When Glass Meets Minimalism: Edward James and His Art Deco Glass Lamps

This blog comes to us from Rose Zhou, Sujin Jung, and Rick Li, MA Conservation Studies students at West Dean College on the south coast of England. Rose, Sujin, and Rick have been interning with The Corning Museum of Glass for the last two months, working virtually with our Conservation Department to learn about glass conservation and what it means to be a conservator in a museum setting. For this post, they have applied that knowledge to examine objects in the college’s collection.

The West Dean College students, (L to R) Rick Li, Rose Zhou, and Sujin Jung, in the Old Library at West Dean.

The global pandemic has impacted a lot of people’s study, work, and life. For us, three conservation students from West Dean College in the UK, our work placements at external conservation labs were interrupted. This is when our tutor reached out to the Conservation Department of The Corning Museum of Glass, who kindly offered us a five-week online work placement from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean!

During these five weeks, Astrid van Giffen, associate conservator, and Lianne Uesato, assistant conservator, from Corning’s Conservation Department customised a brief but fantastic journey into the glass world for us through a series of lectures and demonstrations. With the help from colleagues from other departments at the Museum, we had the chance to peek into a conservator’s daily life to see beyond lab work to the collaborative teamwork among departments. All of these are extremely valuable experiences for us to get a feel for working in a museum.

West Dean College of Arts and Conservation, © West Dean College of Arts and Conservation

While we were doing a collection survey project of ceramics at West Dean College, this work placement also inspired us to look at the glass collection from a new perspective. We had many options, as the collection includes a wide variety of glass objects ranging from Roman glass vessels to medieval, 17th century, 19th century, and modern stained glass, historic chandeliers, glass tableware, and glass elements associated with interior design. In this blog, we intend to briefly introduce the glass collection from a conservation perspective, with a particular focus on the art deco glass lamps.

Edward James (1907-1984), circa late 1920s, © West Dean College of Arts and Conservation

West Dean College of Arts and Conservation was established by the Edward James Foundation in 1971. Edward James (1907-1984) was an English poet and one of the most important English patrons of art of the early 20th century. It was Edward James’ aspiration to turn his estate into an educational community for preserving and promoting art and craft. Perhaps he is best known for his patronage of the surrealist movement. Being a key sponsor to various surrealist artists including Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, he also developed a close personal friendship and creative collaboration with them, including the creation of the Mae West Lips Sofa and Lobster Telephone.

Besides his engagement in the art world, James also expressed his artistic vision through the interior design of his homes. Although many of them no longer exist, his avant-garde spirit can be seen in the personal possessions he left behind. When looking into his collections, we found that he showed a specific interest in lamps. It is hard to find a single word to generalize his lamp collection, as clearly, James treated each lamp not only as a lighting source but also as a part of an innovative “personality” for each room. In particular, a group of art deco glass lamps caught our interest.

The first objects are a pair of glass standard lamps designed by Jean-Michel Frank in circa 1928. They were supplied to Edward James in circa 1930 for the interior decoration of his home at 35 Wimpole Street, London. Jean-Michel Frank (1895-1941) was a French interior designer known for his minimalist and classic modernist ideas. This pair of lamps clearly conveys his aesthetics, with plain lines and elegant form. The central square pillar of each lamp was made of nine glass sheets layered together, inserted at the top and bottom in patinated bronze cubes. The thickness of the layered glass sheets enhances the greenish-blue hue of the glass but keeps the translucent and refractive quality. The circular base is also made of the same patinated bronze material, topped by four glass quarters that create a mirror effect.

A pair of Standard Lamps with Layered Glass, Patinated Bronze, and Aluminum, designed by Jean-Michel Frank circa 1928, West Dean Collection, photo courtesy of Rose Zhou.
Detail of the layered glass design and the patinated bronze cube at the top, photo courtesy of Rose Zhou.
Detail of the contaminants in between the glass layers, photo courtesy of Rose Zhou.

Under close investigation, contaminants including dust and small bugs can be seen between the glass layers which dull the visual quality of the glass pillar. This suggests that there is no adhesive in between the glass sheets to glue them together. There are also small “halos” forming around the bug bodies, which suggests localized deterioration. Moisture trapped with the bugs and other organic materials may be slowly reacting with the glass surface to cause corrosion. While cleaning is obviously the best way to remove the sources of corrosion, the risk of dismantling the object for cleaning purposes needs to be considered as part of the decision-making process. Meanwhile, cleaning can only temporarily improve the appearance. The same situation is likely to happen again over time because of the design of the piece. This is what a conservator would call an “inherent vice” of the object.

