Blenko: Uniquely American Modernist Glass – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – April 2004
Text and Photographs by Damon Crain
Exotic, dramatic, and yet largely undiscovered, vintage Blenko glass is without peer. With so much to recommend it — stuning and vibrant colors, unprecedented scale, extravagant modern designs, and internationally renowned designers — the only surprise is that Blenko has remained a Sleeping Beauty for so long. With a 73-year history of making tableware, the Blenko Glass Company has produced hundreds of exciting and thoroughly original designs.
Blenko’s early history provides an essential context for understanding the company’s production. The company was founded in 1921 by William J. Blenko (1854-1933) as the Eureka Art Glass Company, a producer of “antique” sheet glass for stained glass windows. William Blenko was born in London, England, and was working in glass factories by age 10. He went on to study glass and chemistry and became an innovator of new production methods for sheet glass that reproduced the rough look of Medieval glass. Prior to Eureka, William Blenko had made three failed attempts at founding a sheet glass company in the U.S. With the Depression in 1929, the company almost failed again. It was saved only by the decision to diversify and produce tableware, which quickly became its primary product.
Blenko’s initial line was modeled after the wares produced by other, mostly Italian, companies sold by the Carbone and Sons Company of Boston, through whom Blenko sold its first tableware. Pictured in a 1931 Carbone and Sons catalogue are photographs of Blenko’s tableware, providing some of the earliest documentation of Blenko’s production. Carbone did not identify Blenko by name, instead calling it “Kenova glass, made in the foothills of West Virginia…blown by foreign craftsmen.” (Kenova is about 28 miles directly west of Blenko’s factory in Milton, West Virginia. The Kenova area has seen several glasshouses but none by the name of Kenova or with Kenova in its name.)
Carbone and Sons had a reputation of being a purveyor of the highest quality items, and William H. Blenko Sr. (1897-1969, son of the founder,) was undoubtedly aware of the standard that his glass needed to live up to. The May 1932 issue of Carbone’s The Shard, a sales brochure, contains an editorial written by a person only identified as the director of the Kenova glass factory, with the initials W.H.B., presumably William Henry Blenko. The article, titled “Off Hand Glass Blowing,” describes the attributes of off-hand glass, namely tool marks and unevenness, and promotes these qualities as assets. Clearly Blenko knew that they could not compete with Carbone and Son’s other suppliers on technical grounds. To this day, the quirks, irregularities, and tooling marks remain an appealing hallmark and part of the identity of Blenko glass. Such flaws are usually secondary to the overall form; and it is best to see them on a gray scale of acceptable to unacceptable — while always bearing in mind that there are certainly many poorly executed examples, or “bad blows.”
The early part of Blenko’s production, prior to 1947, is informed by both Italian, Scandinavian, and traditional historical designs. The Italian influence was a direct result of Blenko’s association with Carbone and Sons. The Scandinavian influence originates from the Swedish brothers Louis Miller (a finisher) and Axel Muller (a blower), whom William Blenko hired from the Huntington Tumbler Co., circa 1930, to execute Blenko’s first line of tableware. A later and very noteworthy Scandinavian influence is the Swede Carl Erickson, who worked at Blenko from 1937 until 1942, when he left to start his own company, the now famous Erickson Glassworks. A third major influence on their early work was the Williamsburg Restoration reproductions that Blenko was licensed to make beginning in 1936. This work familiarized Blenko with executing certain historical techniques such as the air twist.
During the very first years, the overall production was uneven in both execution and style. Designs were primarily functional and occasionally somewhat clumsy copies of existing traditional items. Partly accounting for this is that the selection of designs for production was largely made by sales representatives and distributors rather than by a designer. In fact, it is fair to say that in this period there were very few moments of design innovation. Yet these moments serve as a clarion call for Blenko’s future and established a strong foundation for the company’s later success. In works of this period, one must look for the use of techniques that Blenko later expanded upon in more meaningful ways, works that hint at the company’s willingness to innovate and experiment. An excellent example of this would be the “Web” line. This line was vastly different from other things Blenko produced. It was adventurous, specific, and likely more costly to produce. A second example are designs that make use of the controlled bubble technique, most likely a result of the influence of the foreman Carl Erickson.
