Henry P. Glass
Henry P. Glass
Elly and Henry in 1932
Elly and Henry Glass 1937 wedding
Convertible Chair Stretcher
Stensgaard Masonite Desk
Contoura Chair ad
1946 Radio Design
Glass at Studio Door
1985 Safety Razor
Northfield Home Dining Area
School Drawing c.1935
Daughter AnneKarin Glass sketch
Henry P. Glass 1911 2003
One of the most ingenious inventors and product designers of the twentieth century, in 2000 Henry Glass (then almost in his nineties) often drove his shiny new Volkswagon Beetle from his home in suburban Chicago to appointments with manufacturers in the Loop.
By then, of course, though they may not have known he designed a very similar tiny car while still a student at the School of Architecture in Vienna, those same manufacturers still held him in high regard as one of the pioneers of folding and collapsible Knock-Down furniture long preceding their own companies.
Back in the 1930s, the Austrian native had earned his masters degree at the Architectural College specializing in Bauhaus-modern design and had married Eleanore Knopp, a master dressmaker, cleverly designing their small apartment with convertible walls and furniture as a double-duty nightclub.
Glass had also been hired by Viennese developers as their specialist in modern architecture. So he thought he was well on his way to career success but, unfortunately, the Jewish developers and their young architect were then swept up at gunpoint in the Nazi purges and Glass wound up in both Dachau and Buchenwald prison camps.
In 1939, Elly went to Berlin to see the Gestapo agent in charge and found herself asking for a divorce. She told him: How would you feel if your wife wanted to divorce you while you were in prison? Let him go. After hes in America, Ill divorce him.
Whether the Gestapo chief was charmed by a beautiful girl or the Nazis were not quite as hard-nosed in 1939, Henry was released and was soon followed to New York City by Elly, never to divorce.
Safe in America, Henry soon filed his first patent in March of 1940 for a re-working of his 1939 convertible sofa-bed.
It was merely the first of dozens of American patents he filed for his ingenious ideas.
Glass started and finished his short job-seeking rounds in 1939 with a portfolio of his inventive renderings to show Gilbert Rohde at his 57th Street office. Not only was he immediately hired but immersed in the interior commissions of Rohde that seemed to speak as the most personal forms of architecture. However, war-time restrictions also meant a lack of architectural commissions and in about a year Glass was looking for another job.
He sketched a novel inflatable parlor set of furniure that never sold but made ends meet by free-lance designing more conventional, vaguely Art Deco overstuffed living and bedroom furniture to New Yorks Albert Decorators.
He then worked for architect, Morris Sanders, meeting Russel Wright in the process. In 1940, Wright then commissioned the young whiz for an outdoor line as an adjunct to his wildly successful American Modern lines of dinnerware, barware, and furniture.
After looking at his wifes morning use of hairpins, Glass appropriated the simple idea for the design of American Way wrought iron outdoor furniture for Wright. Its hairpin legs were the first use of its technique throughout his career. And he continued to experiment with its collapsible properties long after leaving Wright.
But attaching his name to an innovation would have to wait until later as Russel Wrights name alone was used for all publicity. Though he was gracious about the slight, his not getting design credit for an obviously brilliant solution, may have sent him away from New York for good.
Glass was convinced that this talents in architecture and industrial design could actually solve the new problem of a lack of defense housing. And in 1941 with the encouragement of the Museum of Modern Art, he filled an album titled Study on the Problem of Small House Furnishings but was, in reality, his solution for the housing of returning troops.
Hed travelled regularly to Chicago for trade shows and to start designs for a bentwood chair for its Thonet Industries showroom but by 1942, Henry Glass found work in the Chicago display firm of W.L. Stensgaard and Associates, Inc. While his title as Director of Architectural Design was impressive, there was no architectural design there to speak of and Stensgaards merchandise and shop window displays were a poor fit for his talents. But his future as an industrial designer known for inventing new uses for unusual materials and the wartime prohibition in the use of metals meant he had to design and manufacture with Masonite instead and this fortuitously foreshadowed his career of novelty.
However, the four years he spent at Stensgaard also showed him just how much waste the packing and shipping of finished goods could produce. He saw that designing foldable and stackable chairs and tables reduced its packing costs as well as fitted with the temporary nature of its display products.
