Loetz Witwe – the glory years, 1898 - 1905


‘Tiffany Genre’ Loetz
In the summer of 1897 Siegfried Bing organized an exhibition of Tiffany glass in the North Bohemian Industrial Arts Museum (Severočeské muzeum) in Reichenberg (Liberec). One of the visitors to the exhibition was Max von Spaun, the owner of the Loetz Witwe glassworks. It is a frequently repeated oversimplification to maintain that this visit marked the moment when Loetz decided to move from its historicist to art nouveau styles. The company had already obtained patents for iridescent glass with a ‘metallic shimmer’ in 1895 and 1896 (Tiffany’s first patent for iridescent favrile glass dates from 1894), and Loetz had manufactured its obviously art nouveau décors Pampas, Papillon and Rusticana as early as in 1896 (see Ricke II, page 385, PN 6612 and 6640).
What seems to be true is that at about the time of the exhibition von Spaun realized the market potential of a cheaper version of Tiffany’s fabulously expensive favrile glass. A contemporary report on Tiffany glass commented that “the prices asked are monstrous....the attraction of the glass is not the result of artistic dexterity but merely of chemical reactions”. Accordingly, from 1898 onwards, Loetz manufactured significant quantities of glass openly declared to be ‘in the Tiffany style’ and often barely distinguishable from it, but marketed at much lower prices.
Phänomen Glass is Born
But von Spaun was not content for the Loetz glassworks to be remembered merely for its copies of somebody else’s glass. Stung by criticisms of plagiarism and building on the centuries-old experience and traditions of Bohemian glass, Loetz quickly began to create its own new designs and decorative techniques. Building on earlier experience with iridescent glass (e.g. Olympia in 1896) and trailing threads (e.g. Pêle-mêle in 1894 and Chiné in 1897) the glassworks created what was to prove to be its masterpiece, the Phänomen series of décors. This magnificent glass was characterized by trailed combed threads and bands and metallic iridescence.  It was also now that the glassworks started the first of its fruitful collaborations with some of the most renowned art nouveau artists and designers, notably with Marie Kirscher and – through its Viennese distributor Bakalowits - with Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser. Von Spaun and Prochaska set their sights on excelling at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1900, and for this they decided to rely heavily, though by no means exclusively, on the designs of the young Viennese painter and sculptor Franz Hofstötter (aka Hofstätter), who was already making a name for himself as a designer of church interiors. We examine Loetz’s work for the Universal Exposition in detail in a separate article. Suffice it to say here that Loetz won one of the coveted Grand Prix awards.
A Summer of Innovation, and the Approach of Autumn
Building on this landmark success, Loetz intensified its collaborations with notable artists and designers, including Leopold Bauer, Robert Holubetz and Jutta Sitka. Dozens of new Phänomen variants were produced, as well as large numbers of vases and bowls in simpler décors like Aeolus, Cytisus, Diaspora, Formosa, Nautilus, Neptun, Orpheus and Vesuvian, while successful earlier décors like Pampas and Papillon also remained in production. Many of these pieces were made in increasingly bizarre organic shapes, with multiple indentations. Contrasting sharply with these were the starkly geometric pieces by Marie Kirschner, often with simple décors and extravagant handles.
But already dark clouds were appearing on the horizon. The success of Phänomen glass was remarkable, but it was also remarkably short-lived, with a sharp decline in popularity from 1903 onwards. Production figures at the Loetz glassworks peaked in 1900-1902, then dropped by 25% in 1903, another 20% in 1904 and a further 25% in 1905.
The glory years of Loetz were history. The company was to exist for another forty years, and to produce glass of great quality throughout, but these later years were to be characterized by financial problems, production setbacks and a series of ultimately unsuccessful attempts to recapture the excitement and innovative drive of the years 1898-1902.