The second object is a glass and chrome table lamp. The existing archival records do not offer any information about the maker, but it is strongly believed that it was also Jean-Michel Frank who designed this object.

Glass and Chrome Table Lamp, designed by Jean-Michel Frank circa 1940s, West Dean Collection, photo courtesy of Sujin Jung.

A significant number of artifacts by Frank in an identical design but different materials were found. The design of this object, with a cruciform stem, is called “Croisillon” in French. Research showed that Frank’s “Croisillon” lamp was executed in several materials such as painted iron, oak, gilt bronze, painted bronze, brass, and glass. This pair, from a Sotheby’s auction in 2020, is one of the examples made in painted bronze. As most of the objects in the same design were made in the 1940s, the table lamp might also have been created around the same period.

Another reason to suspect this object is Jean-Michel Frank’s work is that the colour and structural use of the glass is very similar to the pair of standard glass lamps (above). The medium of this object is almost the same light green hue flat glass, with five flat glass sheets layered together to form a thick panel in a similar manner. Four glass panels constitute the “Croisillon” structure on a chrome metal base. Frank pursued simple forms with clarity but gave an accent with unexpected materials. Compared to the same design in other materials, layering the flat glasses gives a striking visual effect based on the simple structure, with the cruciform design refracts the light in a scattering way. However, the absence of archival records leads to more guesses. It will be worth investigating the authenticity of this object further. 

The condition of the object is generally good except for general surface dirt. Dust between the glass sheets is observed. There are two small chips to the glass sheets. Five glass sheets of each cross-wing are held with rivets on the bottom, one of which is replaced previously with a rivet in different metal and an additional foam pad. The glass sheets are slightly wobbly. Metal components have some tiny black dots and scratches, but the metal itself does not show any deterioration. The metal base shows extensive scratches, probably caused during the assembly process.

The third object is this early 20th-century four-tier glass globe table lamp. Not much information is available regarding its design or origin, but Art Deco influence can be seen in its minimal aesthetic. It consists of four identical clear glass globes stacked on the vertical metal stem of the table lamp, with a bulb holder at the top.

Glass and Chromed Metal Table Lamp, early 20th century, West Dean Collection, photo © West Dean College of Arts and Conservation
Glass and Chromed Metal Table Lamp, early 20th century, West Dean Collection, photo © West Dean College of Arts and Conservation

This object may be missing a lampshade and metal fitting. Other parts of the table lamp are in relatively good condition, including the glass globes to the chrome metal base. This object can be compared with a similar object within the collection, with two-tier glass globes stacked on the stem instead of four. While the comparison object is also missing the lampshade, its metal fitting suggests how the shade may have looked. The shape of the fitting could be an important reference for potential conservation treatments for the four-tier glass globe lamp.

These two objects are currently kept in a glass cabinet with dedicated environmental monitoring in place. Although well preserved over the decades, signs of aging can be observed on the elastic cables as well as the underside of the metal base. Preventive intervention may be required to check the risk of the degradation, which will involve consultation with the West Dean college collection manager. Perhaps assessment by the metal conservators will be required to check the conditions of the metal base, such as the potential issue of rust.

Together, these items exemplify a particular group of glass objects as daily functional objects that convey a design value. Without elaborate decorative details, the glass itself, as a unified transparent solid with brilliant light refractive quality, can be appreciated. At the same time, these characteristics provide a perfect foil for the minimalist aesthetic and turn the glass into a supporting role. In short, while the key element of the object is obviously the glass, the essence of the object is no longer the material but the design. This poses a lot of interesting questions when it comes to conservation decision-making. How should the missing parts be replaced when the visual perception of the object is interrupted? How should “inherit vices” be considered when treating these modern objects? How should they be displayed to best fulfill their value? Ultimately, are we conserving the object, or are we conserving an idea?

There is no definite answer to any of these questions, which makes each project an adventure for the conservator to seek the best solution – and that’s all part of the fun!


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