The most significant turning point in the company’s history was marked by the decision to hire a full time design director, Winslow Anderson, who began work in the late spring of 1947. Winslow Anderson was responsible for Blenko’s new designs from 1948 to 1953. Anderson was born in 1917. He graduated from Alfred University in 1947 and went directly to work for Blenko. His training was as a ceramicist; he had no glass knowledge, yet Blenko gave him free reign to design the line without any interference. For a company to demonstrate such faith in a designer was new, daring, and virtually unheard of. In doing this Blenko became an industry leader and role model. Anderson re-invented Blenko’s line, producing daring organic and free-form Scandinavian influenced designs. Anderson’s tenure also resulted in an entirely new type of product: non-functional sculptural designs. Anderson’s work laid the foundations for later designers and established Blenko’s vanguard reputation. He remained at Blenko until he was lured away by Lenox China.
Blenko’s second designer, Wayne Husted (b. 1927) was also a fresh graduate of the Alfred University ceramics program with no glass experience. Husted was responsible for Blenko’s new designs from 1954 to 1963. His design approach was much more extreme and sculptural, playing up non-functional designs. Husted’s legacy and signature works are his “architectural scale” floor pieces. These pieces, ranging in height from 27 to 38 inches tall were suited to being displayed as freestanding sculptures on the floor. The oversized scale and outrageous forms of these floor pieces are perfect Modernist icons – symbols of an era. Another important contribution of Husted’s was his figural works, which are more intimately scaled, whimsical, and unlikely forms of animals and people. Husted was both a maverick and an innovator whose work cemented Blenko’s place in glass history.
Joel Myers was Blenko’s next resident designer, responsible for Blenko’s new designs from 1964 to 1970 and part of 1971. Myers was a graduate of Parsons and Alfred University. Myers brought with him the instinct of a craftsman as well as designer, and his work demonstrates a more rational and progressive exploration of form and technique. The emerging Studio Glass movement and 60s psychedelic re-interpretation of Art Nouveau aesthetic both imparted strong influences on Myer’s designs. As Myers himself 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.” Without a doubt Myers is Blenko’s most famous and accomplished designer. Myers left Blenko to establish the glass department of Illinois State University. Today Myers ranks as one of the most exhibited and recognized glass artists in the world.
Beyond these first three, Blenko has had four more designers as follows: John Nickerson (1971 to 1974), Don Shepard (1975 to 1989), Hank Adams (1990 to 1995), and finally Matt Carter (1996 to 2002). Altogether, Blenko has had seven official designers, each with a dramatically different approach to design.
Identifying Blenko begins with knowing its most elementary characteristics, which are a result of being mouth blown. Blenko almost always has a pontil mark on the base, which is only very occasionally polished. The thickness and heft of the glass is another important characteristic; the walls of Blenko vessels are thicker than most. The vast majority of Blenko’s rims are fire-polished, meaning rounded and slightly uneven, an effect produced by briefly reinserting the item into the furnace to eliminate shearing and tooling marks after it has been shaped. Vintage Blenko is also very “soft,” or porous, which means that it stains easily when used to hold liquids. This is a result of the fact that original formula for Blenko glass was meant for stained glass windows, not for vessels. Finally, the quality of the glass itself is quite high. Blenko was known to have used only the best and purest ingredients for its batch.
Signatures are of very little use, as they were only used for a portion of 1958 through to the early part of 1961. The silver foil “hand” shaped labels, mostly used prior to 1982, are unreliable identifiers not only because they can easily be peeled off, but also because rolls of unused labels are known to be available.
Beyond such basic and somewhat vague characteristics, one must rely on documentation and production catalogues to identify Blenko. With the publication of many of Blenko’s catalogues, it is not reasonable to feign ignorance on the subject of age, designer, or how widely produced a given design is. One can now easily determine what designs were produced, in what colors, and for how long between the years 1959 and 2001, as reprints of those years’ catalogues are widely available.
Information on earlier production though is not readily available beyond the invaluable overview provided by the out-of-print book Blenko Glass 1930-1953 by Eason Eige and Rock Wilson. A word of caution though: as is often the case, no book is perfect. There are a significant number of misattributions and other errors in all Blenko books outside of the catalogue reprints.
The production of other contemporaneous West Virginia glasshouses is often mistakenly attributed to Blenko (Zeller, Rainbow, Bischoff, to name a few). This is not surprising given that to the untrained eye they seem to share some simplistic characteristics (bright colors, simple forms, rough pontils). The West Virginia companies were also often influenced by each other, and they sometimes produced similar products (a common situation in Italy, too). Italian production glass also often gets misattributed as Blenko, particularly the pieces that are outright copies of Blenko designs, mostly circa late 1950s to early 1960s.
As the market for both glass and all things Modern has heated up and matured, few stones have been left unturned in the quest to mine our recent past. Blenko is one of the few gems remaining to be fully reclaimed. Increasingly turning up in museums, books, and magazines, Blenko is rapidly gaining an appropriate prominence and its moment of glory is surely at hand.