In some ways, walking into Higgins Glass Studio in downtown Riverside is like a trip back in time. The colorful fused-glass roundelays, mobiles, decorative bowls, framed art glass and jewelry still exude a serious mid-century modern vibe.
That’s due in good part to the fact that the present owners of Higgins Glass, the Wimmer family, still produce items using the kilns, molds and techniques that can be traced to the work of founders Frances and Michael Higgins in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.
But 70 years after the Higginses started the art glass studio inside their small Chicago apartment in 1948, the Wimmer family continues to make new work based on those forms, decorations and glass-fusing techniques.
And they’ll celebrate that anniversary on Saturday, Nov. 24 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Higgins Glass Studio, 33 E. Quincy St. The entire studio, not just the retail area in front but the production studio in the back will be open to the public to see.
The inventory is ever changing. And every item they sell is made by hand individually or collectively by Louise Wimmer and/or her children, Jonathan Wimmer and Celeste Loeffler inside the studio at 33 E. Quincy St., the building Higgins Glass has called home since 1970.
Last week the trio was busy creating items that will be on sale at the anniversary open house – everything ranging from Christmas ornaments to mobiles (Jonathan says he’s shooting to have at least a dozen available that day) and everything in between.
“Rondelays [glass discs and discs fused inside square glass and then connected by brass rings to form screens] are always big [sellers],” said Jonathan during an interview at the studio last week. “Mobiles have been very, very big right now. We’ve been selling mobiles like crazy. And then trees have always been popular. The tree plates and the tree frames lately have been actually pretty popular.”
Jonathan, now in his 40s, started working and learning to cut and fuse glass in the studio alongside Michael Higgins when he was just a child. He creates the elaborate mobiles, sculptures and other works of fused glass, such as bowls and plates.
Now in her 70s, Louise, who started learning to decorate glass and frames at the feet of Frances Higgins in the late 1970s, still concentrates on decoration, something Celeste began doing just a couple of years ago.
Michael and Frances Higgins started out in 1948 as a small operation, using three electric kilns to fuse glass in their Oak Street apartment in Chicago. By 1957, their work had become popular enough that the couple stated mass producing pieces at Dearborn Glass in Bedford Park for retailers such as Marshall Field’s.
If you see a piece of Higgins glassware signed “Higgins” in gold, it’s from that Dearborn Glass era. Nowadays, pieces are signed “Higgins Studio” to distinguish them from the vintage work.
By 1966, the Higginses were back operating out of a small, private studio in Riverside. Later the couple would move from their home on Pine Avenue into an apartment above the East Quincy Street studio.
Michael Higgins died in 1999 at the age of 90, and Frances Higgins died in 2004 at the age of 91.
They had no children and left Higgins Glass to their longtime employees Louise and Jonathan Wimmer.
“Just before Michael passed away I was upstairs visiting with him and he said, ‘Weezie, what are we going to name this, Higgins-Wimmer?” said Louise. “I said, ‘No it’s always going to be Higgins. He felt comfortable with that. I think he was happy that we weren’t going to change the name.
“After Fran passed away, in their trust, [Higgins Glass] was left to me, and if I wasn’t around it would go to Jonathan, and no one else can use the Higgins name.”
Louise is something of an accidental glass artisan. She moved to Riverside in 1972 with her architect husband, Mike, and Higgins Glass was one of the first places she discovered.
She and her husband commissioned Higgins Glass to design a window for their home, and Louise told Frances Higgins at the time that if she ever needed help at the studio, she was good with her hands.
Within a few years, she found herself in the basement of the Higgins home on Pine Avenue in Riverside, helping paint “framies” – art glass contained within painted, molded plaster frames.
She’d later move over to the studio on East Quincy Street, and Jonathan, then just a young child, would go to nursery school just a few doors east and join his mom at the studio, where he’d watch “Sesame Street” and play with clay while Louise worked.
By the time he was in eighth-grade, Jonathan had caught the eye of Michael Higgins, who taught him to cut glass.
“I worked under Michael for a long time and I would help Frances out with certain things,” said Jonathan Wimmer. “I was the other guy in the place. He liked having me around because he was the only male figure.”
By the time Jonathan graduated from St. Joseph High School in 1993, Michael Higgins was already approaching his mid-80s. Jonathan attended Triton College for a time, but cut that short to immerse himself in Higgins Glass.
“By that time it was so busy here,” Jonathan said.
In 1997, two years before Michael Higgins’ death, Donald-Brian Johnson published “Higgins: Adventures in Glass,” ushering in a boom time for the studio. The company was profiled in the New York Times and Chicago Tribune and the small staff was overwhelmed by the demand for their work.
“Once the book came out we hardly had anything on the shelves,” Louise said.
The Christmases right before Michael Higgins’ death, people would line up outside the store at noon for what was then an evening open house that was part of the annual Riverside Holiday Stroll.
“The place would fill up and everything would be gone, except for a few pieces,” Jonathan said. “We’d end up having to close every day except for Saturdays because we couldn’t keep up.
“We had legal pads of orders for rondelays, just page after page.”
Things may not be as hectic now, but the holidays typically are a very busy time for the studio, which produces specialty glass ornaments every year and hosts its annual open house.
While the studio still produces many of their more traditional pieces, Jonathan is hoping the studio can push into creating larger-scale commissions, such as wall sculptures and mobiles that are now possible due to advances in technology.
“There really are a lot of good possibilities out there for us,” he said.