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Love and glass: A day at Riverside's Higgins Glass

Published: Wednesday, April 3, 2013 11:58 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, July 25, 2014 4:47 a.m. CDT
Caption
(By Matthew Hendrickson - mhendrickson@shawmedia.com)
Higgins Glass owners Louise and Jonathan Wimmer stand before a roundelay in progress that will soon be displayed in the home of the director of the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation in Palisades, CA.
Caption
(By Matthew Hendrickson - mhendrickson@shawmedia.com)
Louise Wimmer, owner of Higgins Glass, puts some artistic touches on a piece of glass that will be fused to create an original handmade piece of art at their studio in Riverside.

RIVERSIDE — Louise and Jonathan Wimmer are continuing a tradition that has deep roots in Riverside, and one that continues to branch out in quite a few directions as well.

The mother-and-son team make up Higgins Glass Studio, 33 E. Quincy, in Riverside, entrusted to the Wimmers to carry on the art crafted by their long-time mentors, Fran and Michael Higgins, who began the company in 1948.

The Wimmers design, cut, decorate and create collectable pieces of fused glass. The pieces – from vases, to bowls, to trays and plates, trees and more - have become a modern-day interpretation of an art form that dates back centuries, but came back in popularity in the 1960s.

Each time a bowl, or a plate, or a tree or other work of art is prepared, the two channel their predecessors, using many of the techniques, the designs (with a bit of tweaking for modern-day touches), glazes and a fair amount of the equipment that the Higgins’ used for decades. 

“Two of the original kilns still work and still are used,” said Louise Wimmer, who has worked for Higgins since the mid-1970s. “The molds are still used. They all were made by Fran [Higgins].” 

Louise and Jonathan agree that it was Fran’s ideas and Michael’s energy and ingenuity that led these two huge talents to start their work out of their Chicago apartment in 1948.

The process of glass fusing is described by the company’s website as creating a “glass sandwich.” A design is created on one piece of enamel-coated glass; over this, another piece of glass is laid. Placed on a mold, the object is heated, where it conforms 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. 

Over the years their art sold in such major retailers as Marshall Field’s, Georg Jensen and Bullocks Wilshire, the very high-end store in the California-based department store chain.

These pieces have become well-known and popular in antique circles. Some are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Corning Museum of Glass in New York, Jonathan said.

After tenures with other companies, the Higgins decided in 1966 to return to private studio work and set up their offices in Riverside. The website notes that “here they were free to set their own goals, meet their own standards and design in the direction their hearts and minds led them.”

Since that time, all of the pieces created at the store are one-of-a-kind handcrafted works. They are on sale at the studio and online at www.higginsglass.com. The work is still highly respected, shipped far and wide – to Japan, to Barcelona, Spain and Valbonne, in southern France, the Wimmers said. Many also end up around the Riverside area after the studio has its popular annual Christmas decoration sale in early December. 

The art is not only collectable, but functional, said Jonathan, who has been with Higgins for 25 years. Some use the small bowls for rings or candy. Trays are used as accent pieces on tables, while others can be used to serve cheese and crackers. But he cautioned that while they are durable, they could scratch. Mostly now, because they are so collectable, people just “like to collect it and look at it,” Jonathan said.

And the studio still turns out the Higgins’ signature piece, the Rondelay. Rondelays are fused glass circles and squares designed to attach in sections, to be used as room dividers, window treatments and in other décor applications. 

The colorful circles also have been incorporated into a number of commissions. An 8-foot fusion of the circles was created for the home of the director of the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, which is based in Palisades, CA.  

They even showed up for the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010 when 130 6-inch Rondelays were joined together to create a hanging in the entertainment suite of Roots, the Canadian clothing company. 

Jonathan recalled that he actually went up to Vancouver to put the piece together. The pieces took six months in all to create. It took Jonathan about nine hours to hang them all.

“Quite an achievement,” said Jonathan, who is friends with the company’s owner.

Another commission will be created for the Roots store opening in Venice, CA.

Other commissions are as elaborate. One hangs just a few miles to the north in Oak Park. In 2007, the Wimmers hung an intricate 8-foot-wide and 4 foot deep mobile in the second-floor art gallery of the Oak Park Public Library. The work took six months to create.

Another commission containing Rondelays will be hung in the Riverside Public Library.

There’s a lot of history in Higgins, and the Wimmers are proud of their work and the company. Jonathan said he had been coming to the shop since he was 2 years old. Jonathan was like a grandson, as the Higgins never had children, Louise said. They spent all their holidays with them. She took care of them when they were sick.

“They were family,” Louise said.

With their deaths — Michael died in 1999 and Fran in 2005 — a trust denoted that only the Wimmer family could use the Higgins Glass name.  

Jonathan said he loves the business. It’s in his veins he said.

Are there other members of the family who could continue on the work and carry on the name Higgins Glass Studio? Louise said perhaps one of her children. 

“They gave us the knowledge to carry on the business,” Louise said. “It’s our life – and our love.”

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