Henry P. Glass, FIDSA Interview
Conducted October 18, 2001 by Victoria Matranga
Where were you born and what was it like where you grew up?
Born in Vienna, Austria in 1911. I had a good upbringing in a middle class household
What kind of work did your parents do? How many children were in your family--what was the birth order?
My father was an M.D. general practitioner; my mother was a homemaker, a devoted mother. I had one sister, three years younger than I am.
What kind of industries or businesses in your hometown were major employers? What kind of work did your siblings enter?
Vienna, the capital of Austria, was the home of all kind of industries, professions and government employees. My sister graduated in philology from the university of Vienna, married an Italian in Bologna, where she was very active in public affairs, wrote several books and had 7 children.
How did your environment and family life impact your design thinking as a mature adult?
My father was a great admirer of art and architecture, played the violin, my mother displayed exquisite taste in her wardrobe and purchases of home products, such as Biedermaier furniture.
What childhood experiences or interests helped you develop your design skills?
I loved to sketch buildings and landscapes in my hometown and traveling as a boy scout and I always had good grades in my drawing classes at high school.
When did you decide to study design?
I decided to study architecture when I graduated from high school at 18 years of age.
Why did you decide to study design? What attracted you to the field?
My parents and I thought that this was the field for which I was most gifted and in which I was most interested. Schooling as an architect, at that time included interior design, graphics, and what today is called "industrial design."
Where did you receive your design training - art school, university, other?
At the Technical University of Vienna, started 1929.
Why did you choose that particular education program?
That school offered the most comprehensive course for students aspiring to become practicing architects.
What degrees did you earn? Year graduated? School(s) graduated from?
I passed the exam as "Ingenieur" in December 1933 and the Masterschool of Architecture in October 1936 both with "sehr guten" ("very good") grades. Later, in 1940 and 1941, I attended courses at the Institute of Design in Chicago, under Moholy Nagy, my teachers were Gyorgy Kepes and George Keck.
What individuals, professors were particularly influential during your education and why?
Prof. Siegfried Theiss, the head of the Masterschool I attended and the designer of the first "Hochhaus" (tall building) in Vienna was my admired mentor during my school years.
What was your senior thesis/final project?
My master project was the design of the building for the "Viennese Medical Society." The original drawings for this project are now in the archives of the Chicago Art Institute.
What projects were particularly meaningful to you as a student?
Mostly public buildings, such as a theater, a sanatorium, a movie-house, but also apartment buildings and interiors.
What else can you tell us about your educational experiences? Did the design program you attended have a particular emphasis or direction?
We had to learn architectural history, starting with Egyptian pyramids, the Greek orders, Renaissance, Baroque, Gothic etc. but all project assignments we designed in our contemporary style, that was taken for granted. "Period copies" simply didn't exist in Europe of the 20th century.
Who were your design mentors? What was special about him/her?
Our great heroes of the profession were Otto Wagner, Adolf Loos, Peter Behrens, Clemens Holzmeister and the Bauhaus luminaries Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. Later, in America I most admired Buckminster Fuller.
At the time you entered the profession, what were your goals?
I wanted to be a good architect, that as mentioned before included design for furniture, interiors, products, cars, storefronts, posters, exhibits and display.
Tell us about your first position as a professional designer.
I was lucky, even before I finished Masterschool, I had a wonderful client. In Austria, I never worked in anyone's office, except my own. My client specialized in converting old warehouses into modern apartment buildings and he entrusted me with these projects. This enabled me to open my independent studio and to start my career most auspiciously, since many of the tenants who moved into these apartments, selected me as their interior designer. Several of the most famous Austrian theater personalities were among my early clients, which ensured excellent publicity and media recognition.
Professional chronology: In each career experience, describe the excitement, meaning, and results of your work.
My wonderful professional start in Vienna was interrupted by the German occupation in March 1938. After 9 months in Nazi concentration camps, I emigrated. I landed in New York in Feb. 1939 and, with my Viennese portfolio, found immediate employment in the office of Gilbert Rohde. There I worked on details for the first line of modern furniture for Herman Miller, for Valley Upholstery, for the New York World's Fair (The Anthracite pavilion) etc., but after the rush was over, I lost the job. I had several other jobs with New York designers, Morris Sanders, S. J. Campbell, Leo Jiranek and the last one with the scenic designer Boris Aronson. My salary, $25 a week at Rohde, which I considered rather princely at the time, went down to $15---for a 60 hour work week at Aronson. When he wanted to reduce it to $10---I quit. When I was unemployed, I made furniture sketches, usually at night, in the daytime I walked criss-cross through Manhattan hitting all little cabinetmakers and upholsterers I found in the yellow pages of the phone book and sold my sketches where I found interested parties.
I had one stroke of luck: At Sanders, I had met one of his friends, Russel Wright. He liked my work and when, in 1941 he launched his campaign "American Way, he honored me with an important assignment, to design a complete line of wrought iron furniture. I created a rather startling group of tables, chairs, sofas, etc. which commanded immediate and favourable attention in the trade press, particularly in the weekly "Home furnishings." Its editor in chief, Alfred Auerbach, coined the name "Hairpin Group" because of the shape of the "steel wire" legs. It was a great success, mainly in the media, I don't know how much of this furniture was actually sold in stores. It certainly created a trend, countless furniture pieces of all kinds were put on "hairpin" legs for several years. Samples of this group are today in the collection of several museums, such as the College for Applied Arts in Vienna and the Art Institute of Chicago.
After Pearl Harbor, the chances for designers in New York dried up almost completely. I had traveled to Chicago for the bi-annual furniture markets several times, I had made contact with various furniture manufacturers, Thonet was one of them. At one of those trips, I was recommended to a well-known display company, W. L. Stensgaard. He offered me a job, I accepted and moved to Chicago. One of my first projects was the development of a group of low-cost defense housing furniture, made of non-essential materials, namely plywood and bent masonite. Stengaard was well equipped for this production technique. In 4 years at that time, I designed countless merchandising and display units and store layouts for such companies as Ekco, Kelvinator, Textron and a rather prestigious traveling exhibit for the Pullman Company. I also worked on projects for the armed forces, such as educational devices for cockpit dials in Navy fighter planes and camouflage kits for the Army. While working as a design director at Stensgaard, I also took on moonlight jobs for various clients, furniture and products.
In the fall of 1946, I experienced a welcome windfall: Through the recommendation of a good friend, a commercial artist who worked for a very prestigious outfit "Kling Studios", I landed a major architectural job to design not only the architecture but also complete interior layout, offices and fixtures for a new building-block square: between Ohio and Ontario street, east of Fairbanks Court in Chicago. This was a full time job, so I had to quit Stensgaard and in early 1946, I opened my own studio "Henry P. Glass, Designer" on the 25th floor of the Chicago Furniture Mart, 666 Lake Shore Drive. At that time, I also accepted an invitation of the School of the Chicago Art Institute to teach a course in Industrial Design. I was engaged in this activity, reached the rank of a full professor until the Art Institute abandoned this department in 1969. Many of my former students have become very successful and well known in the field. A few of them I employed in my own office. Since 1946 we have worked for close to 200 clients in fields as varied as furniture, major and minor appliances, musical instruments, housewares, displays, exhibits, executive offices, corporate graphics, ski chalet, school equipment, language labs, hospital supplies, jewelry stores, resort hotels, play yard merchandise, chicken farm equipment, paper-wood-and metal-working machines, injection-compression and blow-molded products like pic-nic coolers, thermos bottles, bathroom accessories, indoor and outdoor fireplaces, wood-burning stoves, special designs for wristwatches, clocks, oil lamps and bird feeders. In the line of my work I have been granted 52 patents. I have authored numerous articles in trade magazines and a book, called "The Shape of Manmade Things" which is now obligatory reading matter at the I.D. department of the University of Illinois in Chicago. I have received over a dozen design awards and was commissioned for several prestigious "blue sky" projects from such firms as Alcoa, Masonite Corp and Douglas fir plywood.
It was an exciting, rewarding professional career. Not all of my jobs were successful, but I always had fun doing what I did. I still do a little, although I just passed my 90th birthday. I never advanced to the now all-embracing computer. I was convinced that all man can perceive, by eye or touch, came from a drawing board, with the obvious exception of things made by nature or unique works of art.
Were there major "turning points" for you professionally, personally?
Yes, there were major turning points for me: At my first job in America, at the office of Gilbert Rohde, I found that I am more interested in designing things, that will be used by innumerable people than to work for some individual architectural client. Industrial design became my main focus. There was also another reason for this: at that time, I could be an independent practitioner in this field without a license. As an architect, I would have to work 5 years in an architect office, before I could become independent. I thought I had no time for that, having a family to support. Today I don't know whether this was true, from a financial point of view.
Did you serve in the military? If yes, how did this impact your life as a designer?
No, I was never a soldier. During WWII I was deferred, because my draft board decided that I was doing more important work for the war effort as a civilian.
How did you augment your formal education as you moved into the profession after college?
I already mentioned, I attended classes in Moholy Nagy's school of design in Chicago.
What motivated you to leave one position in favor of another? I answered that in #8.
What is the most successful product you designed? Which are you most proud of and why?
The most successful product in terms of monetary reward was a folding conference table, which I designed for Samsonite Corp. It was patented, but I received royalties for as long as it was manufactured and sold, about 40 years. The products I am most proud of were the Hairpin Group of 1941, the colorful "Swingline" furniture I designed for Fleetwood Co. in 1952 and the "Cricket" folding chair that I did for Brown-Jordan in 1978. These designs were pacesetting at their time and have become famous. Examples of these groups are in several museum collections and in exclusive boutiques where they fetch fabulous prices as "modern antiques."
Did you participate in professional societies?
I joined the American Designers Institute in New York in 1938. I was chairman of the IDSA Chicago Chapter 1959-1960 and national vice-chairman in 1960-1962. I was elected a Fellow of the IDSA in January 1965.
What aspects of the profession have remained the same since your early training? What aspects of the industrial design profession have changed since your early career?
The aspects of my profession have changed several times from the early tendency, the advent of production machines used to simulate hand crafted objects, the period of artificial obsolescence, trying to influence the buying public to discard still usable items and to purchase new to accelerate the economy. I think lately industrial design has returned to more reasonable practice, appearance changes of new products usually go hand in hand with improvements in utility, proper use of critical materials, safety and user-friendliness. Of course, the advent of the computer has made tremendous changes in the practice of our profession. The once essential skills of presenting new ideas to clients, in form of drawings and models, requiring proficiency in perspective and handicrafts, have been taken over by fantastically efficient programming of monitors and printers.
How do you rate your education? What subjects do you wish you had studied or eliminated? What would you have done differently?
My education served me well throughout my long career, up to the advent of the computer, which I have not been able to comprehend.
What advice would you give today's students?
Try to become conversant with the age-old task of solving problems, concerning form and function of manmade things, employing all means, offered by state of the art technology and unfettered imagination.
In what direction(s) would you like to see the profession evolve?
The development of consumer goods and systems in recognition of global conditions, limited raw materials, energy, socio-economics, aiming to bring about the narrowing of the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots."
What projects/experiences now provide the most meaning and satisfaction?
Unlimited communications, man-produced shelter, (Bucki Fuller), research and development into infinite sources of energy, wind, water, hydrogen.
What are your goals now?
Just timid hope to live a little longer and see some human progress through good design.