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Twisted distorted, Ruba Rombic glass starts to sizzle


Even to most Depression glass or art deco collectors, Ruba Rombic might as well be a Latin American dance or a liquor mixed with Coke. Not many folks know about this rare Cubist glassware, once called "the craziest thing ever brought out in tableware." Even fewer have seen Ruba Rombic, which was manufactured by the Consolidated Lamp and Glass Co. in Coraopolis, Pa., between 1928 and 1932 and bore small black paper labels with gold block letters proclaiming itself "an epic in modern art." It looks like sculpted blocks of ice.

Ruba Rombic will be sizzling hot soon, thanks to Kevin and Barbara Kiley of West Orange, N.J. More than 350 pieces from their definitive collection of this faceted geometric glass which manipulates light and shadows will be for sale from Sept. 11 to Oct. 24 at Moderne. The gallery specializes in European and American art deco furnishings and fills a converted 19th century tobacco warehouse at 111 N. Third St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19106, phone (215) 923-8536.

Never before has so much Ruba Rombic been displayed. "When you see it all together, you recognize its importance as 20th century design," said Robert Aibel, Moderne's owner. "The shapes, even to the tumblers, are all twisted and distorted, though at that geometrically correct," a 1928 reviewer observed. "The first reaction on viewing it is all but shock, yet the more the pieces are studied the more they appeal, and there comes a realization that with all their distorted appearance they have a balance that is perfect and are true specimens of Cubist art."

Cubism, a style of French painting and sculpture invented in 1907 by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, expresses the syncopated restless mood of the jazz age and roaring '20s. Its angular forms were adapted by other avant garde artists as well as architects, wood craftsmen, consumer product designers, photographers and filmmakers.

Reuben Haley (1872-1933) brought Cubism to life in this molded, blown and hand-finished glassware. Mr. Haley received three patents on April 10, 1928 -- for a plate, vase and liquor bottle which broke up planes into zig-zag triangles and trapezoids. He assigned his rights to Consolidated, a company for which he designed several popular lines. The pattern's name likely came from "Rubaiy," which advertisements said meant an epic or poem, and "rhomboid," an oblique-angled parallelogram, but Ruba also may have referred to Reuben Haley.

Introduced three years after the "Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes" in Paris which gave rise to art deco, Ruba Rombic was a far cry from the streamlined, functional, and biomorphic shapes championed in "Machine Age" industrial design.

It is "truly original and strikingly beautiful" claims Jack D. Wilson, a Chicago collector who owns about 150 pieces of Ruba Rombic, many illustrated in his book "Phoenix & Consolidated Art Glass 1926-1980," (Antique Publications, 1989, $34.95), which examines the pattern's history and reproduces patent drawings, ads, contemporary reviews and pages from factory catalogs.

Colorful, shapely items

Marketed through wholesale showrooms from Boston to San Francisco and in upscale stores, Ruba Rombic wasn't give-away or dime store quality Depression glass. Hudson's in Detroit advertised a bowl for $5, a vase for $8.50, short candlesticks for $3.75 a pair, tumblers $20 a dozen and sherbets $25 a dozen -- high prices during the Great Depression. Mr. Wilson identified more than 35 Ruba Rombic tableware shapes (and several lighting fixtures) including plates in four sizes, glasses (some footed, others not) pitchers, sugars and creamers (but no cups and saucers), trays, cigarette boxes and centerpiece bowls. The bon bon, almond, relish and celery dishes, comports and finger bowls resonate of another era.

Ruba Rombic colors came from the Cubist palette. The widest selection seems to have been in "smoky topaz." Red and clear crystal pieces are very rare. There were several tones of silver and shades of green. Three colors, lavender-pink "lilac", "sunshine" yellow and "jade" green, were cased, that is lined with white glass.

"It looks wonderful but it's not practical," Wilmont M. Schwind Jr., an antiques dealer in Yarmouth, Maine, said about the "smoky topaz" service he and Arlene Palmer, an early American glass scholar, received as a wedding gift in 1979 from dealers Diana and Gary Stradling.

"When we use the footed compotes for ice cream, it looks like a glacier, but it's hard to get up the last drops as it melts into all those corners," Mr. Schwind said. "The plates are just about impossible to stack; I can see why it was never a commercial success."

The Kileys, who are Depression glass dealers, discovered Ruba Rombic pictured in a book in 1979, and it became the pattern they kept for themselves. "Our aim was to assemble a service for six in every color and we were never able to complete one," said Mr. Kiley. "We bought a piece here and a piece there." The couple advertised widely and other dealers scouted the country for them.

Ruba Rombic was hard to find because little was made and less survives; it nicks easily. Launched a year before the stock market crashed, this iconoclastic luxury tableware never had a chance to become popular before Consolidated's factory closed 1932.

Prices go higher

After a few pieces of Ruba Rombic were included in the Brooklyn Museum's 1986 "Machine Age" exhibition and the Smithsonian's traveling American art deco exhibit several years later, prices began to rise.

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