The Higgins Glass Studio, created by Michael and Frances Higgins in 1948, celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. The talented and innovative artists leave behind a legacy of beautiful vintage art, as well as a thriving studio.
Owners Jonathan and Louise Wimmer, personally trained in the technique by Michael and Frances, continue the tradition of creating fused glass items with a unique blend of artistry and functionality.
Michael and Frances Higgins met while at the Chicago Institute of Design. Their mutual interest in rediscovering and refining the ancient art of fusing glass led to a lifelong professional partnership and marriage.
Because it is so labor-intensive, by the mid-20th century, fusing glass had been all but abandoned in favor of glass blowing, according to the studio’s website. It describes glass fusing as the creation of a “glass sandwich.”
“On one piece of enamel-coated glass, a design is created, either drawn with colored enamels or pieced together with glass segments,” according to the website. “Another piece of enameled glass is laid over this, and the entire object is placed on a mold and heated in a kiln. Within the kiln, the glass “slumps” to the shape of the mold. The design itself is fused between the outer glass pieces, with additional layers often adding to the texture and color complexity.”
The Higginses transformed everyday items, such as bowls and plates, into useful objects that were also “visually vibrant and exciting.”
Their original studio was in their Chicago Oak Street apartment, with three kilns set up behind the couch.
“They always loved the art fairs,” said Jonathan Wimmer, who together with his mother, Louise Wimmer, and sister, Celeste Wimmer, now own and operate the studio and create the art.
The first art fair the Higginses participated in was the Old Town Art Fair’s second year in 1949, where they sold out every piece, Jonathan Wimmer said. They quickly realized they were onto something.
Their work soon attracted larger buyers, including major retailers such as Marshall Fields, Georg Jensen and Bullock’s Wilshire. Through a 1957 partnership with Dearborn Glass Company of Chicago, they began a mass production line, promoted as “Higginsware.”
The scope of items included just about anything one can imagine done in glass, everything from lamps, tables, Christmas ornaments, church windows, wall plaques, mirrors, mobiles, free-standing sculptures and exterior building ornamentation.
The line became nationally recognized, and Higginsware items soon became highly collectible, with the gold Higgins signature indicating it was a Dearborn-era produced piece.
They invented what became a signature Higgins piece called Rondelays – circles and squares of richly-colored handcrafted glass, typically with a circle fused into the middle of the piece. Hung together, these pieces became wall art, room dividers or door and window treatments.
Their work is included in the collections of the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan and the Corning Glass Museum.
After almost a decade of mass production work where the kilns ran 24/7, the pair elected to return to private studio work in 1966, when they opened the studio location in Riverside.
Jonathan Wimmer’s mother began working at the studio in 1976 when he was a toddler. When Jonathan was in eighth grade, Michael Higgins began to teach him the Higgins technique. Jonathan said that a lot of people fuse glass, but it’s the techniques that make theirs special, including creating their own glass.
“That’s why our colors are so vivid,” Jonathan Wimmer said.
When Michael and Francis Higgins passed away in 1999 and 2004, respectively, the Higgins Studio came under the ownership and direction of their longtime design associates Louise and Jonathan Wimmer.
Louise Wimmer, who said she learned to decorate the glass from Fran, has become an accomplished decorator in her own right. Jonathan Wimmer said that there is always something new, especially technology, with which to work.
He has begun to create large mobile pieces that hang in public places, including the Riverside Public Library.
“It’s stunning,” Riverside Public Library Director Janice Foley said of the piece commissioned for the library by the family in memory of longtime resident and patron Margaret Anderson.
Wimmer also has created large-scale mobiles for the Oak Park Public Library, E2 Consulting in Evanston and Koreatown in Los Angeles.
“It’s a very rewarding process,” he said.
Wimmer said the holidays are a great time to come to the studio, as they have plenty of items for people to peruse for gift purchasing or for oneself.