All Your Retro Needs Are Here!

Higgins is “A Glass Act”
By Donald-Brian Johnson, Contributing Writer
Photos by Leslie Piña

Vintage glass adds retro panache to any decor
Vintage glass adds retro panache to any decor
Sometimes, all it takes to rev up a retro decor is the right accessory. And, when it comes to just the right decorative touch, the choice is as clear as glass–Higgins glass!

These fused glass pieces from the fabulous ’50s combine an arresting mix of geometric and curved lines with a bold use of colors. Whatever your decorating scheme calls for–from eye-popping oranges to cool blues–the vast and vivid Higgins inventory is guaranteed to have what you’re looking for.

The Higgins saga began in 1948, with the opening of a Chicago-area studio by newlyweds Michael and Frances Higgins. The Higgins, both with extensive previous artistic experience, took it as their mission to revive the ancient art of glass fusing. Although popular in the past, fused glass had, by the mid-20th century, been abandoned in favor of blown glass.

Grouping of Higgins bowls, produced at Dearborn Glass Company circa 1961. Country Garden, $550-$600; Arabesque Apple, $225-$275; Sunburst, $175-$200; and Buttercup, $125-$150.
Grouping of Higgins bowls, produced at Dearborn Glass Company circa 1961. Country Garden, $550-$600; Arabesque Apple, $225-$275; Sunburst, $175-$200; and Buttercup, $125-$150.
Essentially, fusing is the creation of a “glass sandwich”. A design is created on one piece of enamel-coated glass, either drawn with color enamels, or pieced with glass segments. Over this, another piece of enameled glass is laid. Placed on a mold, the object is then heated. Under heat, the glass “slumps” (or bends) to the shape of the mold. The design itself, fused between the outer glass pieces, will not fade or wear with use, remaining brightly colorful through the years.

Off Like a Rocket
The Higgins quickly learned what the early ’50s market wanted and turned their fusing technique to the production of such useful objects as bowls, plates, assorted serving dishes, lamps, clocks, and–a trend of the times–smoking accessories, particularly ashtrays of every shape and size.

Pi Plate by Michael Higgins
Pi Plate by Michael Higgins
While their uses may have been everyday, the zingy color combos and imaginative stylings unique to Higgins pieces attracted buyers by the droves. The duo were also helped greatly by their association, from 1957 to 1964, with industrial manufacturer Dearborn Glass Company. Unlike many other artisans of the period, whose only sales outlets were art fairs, the Higgins now had the advantage of nationwide distribution and promotion of their work. And, since every piece produced bore the lower-case signature “higgins”, their name recognition was immediate and enduring.

At Dearborn, the Higgins adapted their handcrafted procedures to the demands of mass production, churning out endless houseware items in patterns with such vibrant, instantly enticing names as “Stardust”, “Barbaric Jewels”, “Arabesque” and “Mandarin”. As Dearborn’s promotional postcards of the time indicate, it was literally possible to set an entire table (except for the silver) with Higgins glass. Frances Higgins later recalled that the goal set for Higginsware at Dearborn was “a new line every six months”. If a particular pattern sold well, the couple were urged to adapt it to every size and shape imaginable. Soon, for example, simple serving plates gave way to “two-tier servers”, followed by “three-tier servers”. If the public might possibly buy it, the Higgins would create it.

Going Their Own Way

Dropout vase by Frances Higgins, 1967. $5000-$5500.
Dropout vase by Frances Higgins, 1967. $5000-$5500.
By the mid-1960s, the hectic Dearborn pace had become wearing. After a brief 1965 stint at Haeger Potteries, Frances and Michael Higgins elected to open a private studio in Riverside, Illinois, which has remained the home of Higgins Glass since 1966. At their Riverside studio, the creative couple continued to produce many of the items that initially brought them acclaim. However, they now also had the freedom (and time) to pursue in greater depth such innovative uses of fused glass as mobiles, sculptures, jewelry, framed glass art, and even room dividers made up of “Rondelays” (linked glass circles first developed by Michael in the ’50s).

Michael Higgins died in 1999, Frances Higgins in 2004. The Higgins Studio is now under the ownership and direction of their longtime design associates Louise and Jonathan Wimmer. Pieces created today honor and expand on the traditions and of the past. This direct line of continuity means that glass objects in the distinctive Higgins style will continue to enchant collectors for many years to come.

Michael and Frances Higgins at their Riverside studio in the 1980s.
Michael and Frances Higgins at their Riverside studio in the 1980s.
Thanks to the vast Higgins output, there are Higgins pieces available today for collectors of every taste (and price range). Some unique (and exceptionally valuable) pieces are part of the collections of such institutions as the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan, and the Corning Glass Museum. On the other hand, many pieces produced during the Dearborn years can still often be found, quite reasonably priced, at modern shows and shops, or online.

A Dash of Glass Panache
The trick in using Higgins to accent a retro decor is, in some cases, to see beyond the original use of an object, to its use as you envision it. Perhaps your home has no need for a whopping 15″ freeform ashtray, no matter how brilliant its color scheme. That same ashtray, however, re-imagined as a generously-sized chip dish, will definitely brighten up the buffet line. Oversize vintage chargers, while perhaps too valuable for actual dining use, make wonderful place-markers when setting a period table. And Higgins cigarette boxes have a multitude of uses in addition to their original one, from change holders, to dresser vanities, to candy dishes.

Bubbles sculpture by Frances Higgins, 13 inches, $1500-$1700.
Bubbles sculpture by Frances Higgins, 13 inches, $1500-$1700.
Many Higgins objects, of course, remain just right as originally intended: a single large Higgins bowl or dish, or the same pattern in several different shapes and sizes, makes an emphatic design statement when given star billing on a table or sideboard…Rondelays in varied, complementary colorways hung in a window, provide an arresting alternative to windowshades and curtains…and a shimmering Higgins mobile, alive with abstract shapes and paintbox primary colors, will provide stunning visual impact to any room. Guaranteed. The choice is yours–the only difficulty comes in having so many possibilities to choose from!

The Higgins Studio was initially hailed as the home of “modern miracles with everyday glass”. Today, collectors continue to discover that “modern miracle”: the excitingly eye-catching appeal Higgins glass, both old and new, brings to any environment.

“We just try to make what looks good, anytime, in any place. Things that are lasting, and can be enjoyed for years to come.”
-Frances Higgins

The Higgins Glass Studio is located at 33 East Quincy Street, Riverside, IL 60546; Ph: (708) 447-2787.

The Landing Pad is a recurring column on retro decor by Donald-Brian Johnson, who writes and lectures frequently on mid-20th century decorative arts. With photographer Leslie Piña, he is co-author of Higgins: Poetry in Glass (Schiffer Publishing), as well as Higgins: Adventures in Glass, and numerous other books on mid-century modern. He can be contacted at

One Comment to “CLEARLY STYLISH”

  1. on 26 Oct 2009 at 10:16 pmGail Woolen

    I have a signed vintage Higgins ashtray and would like to know it’s value. Ashtray has signature in gold. It has three blue retangles one red circle and gold flowers.

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