When passing through the galleries of The Corning Museum of Glass, guests often pause to marvel at the captivating artwork before them. Each individual forms a unique perspective on the pieces, connecting them to their own personal thoughts, opinions, and experiences. However, when you’re able to hear an artist speak about their thought process, life events, and motivations behind their designs, an entirely new frame of reference is introduced. I was lucky enough to speak with one of Steuben’s most renowned artists, Eric Hilton, to learn more about his time as a glass designer in the United States.
Hilton, originally from Scotland, attended The Edinburgh College of Art where he studied the subjects of glass, ceramics, silversmithing, and photography. After obtaining his MFA, Hilton transitioned from student to instructor, beginning his career as an educator at his alma mater. There, he helped to structure a new study program within the university’s design department. Throughout the 1960’s, Hilton taught courses at the Stourbridge College of Art (England), Birmingham College of Art (England), the University of Victoria (Canada), and The State University of New York at Alfred. In 1976, Hilton left teaching full-time to focus on his role as a consulting artist for Steuben, where he wasted no time in creating some of Steuben’s most mesmerizing works.
“One of the most valued factors in my association with Steuben is the opportunity to have created a series of large sculptural projects, with the first major work being Innerland,” Hilton said.
Visually, Innerland, which took four years to complete, is as captivating as it is complex. Hilton explains that the visual intricacies are very much intentional, used as a representation of an individual’s life.
“Thirty-six units of crystal are defined in a contained rectangular form. Each of the units is cut, sandblasted, and engraved to create the kaleidoscopic journey of one’s life,” Hilton said. “The work invites the viewer into personal realms with their own imaginative perception of their individual life experience. The work is ever-shifting, visually creating the mysterious illusion of life on Earth.” Innerland, once exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, is now a part of The Corning Museum of Glass’s permanent collection.
In addition to Innerland, Hilton was commissioned by the S.C. Johnson Wax Company to design and execute one-of-a-kind board room doors for a new corporate building, known as the Council House, in Racine, WI., Hilton designed and constructed the doors in his remote studio, located in Odessa, NY.
Following this special commission was Hilton’s contribution to The Steuben Project, where he crafted 10 sculptures to be shown at the Heller Gallery in New York City. Then, in 1990, Hilton contrived Creation, a six-and-a-half feet tall sculpture that originally was displayed at the World Exposition in Osaka, Japan. Creation, now based at the corporate headquarters of the Suntory Company in Osaka, is one of the largest Steuben sculptures ever.
“Creation’s theme deals, as most of my work does, with the interrelationship of nature,” Hilton said. “We have the eternal custody of Earth, and this work seeks to emphasize the fragile chain of relationships which interdepend on each other to give diversity to our Earth.”
Steuben Business Manager Steven Bender remarked on Hilton’s impressive history with the Steuben brand. “For more than 40 years, Eric has brought a unique perspective to the Steuben design team,” Bender said. “He has an uncanny ability to bring the glass to life by leveraging the synergy between refracting and reflecting angles, smooth surfaces and texture, and bringing the energy of the viewer into his work.”
Today, many of Hilton’s pieces are still being produced and sold through Steuben’s current product line. Popular gifts like Beacon of Light, America the Beautiful, and many more are just a few of Hilton’s timeless designs. He has also recently completed special commission projects for Steuben, including Seeds of Enlightenment, a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that is on display in the New York State Capitol building, and the first-place trophy for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series at Watkins Glen International.
As for what lies ahead for his future work with Steuben, Hilton hopes to continue to push his creative limits. “Steuben has always presented me with pathways to new and exciting developments in pursuit of creativity. My roots with Steuben are both based on the depths of tradition and taking the medium of glass to new innovations,” Hilton said. “My vision into the future lies in continuing to explore and introduce new realms of discovery for the viewer within a labyrinth of illusion, adventure and mystery bordering on the magical.”