Joe Lewis defended his heavyweight title for the 23rd time, while movie marquis nationwide promoted “The Best Years of our Lives.” Dr. Spock emerged as the baby czar and the No. 1 song nationwide was “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah.” The year was 1946, and while America celebrated post-war frenzy, Isidore Cohn, a New Orleans boy completing medical school in Philadelphia, wandered into the Steuben Glass store in New York City and set a course for collecting that would carry him through the next six decades. Mention Cohn’s name in the Madison Avenue Steuben Glass store today and an air of familiarity is clearly evident.
Cohn, whose family dates back five generations in New Orleans (his grandfather was Moise Waldhorn and his father, Isidore Cohn Sr. was chief of surgery at Touro Infirmary) divides his energies between science and art. From 1962 to 1989 he was chief of surgery at Louisiana State University Medical Center and now has a chair named for him, as well as the Isidore Cohn Jr. Learning Center. But his love of design is what drives him and his wife, Marianne Cohn, to continue their lifelong passion for all things Steuben. On Nov. 13 (through Jan. 16, 2005) the Cohns will share that passion when much of their collection will be featured at the New Orleans Museum of Art in the exhibit, “Crystal Clear: Steuben Glass from the Collection of Isidore and Marianne Cohn.”
The collection, which normally resides with the Cohns in their Metairie home, has led them to some stellar experiences. “The more you collect, the more you meet people and learn more about the glass,” says Mrs. Cohn, a board member of the Arts Council of New Orleans, and a driving force behind the recently opened Louisiana ArtWorks. “It’s fascinating to both of us, but Isidore has excellent taste and a clear eye for design.”
The collection, hundreds of pieces, is a focal point of the Cohn home but somehow does not overtake the environment. The Cohns have owned the home for several decades and the collection is an established part of almost every room. In a small den just off the living room rests a spectacular Steuben piece featuring Noah. In the dining room is an elegantly oversized piece given to the Cohns by Dr. Cohn’s students. Hundreds of books in the study’s built-in shelves share space with Steuben pieces and other art objects. A custom-built 1950s unit in the living room with lighted shelves features major Steuben pieces.
“I have no idea who collects what in Steuben or how our things compare with anybody else,” Cohn says. “We have seen collections in museums and elsewhere, but we do this because we enjoy it and our family enjoys it.”
In fact, Steuben only existed for 43 years before Cohn’s fateful trip to the store in 1946. Founded in 1903 by English glassmaker Frederick Carder, it was named after Steuben County, N.Y., where the design studio and sole glassworks facility is still located. The company was acquired by Corning Glass Works in 1918. In 1933 Arthur A. Houghton Jr. became president and revolutionized the art glass industry by introducing clear Steuben crystal, known for its distinctive designs and hand methods of forming, polishing and engraving.
It is the engraving that fascinates the Cohns. At NOMA, the public will see most of the larger engraved pieces, including Mrs. Cohn’s wedding gift to her husband, a triangular piece that features the engraving of a butterfly wing that appears to move as one changes positions while viewing it. Also on display will be a set of Steuben goblets representing the seven deadly sins. “Each goblet shows a couple who are talking to each other,” Mrs. Cohn says. “The expressions on their faces are so intricately done and so fabulous. How they achieve that in such small figures still amazes us.”
The Cohns’ collection has expanded to include studio glass art from high-profile artists, including Sidney Waugh, James Houston, George Thompson, Donald Pollard, Paul Schulz and others, but it is Steuben that still defines the collection.
For those who view the collection at the museum, Dr. Cohn has just a few words of guidance: “Look for the clarity of the glass, the simple forms that make up most of them and the plain design, and of course, the engravings.”
This article appears in the November 2004 issue of New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles