By Damon Crain
The National American Glass Club Bulletin
Spring 2007, Issue 207
As the most dominant and enduring aesthetic influence in American art glass up until the Second World War, to whom did Tiffany pass the torch? An oft cited candidate is the Studio Glass movement, but history did not jump 60 years to the next major innovation. The pivotal mid-point in American glass, the link that binds these two enormous moments is the Blenko Glass Company of West Virginia.
Blenko's cultural impact is far greater than most realize; the company created a huge market for affordable and modern art glass for the middle class. Blenko's important, but largely unknown design innovations include introducing dramatically enlarged scale (1), and bold solid colors with sculptural shapes.
Blenko was to Modernism what Tiffany was to Art Nouveau; the pre-eminent innovator, design leader and market force in the field of American art glass. Of course, the comparison is not entirely symmetrical; Whereas Tiffany can appropriately be called the American Gallé, Blenko owes no such debt of gratitude to another influence. Both men, however, owed much to the great tradition of stained glass windows.
William J. Blenko was born in 1854 in London ; by the age of 13 he began working in a glass factory where he learned glassblowing. He made three unsuccessful attempts at starting a glass company in America ; in 1893, 1909 and 1911. While working in an Ohio glass factory in 1919 he received a job offer from Tiffany (2), however, intent on pursuing his own vision, in 1921 he established the Eureka Art Glass Company (later renamed Blenko) in Milton WV.
Two important innovations set the company on a solid footing early on. The first was Blenko's invention of a new process for producing larger sheets of "antique" glass more quickly. The second was the perfection, in June 1924, of a formula for a Ruby glass whose color would not be affected by re-heating. At this point Blenko had developed nearly 300 color formulas. By 1927, the company was doing well thanks to the combination of a good product and Mr. Blenko's son, Bill's sales expertise.
Signaling the company's success, prestigious projects using Blenko sheet glass around this time included St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City and the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool . In 1929 the Depression destroyed the market for stained glass. Bill Blenko's improvised solution was to offer to manufacture tableware for Carbone & Sons, a Boston retailer and importer of fine Italian and Swedish glass. This was a brash move as Blenko had never before made tableware.
Carbone's finest glassware was produced by Giulio Radi of Arte Vetrario Muranese (A.VE.M) with whom Carbone had contracted to reproduce the famous designs of Italian masters like Barovier and MVM Capellin. This was to be a steep learning curve indeed for Blenko.
Trained at the Kosta factory in Sweden where their father was a Master Glassblower, the brothers Louis Miller and Axel Muller were swiftly hired by Blenko from the nearby Huntington Tumbler Co. Without a doubt the two most enduringly important regions of glass production in the 20 th century were Italy and Scandinavia, both noted for their groundbreaking design sensibility and incomparably skilled craftsmanship; and here, in America they converged at Blenko.
Blenko 3625 "web" line vase in Turquoise, designed about
H. 6.5inches; D. 6 inches.
Collection of Nancy Delman Portnoy
Blenko glassware was hot-worked in the traditional off-hand manner, and has remained that way for the company's entire history. With a need to train most workers from scratch, rather than compete with the Italians on technical perfection, Blenko emphasized the importance of their exceptional variety of colors and classical shapes while proudly pointing to minor flaws as evidence of traditional hand-made craftsmanship in an age of mechanization.
Blenko's tableware line of simple classical shapes quickly saved the company from financial ruin, and became their primary product. In 1936, Blenko secured a prestigious contract to become the exclusive manufacturer for Colonial Williamsburg's glass reproductions. For this Blenko had to master more advanced techniques, such as air twist, and perfect and standardize the quality of their product to meet the exacting standards of John Rockefeller Jr., the money behind Williamsburg.
By the mid 1930's Blenko had already earned an enviable reputation and could be found for sale at such leading stores as Macy's in New York, Lazarus in Ohio and Neiman Marcus in Texas, among many others. The company's hard earned self-confidence clearly shows in designs from this period, particularly the "web" line, which demonstrates an early willingness to produce more distinctive wares (Figure 1).
A new Scandinavian influence came to Blenko in 1937, in the form of the Swede Carl Erickson, hired as foreman. Erickson's father and grandfather were both master glassblowers at the Reijmyre factory in Sweden . Beginning at age 14 he worked at the Pairpoint factory for 20 years, then spent 4 years at Libbey. After adding some noteworthy designs to the line marketed as "Swedish Type" and elevating workmanship, Erickson left Blenko in 1942 to start his own company, the highly regarded Erickson Glassworks. His absence was sorely felt, but the war years would put a hold on any new developments.
There is an essential element of timeliness to every great success. In 1947, just after the greatest war the world has known, America was freshly at the zenith of her power and creativity. The middle class was the new dominant market force. Modernism was in glorious full bloom. America was rapt with plastic and free-form aesthetics and bright, bold and unusual colors abound. Enter Blenko, the ideal expression of this new sensibility.
The many new modern homes of the growing middle class needed to be properly appointed and the modern and sculptural work of Blenko fit the bill due to its affordable price and contemporary aesthetic. By now, Blenko had frequent appearances in many prominent national publications like House & Garden and the New York Times , a strong presence in the best stores and trade shows, at the World's Fairs (3) and at museums. Whereas in 1900 the very wealthy were the tastemakers and the driving market force in the arena of decorative objects, in 1950 the pop culture of the middle class dominated. Much as Tiffany had done 50 years earlier, Blenko glass dominated the most important market segment of the time with a new and unique aesthetic.
It is in this context that Blenko transformed from a company that simply made popular tableware to a company at the forefront of design. With its formative years behind it, and recognizing the need to produce new shapes as paramount, Blenko made a pivotal decision and hired its first design director, Winslow Anderson, in 1947. To have a full time design director positioned Blenko at the vanguard in a time when the profession of "designer" was still relatively new.
Though an accomplished ceramicist, prior to coming to Blenko, Anderson 's glass experiences was limited to winning a student design competition at Alfred University put on by Steuben Glass. He was heavily influenced by the philosophies of Hans Hoffman, the Bauhaus and Scandinavian design and had the distinct advantage of being steeped in the New York art scene while stationed in Queens during the war. His artwork was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim (then the Museum of Non-Objective Art ) alongside the likes of Harry Bertoia and Moholy-Nagy.
Group of Winslow Anderson designs made for Blenko from 1948 to 1953.
(Left to right): Design #910-4 in Chartreuse, 1948, H. 7.5 inches;
design #532 in Sea Green and Chartreuse, 1953, H. 9.75inches;
design #974 in Sea green, 1952, H. 12 inches;
and design #998H in Chartreuse, 1953, H. 9.25inches.
Collection of the author
At Blenko, Anderson was given free reign to develop an entirely new line. The result was a new look defined by minimal, organic and gracefully refined shapes. Anderson also took the important step of introducing a daring new color called "Chartreuse." Despite the disapproval of Blenko's primary sales representative, the color was an unqualified success and so the introduction of dramatic and unusual new colors became a new cornerstone of Blenko's identity (Figure 2).
Mermaid decanter, Blenko design #5732, in Charcoal and Crystal, designed by Wayne Husted, 1957. H 15 inches. Collection of the author.
Anderson 's most subtle but important contribution was to gently challenge the requirement that designs be primarily functional. Towards the end of his tenure he created a handful of shapes that clearly were primarily sculptural rather than functional in nature. After aggressive but failed attempts by both Steuben Glass and Raymond Lowey (4), Anderson left for Lenox China in 1952.
Not coincidentally, this period also marked the beginning of Blenko's inclusion into major museum shows, notably the Museum of Modern Art 's popular "Good Design" shows. Blenko began frequently appearing in many nationwide museum exhibitions promoting good design.
In 1953, Wayne Husted, Blenko's bold new designer, arrived with a single-minded fervor and vision the likes of which few possess. The door that Anderson had gracefully nudged open, Husted blew away entirely. To Husted, vessels became no more than a pretense for abstract, sculptural and figural shapes (Figure 3). It is entirely appropriate to see a synchronicity between Husted's designs and contemporaneous ones of Fulvio Bianconi.
Group of "architectural scale" decanters. (Left to right): Design #5929L in Turquoise, Wayne Husted (signed), 1959. H. 36 inches; design #7235 in Olive Green, John Nickerson, 1972. H. 40.5 inches; design #6534 in Tangerine, Joel Philip Myers, 1965. H. 30 inches; and Spool decanter, design #587L in Mulberry, Wayne Husted (signed), 1958. H. 35.75 inches. Collection of the author.
Husted was a keen interpreter of market trends; with a creativity that knew no limitations he seized on seemingly minor suggestions and transformed them into an entirely new genre. Blenko's California sales reps notoriously always wanted items "a little bigger"; Husted's brash retort was the inception of the "architectural scale" genre, designs suitable only for displaying on the floor as free-standing sculptures (Figure 4).
Blenko's third designer, Joel Philip Myers, arrived in 1963. Myers' aesthetic was already quite sophisticated, having worked with Donald Desky in New York and Richard Kjaergaard, an influential ceramicist, in Denmark . Upon arriving at Blenko Myers was already aware of the only just emerging Studio Glass movement and quickly set about learning glass blowing himself. Effectively maintaining an independent practice as a glass artist while at Blenko he has said; "Had I not been aware of the Toledo glass seminars I wonder if I would have seen the dual possibilities of producing glass myself while designing for the factory." (5) Myers was an early and active participant in the Studio Glass movement.
