When the best way is to press

A stork stands on a rocky shore, surrounded by tall grasses and grasping a favorite delicacy in its beak — a small, still writhing snake. An extraordinarily rich red shading down to yellow amber sets a mood of evening, of a brilliant sunset.

Long considered one of the most desirable forms among collectors of American art glass, this vase is all the more remarkable because it was machine pressed, in a mold. But why?

By the time of its design in 1884, American glass makers had taken pressed glass on a complicated journey, through the dual worlds of technology and status. On its rise, a technical idea went from experimental products through to the height of fashion. Soon pressing challenged cut glass, imitating and occasionally outdoing it. Yet imitation led to its downfall, at least in status. Pressing allowed the mass production of a huge range of goods, from the mid-market to the inexpensive. It became the cheap way to create cheap things.

So why would Joseph Locke include even one pressed form among his designs for a highly fashionable line of glass, the New England Glass Works' newly invented Amberina? This glass had the remarkable property of changing color when it was reheated, from amber to a rich ruby. Locke realized its possibilities for design. He patented not just the material, but a process of careful reheating to create objects with ends of amber and red that faded into each other.

And yet there it is! While most designs saw a return of traditional blowing, and were decorated using traditional pattern molds, this vase is the only figural form. And it's pressed! Small in stature, with a sculptural design from the height of the aesthetic movement, this vase is probably the most successful design of them all.

With hindsight, we see Locke far ahead of his time. In the 1920s, the great French firm Lalique built an entire business upon artistic pressing. Lalique had rediscovered what Locke had long known — that with high quality glass and molds, pressing is simply the best way to make certain sculptural forms in glass.