And though he later had clients with more long-lasting merchandise, this adaptability became his life-long genius.
He was also able to take night classes at what would by 1944 be renamed the Institute of Design and where one of his instructors was George Fred Keck, a modernist icon even then and pioneer in solar design.
By 1945, Glass left the constancy of Stensgaard for the uncertainty of his own practice but he also felt a certain certainty should be passed along to future generations and he began teaching industrial design at the School of the Art Institute until 1968.
Hoping the over-all design of a new building would springboard him into architecture, he designed every element of the Bauhaus and Alvar Aalto-inspired block-long Kling Studios of 1946 in Chicagos Streeterville area of Downtown. The commission appears to have given him the money to set up a luxurious office in the neighborhoods tower of the American Furniture Mart at 666 North Lake Shore Drive whose outline appeared in one of the projects exterior perspectives.
As his renderings reached the highest levels of historys best architectural drawings, those for the Kling Studios were even more dazzling than normal and showed a movement through the spaces like CAD presentations do today.
While the buildings forward-thinking modernist looks destined it in 1947 for a seven-page spread in Architectural Forum magazine, it never propelled him into an architectural career but helped him start his own industrial design firm, Henry P. Glass-Designer, and when he added Louis Huebner in 1951,Henry P. Glass Associates.
He wasnt done with a merging of architectural design with interior industrial design into a total work of art. He ordered one of R. Buckminster Fullers aluminum Dymaxion houses for his growing family but when the company folded and the order was cancelled, Glass bought a lot in suburban Chicago for the design of his own solar house in 1948.
The Thermopane picture windows of his Northfield house were positioned to the South, allowing the black tiled and carpeted floors to absorb and radiate the winter heat. Also, because the area was close to Lake Michigan, the prevailing cross-breezes would cool it through opposing windows in the summer. And well-schooled in publicity, his PR photos also pictured built-in cabinets, a sliding dining table, and a chorus line of his Stensgaard Masonite chairs.
In 1949, he designed and built the Coronado Hotel in Puerto Rico and designed the obviously Glass-named Flamboyant Hotel in the Virgin Islands to dot the hillside with modernist cabins.
Since the Flamboyant Hotel project never got past his drawing board due to the profligate developer, perhaps he decided to take a break from buildings by putting his inventive mind to smaller things. His brand, then, became the clever ways furniture could transform. And he began by re-working with colored Masonite an organizing system for children called Nursery Line he was experimenting with since 1944.
By 1951, this patented idea developed into a complete grouping of childrens furniture for the brand new Zeeland, Michigan based Fleetwood Furniture Corporation, leading to his being awarded a gold medal by the American Designers Institute in 1952. Based on his earlier wooden-pivoting drawers, steam bent bins of colorful Masonite swinging out from structural pole supports created non-pink or blue wardrobes and toy chests for easy organization. They joined reconfigurable book shelves, Juvenile beds, desks, and a play table incorporating swiveling stools on every leg to form the Swingline furniture line.
Though few were built, the Fleetwood Corporation and Glass became a regular pair with Glass designing patented case goods for them in 1955 that displayed the frame on the outside as an aesthetic feature while freeing space inside. Built throughout the late 1950s for schools and offices, this Tube chassis was an alternative to the more expensive Charles and Ray Eames Storage Units from Herman Miller to become one of Fleetwoods most ubiquitous cabinets. And they remained a constant client with Glass designing childrens school desks for the company through the 1960s.
Glasss Hairpin leg also made a major reappearance by 1953. A Northfield friend, Walter Stuckslager, hired Glass to design for his Stux Beau Fer furniture line. As new post-war residential construction included lanais, patios, and Florida rooms in housing, there developed a market for wrought iron outdoor furniture.
Having re-thought the use of the hairpin leg and forever concerned with the furnitures Knock-Down (KD) foldability, Glass re-invented the leg to fold flat with a detachable ferrule on the tip.
Finally, all the publicity photographs named him as the designer and he was regarded as one of the giants in the field, even producing a living room sectional group patented in 1953 for Lucy and Rickys New York apartment in I Love Lucy.