Designs for Blenko by Joel Philip Myers . (Left to right): Design #6422 in Peacock, 1964 H. 16.25 inches; design #6746 in Plum, 1967. H. 21 inches; design #6615L in Peacock, 1966. H. 14.5 inches; design #6528S in Peacock, 1965, H. 23 inches; design #6712 in Plum, 1967. H. 12 inches; and design #6721S in Plum, 1967. H. 12.5 inches. Collection of the author
His work at Blenko (Figure 5) demonstrates an exploration of organic form and clearly revels in the 1960's psychedelic re-interpretation of the Art Nouveau aesthetic. At Blenko and beyond, Myers masterfully created exaggerated vessel forms, describing his process at Blenko thusly: "I permit the glass to sag, flop, flow, stop, start, stretch; I control and yet am being dictated to by the glass. Blenko has permitted me complete creative freedom and has encouraged me to experiment. My experimental work contributes many ideas and directions for use in our regular line.There is no reason to think that working for industry compromises a craftsman's aesthetic values. On the contrary, it poses a challenge." (6)
Myers began exhibiting his own glass work while at Blenko, including at The Smithsonian Institutions' "Ceramic Arts USA" in 1966, an invitational exhibition featuring leading American artists where he showed alongside Dominick Labino, and at The Toledo Glass National II in 1968 alongside Fritz Dreisbach, Dominick Labino, Marvin Lipofsky and Richard Marquis. Myers introduced both Marvin Lipofsky in 1968 and Fritz Dreisbach in 1976 to Blenko. A sculpture that Lipofsky made at Blenko in 1968 is now in the collection of the Smithsonian's Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum. Myers left Blenko to establish the glass department at Illinois State University and today ranks as one of the most recognized and exhibited glass artists in the world.
Design #R497 in Sea Green, attributed to Carl Ebert Erickson, designed about 1940. H. 10 inches. Collection of the author.
Blenko's success and relevance did not by any means go unnoticed by the guardians of high culture. Museums were actively exhibiting and acquiring Blenko for their permanent collections as early as the 1940's. The most prescient and revealing of these museum exhibitions was the 1950 exhibition "Twentieth Century American and European Glass" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In this exhibition Blenko appears alongside Tiffany as "outstanding examples" (7) of glass design (Figure 6).
The most significant exhibition to include Blenko in the 1950's was the groundbreaking "Glass 1959" show, a juried international world-wide survey of the glass industry, at the Corning Museum of Glass. Blenko's entry was an exceptional design made expressly for this important show, and its' presence alongside the likes of Salviati, Venini, Kosta, and Orrefors afforded Blenko exceptional exposure and prestige. More recently, the Corning Museum has included Blenko in a small but powerful exhibition organized by Tina Oldknow titled "Decades in Glass: the '50's".
From the forties onward, major museums throughout the country have recognized Blenko's importance by adding its unique work to their permanent collections, including The Dallas Museum of Art, The Chrysler Museum, The Museum of Modern Art, The Corning Museum of Glass, Yale University Art Gallery and The Toledo Museum of Art.
Vase in the "Charisma" line, design #7221X, designed by John Nickerson, 1972. H. 17.235 inches. Collection of the author.
In 1969, Bill Blenko, the founder's son and the guiding force of the company, died. Unbeknownst to Blenko, their fourth designer was a harbinger of the radical changes that had already begun courtesy of the Studio Glass movement and a changing market forces. John Nickerson was the first designer hired who was already well versed in Studio Glass (Figure 7). After four years Nickerson left Blenko to cultivate a successful independent Studio Glass practice with participation in numerous exhibitions including The Corning Museum of Glass' "New Glass'79."
In a 40 year period of fostering dramatic new developments and pioneering design, Blenko built a market for and a national awareness of modern art glass - sculptures for the domestic environment - while unwittingly cultivating a successor in Studio Glass. Blenko's success lay in its progressive attitude, fearless young designers, and of course, in quality handmade glass never before seen in such large scale, fantastical shapes or in such bold colors. Blenko's output was of an importance not seen since Tiffany's domination of American Art Nouveau glass. Thanks in no small part to Blenko's pioneering work, that flame has now been passed to Studio Glass artists to continue the art glass legacy in America
1. Clearly Inspired, Contemporary Glass and Its Origins . Karen S. Chambers and Tina Oldknow, p.33 cites enlarged scale as a hallmark of the Studio Glass movement citing only the 1960's Pop Art movement as the most likely precedent despite Blenko's greater than 10 years of unparalleled precedent in creating dramatically oversized glass vessels.
2. Blenko Glass, 1930-1953, Eason Eige and Rick Wilson, Antique Publications, Marietta, OH, 1987 p.8
3. Blenko glass was exhibited at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, the 1958 Brussels ' World's Fair and the 1964 New York World's Fair according to the Blenko Glass company's records and personal interviews with designers.
4. From personal interviews with the designer, corroborated by original letter from the companies
5. New American Glass: Focus West Virginia , Exhibition Catalogue, June 20 Through October 10, 1976, Huntington Galleries, WV , Library of Congress Catalogue Card No. 76-20353
6. Craft Horizons, March/April 1964, "The Craftsman in Production" by Jan McDevitt. p.37
7. Twentieth Century Glass, American and European, exhibition catalogue, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 195