At over four hours' drive from New York City, the city of Corning in upstate New York is not exactly close (or easy) to get to. Still, that hasn't stopped travellers from heading to the hometown of Corning Inc, the famed creators of CorningWare, Pyrex and these days, fibre optic cables and smartphone displays, to visit its Corning Museum of Glass.

Operational since 1951, the museum inaugurates a new extension this week. Designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners, the new Contemporary Art and Design Wing not only boasts 26,000 square feet of new gallery space, but also a 500-seat glass workshop that will host visiting artists and live glass demonstrations.

To call Thomas Phifer's addition airy is an understatement. The New York-based architect contemplated the feeling of walking into a cloud when he designed the new space. Encased in translucent white tinted glass, the gallery's sprawling concrete interior is defined by rounded, unfolding walls that gently beckon visitors to enter and explore. Each of the four sub-galleries is irregularly shaped, which gives the space an animated quality that is also enhanced by the changing daylight that filters through the continuous skylight roof up above. Concrete beams in varying lengths, up to 50 feet long, not only serve as support structures for the roof, but also create a slatted effect that adds to the galleries' luminosity.

'We designed a collection of spaces defined by soft curving walls in order to dissolve the separation between the art, the atmosphere, light and space,' he said. 'Freed of a normal museum relationship of wall-mounted works, the curving walls and the light from above enable the pieces on the floor to simply levitate.'

The new galleries are suitably filled with marvel-worthy specimens of contemporary glass art and design. Dating from 1990 to present day, the collection features more than 70 works, ranging from recent acquisitions to large-scale sculptures that were previously never shown because of space restrictions. Organised by themes that focus on nature, the human body and abstraction, and the historical forms of glass and its material properties, the collection is a compelling tribute to glass as a medium, with artists like Klaus Moje, Roni Horn, Kiki Smith, Jeff Zimmermann, Studio Job and even Robert Rauschenberg all getting a look in.

With the opening of the new wing, we are able to display and interpret contemporary art and design in glass in the same elegant and thoughtful way in which its being produced,' said Tina Oldknow, the museum's senior curator of modern and contemporary glass. 'Today's artists are using glass in previously unimagined ways. They are innovators of new approaches, concepts and techniques that push the known boundaries of the material.'

The wing's state-of-the-art hot shop, which stands adjacent to the gallery and includes a balcony-style amphitheatre that provides close-up views of glassblowing demonstrations, is a testament to this sentiment. Located within the original Steuben glass factory building, the hot shop will host an artist residency programme starting with artists Albert Paley and Bertil Vallien, and serve as a resource to artists and designers of all backgrounds working with glass.