Digitizing the Archives of a European Glass Pioneer

Sybren Valkema

Sybren Valkema

Sybren Valkema was not only a glass artist and teacher, he was a pioneer. Much like Dominick Labino and Harvey Littleton introduced the studio glass movement to America in 1962, Valkema brought it to Europe shortly thereafter, paving the way for glassworkers to transition from factory work to artistry. Over a year ago, the Museum’s Rakow Research Library began working with the RKD, the Netherlands Institute for Art History, to digitize and disseminate the archive of Sybren Valkema (1916-1996).

The archive documents the professional life of the Dutch glass artist who occupies a distinguished place in the pantheon of European glass artists. It contains teaching materials, slides relating to his career, descriptions of processes, and many recipes for glass which have been tested and revised with handwritten notes.

“If he were alive today, he would have a blog,” said his daughter-in-law and former student, Anna Carlgren. “In reality, that’s what he had. He was corresponding with people all the time. They’d write him with a problem (in French, English, German, or Dutch), and he’d respond with suggestions. They’d reply with their findings, and would sometimes include a piece. It makes for a diverse archive.”

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In a book he began writing in the late 1980s, Valkema says he was lucky three times in his professional life. The first was in 1943 when he met Andries Copier who asked him to teach at the school for the Leerdam Glass Factory. It was here that Valkema developed an early commitment to the education of the workers that would become a lifelong pattern. During wartime, he worked to provide the workers with a holistic program that included fine arts and physical education as well as the more traditional vocational curriculum. As a member of the generation who lived through the war years and its deprivations, Valkema exhibited the spirit of invention and self-reliance in many areas of his professional life that would become so indicative of the later studio glass movement. Valkema taught Design and Aesthetics at the school from 1943-1953, while continuing to do freelance design work at the factory.

Although he began working at Amsterdam’s Gerrit Rietveld Academy in 1943 as well, it was Valkema’s visit to New York in 1964 that inspired him to do things differently, setting the course for monumental change to glassmaking in Europe. He attended the inaugural meeting of the World Crafts Council in New York City where he saw a demonstration by Harvey Littleton of a portable furnace Dominick Labino had developed. Meeting Littleton marked the second time Valkema said he was lucky in his professional life. Littleton drove him to Corning once the conference was over, where he visited The Corning Museum of Glass.

Sybren would use his own source material to write and illustrate texts on the history of glass for his students.

Sybren would use his own source material to write and illustrate texts on the history of glass for his students.

Inspired by the founders of the studio movement, Valkema returned home and built the first studio glass furnace in Europe the following year, enabling artists to work in their own studios independent of the glass factories. In 1969, Valkema created a curriculum around glassmaking at the Rietveld Academy, and started a workgroup where people from different departments could come work with glass—the third time he said he was lucky in his professional life. This movement became known as “vrij glas,” or “free glass,” meaning the glassmaking process had no bounds or restrictions.

“The essence of the studio glass movement, the inspiration that all of those artists and educators took away from that first encounter, was an idea; that artists could have direct access to a unique material without the mediation of a factory or a system that divorced craftsman from designer,” said Durk Valkema. “That single idea was the real spark that led to university-level glass departments, which in turn disseminated information to and inspired independent studios across America and Europe and that would later spread around the world. Without extensive knowledge sharing studio glass would not have been able to thrive, nor exist outside a factory setting.”

Durk Valkema blows glass for his father, assisted by Anna Carlgren, at La Symposium Internationale du Verre à Sars-Poteries, 1982.

Durk Valkema blows glass for his father, assisted by Anna Carlgren, at La Symposium Internationale du Verre à Sars-Poteries, 1982.

Durk Valkema and his wife Anna Carlgren, together with Annelies van der Vorm, founded the Vrij Glas Fouindation, and will further enhance the archive by providing in depth Metadata for the dissemination of the Valkema archive. It was the initiative of Vrij Glass that connected the RKD with the Rakow to preserve and ultimately share the archive.

The Sybren Valkema archive is currently undergoing re-housing, cataloging, and conservation in preparation for digitization. All the documents from the archive will be available via the RKD archives and the Rakow Research Library database at the end of 2015. It will serve as a research tool for the proliferation of innovation in glass.

The Rakow Research Library is open to the public 9am to 5pm every day. We encourage everyone to explore our collections in person or online. If you have questions or need help with your research, please use our Ask a Glass Question service.

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