Also in the 1950s, the properties of plywood inspired him to create a futuristic tree house, Hawaiian vacation shelters, and one-piece tables and chairs.
One of many patents he obtained in the decade was for a belt-driven lounge chair whose footrest inclined upward while the backrest reclined. Although he constantly re-configured this idea since at least 1940 and built numerous prototypes, the belt often pinched the fingers of the person reclining.
But after eighteen years, it finally achieved Glasss critical acceptance and was eventually marketed by Kenmar as the Omega chair in 1958.
Though he knew the simple camp tent was only stable when fully up, by early 1960, his patented Accordium Camper for the Alcoa Forecast program achieved stability even when partially erected with aluminum frames between bellows-like sections.
In May of 1963, Glass assigned the patent for his next chair to the Contour Chair-Lounge Co., resulting in the Contoura, one of the most iconic and collectible Mid-Century Modern finds in shops and auction houses today. And by June 1964, he filed a patent for the Compass Adjustable Chair to make him one of the most inventive industrial designers in American history.
Somewhat later in 1964, Glasss unceasing work also may have led him to have a nearly fatal heart attack. To recuperate after his hospital stay, he used Amish carpenters and his own two teenaged children to build a Michigan cabin retreat called Glass GSpass.
Of course, sitting around the cabins fireplace pit unleashed the inventor and he filed another patent for adjustable food and ash receptacles in its free-standing mechanism. This joined ski boot attachments, a sauna stove, and the very seating around that fireplace to be patented, proving his ski trips to Michigan were fertile ground for an inventive mind.
By 1965, Glass started working with the Richbilt Manufacturing Company of Cincinnati for his Cylindra line of stackable plywood tube furniture. Though museum collections and auction houses today place this among the Mid-Century icons, the Cylindra line was discontinued for low sales after a short time.
The 1960s, in fact, rivaled the 1950s in the number of Henry P. Glass patents. But while he filed only one for a type of slotted candle-holder in 1979, it may have been his unpatented folding chair for El Monte, Californias Brown Jordan that may be his most famous design. Though its patio Cricket chair foldable to a depth of less than an inch was introduced in 1977, it was re-issued by Brown Jordan in 2013 in leather for deluxe indoor use. It, too, only lasted for a year and it remained an outdoor chair for a few more seasons.
Like any industrial design company, some of his client base needed Glass to design more prosaic materials like bedpans, urinals, and light machinery. However, he carefully re-thought each product with the same inventiveness as his most advanced buildings and chairs patenting the nesting bedpans in the 1980s along with laundry hampers, lawn seeders, and even a three-sided safety razor.
Henry Glass puttered downtown in his Beetle until shortly before his death in 2003, primarily to see his rediscovered drawings on the wall of an art gallery. Whats old is always new again.
His drawings show him to have been the most emotional of all industrial designers. Usually, they are ultra-rational in their designs for furniture, appliances, and buildings but Glass demonstrated a kind of heated salesmanship and fevered graphic line that was never taught in design schools. He spoke through his drawings to the manufacturer as though he was making his case in front of them.
Glasss designs for furniture, appliances, showroom exhibits, industrial equipment, housewares, modular building systems, hotels, and office buildings alone would guarantee any other commercial designer a permanent place in the industrial arts hall of fame. But Henry Glass was not just any other commercial designer as his remarkable drawings demonstrate.
Part science fiction, part class project, his modular systems for housing, sitting, sleeping, and dining have inspired countless ideas for clients that stretched the capabilities of the manufacturers to new boundaries of industry.
The Art Institute of Chicago mounted an important exhibition of his work in 2000, acquiring for their permanent collection his student drawings and seminal pieces of his designed furniture. And the bulk of his own household furniture and office archives permanently reside in the collection of the Chicago History Museum.
When asked to exhibit a collection of his designs for The Perfect Chair at ArchiTech Gallery, he responded by designing a new one that came to him in a dream. And after consulting a Boeing engineer for the width required of titanium rods for strength and flexibility, he was somewhat satisfied. But weeks later, he offered yet another version, this one stackable. The perfect chair for Henry Glass was always the next one he designed.