Sybren Valkema, the nestor of Vrij Glas 'Free Glass' in Europe

Sybren Valkema (1916-1996) European Nestor of Studioglass, or Vrij Glas Free Glass as chosen term.

A short biography
SYBREN VALKEMA was raised in an anthroposophic, artistic and politically left-wing environment, his parents were both cultural and socially engaged. His decision to teach was made early, and he was trained at modern educational institutions. After receiving his teaching certificate, Valkema studied at the Hague Academy of Visual Arts to become a drawing teacher. Several years later he took over from Paul Schuitema in the department of adertising design's evening classes. In 1943 he became drawing instructor for the introductory year at IvKNO, Instituut voor Kunstnijverheidsonderwijs (later renamed Gerrit Rietveld Academie), where the director, architect Mart Stam, strived for a progressive higher education for industrial design in the spirit of 'Bauhus'. That same year, A.D. Copier brought him to Leerdam to become the instructor in 'aestetic design' for the newly set-up courses at the Leerdam Glass School. It was at this point that Valkema began following the twin path which would influence him, and many others, throughout his career. Yet, during the war, and due to the German occupation, living and working conditions deteriorated; in 1944 classes were suspended. Following the liberation in 1945, Valkema received an appointment in Amsterdam as lecturer in patter design for the departement of textile, weaving & fashion. His first designs were included in an exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in 1946; in that year he also became lecturer in composition and design studies at the IvKNO department of ceramics in Amsterdam. In the summer of 1945, classes resumed at Leerdam: Valkema was a highly appreciated teacher and an important cultural influence on his students (decorators, designers, glassmakers). Here he gradually developed into a designer himself, making his own contributions to product innovation. In the early 1950's he received his first royalty contract and a greater opportunity to work with the 'masters' in the glass factory. Valkema's well-known set of table glass from that period include Compact, Palm and Penta. He also took part in the 'Leerdam' contributions to an increasing number of international exhibitions - including the 'Expo 58' World Fair in Brussels, where the entire Leerdam pavilion was awarded the 'Grand Prix'. In addition to series production. the 1950's also saw him designing 'Unica', which were included in the official registration of 'Leerdam Unica' as from 1957. A significant intermezzo was his role in the 'Experimental Department' at 'De Porceleyne Fles' ceramics factory in Delft from 1956 to 1963, where he actively led the design and decorative innovation activities. The same period saw Valkema also creating many ceramics 'unica' himself, which were shown at a large number of international exhibitions. Meanwhile as deputy director of the IvKNO, Valkema also bore special responsibility over a period of 10 years for the preparations for the new academy building, designed by architect Gerrit Rietveld. As a member of official committees and through the IvKNO, he became increasingly involved in the currents of change going on in art education. Meanwhile he remained an active member - and later chairman - of the Netherlands State Board for the Commissioning and Purchase of Applied Art. As a member of this board he took part in 1964 in the charter meeting of the World Crafts Council in New York, where he immediately recognised the possibilities for free glass making as offered by the small-scale furnace developed by Labino and Littleton. Afterwards he became the first artist in Europe to build such a furnace himself. In 1965 (with the help of specialists from Leerdam) this furnace was actually put to use: this was the beginning of the glass program - the 'Glass Work Group' - which officially opened under his leadership at the Rietveld Academy in 1969. In 1967 he organised the first European exhibition of 'Free Glass', including work by Erwin Eisch, Sam Herman, Harvey Littleton, Marvin Lipofsky and Valkema himself in museum Boymans Van Beuningen, Gemeentemuseum Arnhem and Groninger Mueseum. After which, and at the invitation of Harvey Littleton, Valkema went to the University of Wisconsin in 1968 to teach European Glass Techniques and introduces the use of color rods. His experiences in the United States helped provide the model basis for the 'Glass Work Group' at the Rietveld Academy. From the 1970's to the 1990's, he took part in exhibitions, seminars and symposiums throughout the world. After his retirement from the Rietveld Academy in 1980 he worked in numerous glass studios in Europe and the United States. His own workshop in Blaricum was regularly expanded and remodelled with the help of his son Durk Valkema. As early as 1968, Valkema received a Royal decoration for his contributions in the Netherlands, which he would have refused had he been informed. In 1986 the Glass Museum in Ebeltoft honoured him by founding 'The Sybren Valkema Honorary Prize'. In 1987 Sybren Valkema was the first to receive the 'Friends Award' from the Dutch Association of Friends of Modern Glass. And in Oakland, California, on March 17, 1994, he received the 'Lifetime Achievement Award' from the Glass Art Society.
In the international history of 'free glass' (studioglass), Sybren Valkema's stature as a pioneer and true Nestor stands clear for all to see.

Anna Carlgren is founding board member of Vrij Glas and the curator of The Sybren Valkema Archive

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Download press image of Sybren Valkema here. Photo credit: Anna Carlgren
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