, Glass and his wife Elly immigrated to New York City (Glass spent a short time in Buchenwald concentration camp but was released), where he worked under Gilbert Rohde and Russel Wright. That same year Glass joined the American Industrial Designers Institute. In 1942, Glass moved to Chicago and worked for W.L. Stensgaard and Associates, Inc. as the Director of Architectural Design. He also took night classes at The New Bauhaus (later renamed the Institute of Design) under László Moholy-Nagy, Gyorgy Kepes and George Fred Keck, a pioneer in solar design.

In 1946, with the money made from designing the Kling Studios building in Chicago, Glass opened his own studio in the Furniture Mart and began creating the work he is most well-known for: ingenious, space-saving designs with a concern for economy and ecology and unusual materials, partially brought about by wartime rations, but also inspired by the work of R. Buckminster Fuller. While austere and purpose-minded in form, Glass balanced his hyper-rational designs with playful colors and proportions, as in his 1954 Swingline children’s furniture collection and with inventive pieces that folded, stacked and nested in interesting ways; a later famous design of his, the Cricket chair from 1978, folded down to a width of just one inch. Over the course of his career, he was granted fifty-two patents and was also celebrated for his commitment to mentoring young designers as a teacher at The Art Institute of Chicago for twenty years.

Glass’ interest in ecology and economy extended beyond his furniture designs—in 1948, he built the first passive solar home in America in Northfield, Illinois. He and his family had originally order Buckminster Fuller’s aluminum Dymaxion house but when the company went under, their order was cancelled. Undeterred, Glass simply elected to build his own eco-conscious home. The family lived there for over sixty years and it still stands today. In 1964, while recovering from a heart attack, Glass designed a Michigan ski lodge, Glass G’Spass, which he had built with the help of two Amish carpenters and his teenage children.

In 1996 Glass published his treatise on design, The Shape of Manmade Things and in 2000 The Art Institute of Chicago featured his work in the exhibition Design from the Heartland: Henry Glass, John Polivka and Richard Ten Eyck. Glass died in 2003, leaving his entire archives as a public collection to the Art Institute of Chicago.

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