In February, I was Special Guest at this year’s 20th Century Cincinnati Show, the Queen City’s annual retrospective of vintage modern design, and the landmark 25th anniversary of the show. There were 70 booths at the show, which was open to the public and attended by thousands of fans of Midcentury Modern design, including furniture, jewelry, lamps, clocks, tableware, glass, and fine art.
The factories Blenko, Bischoff, Fenton, Viking, Indiana Glass and Heisey were all represented in the glass category, and there was dinnerware from Corning and Gladding McBean. It was daunting to realize that, with the exception of Blenko and Corning, all of these factories have been closed for many years.
My booth, the only one that exhibited contemporary design, was right at the main entrance to the convention hall. I was amazed at the long line of people waiting at the entrance for the doors to open, and the endless stream of people who made a beeline to my booth, carrying with them my glass designs from their collections. I was there with my Dremel tool, ready to sign their pieces and listen to their stories of how they got into collecting vintage glass.
Many people assumed that I’m currently associated with Blenko, which I’m not, so I was not prone to talk about what’s going on there now. However, there were vendors and visitors at the show who told me their Blenko stories of what has happened in Milton-on-the Mud in the 56 years since I left, some were amazing and all quite intriguing.
We showed several of my vintage pieces in the booth, courtesy of our sponsors, David Wenzel and Josh Larson of Wild Things Antiques in Cincinnati. Another collector and friend, Mike Gunther of Uncle Mikey’s in the Chicago Area, brought his rare Rialto collection for us to show. Thanks, you guys!
My current Jazz in Glass Collector’s Series was also on display, as was the book by Andy McConnell, THE DECANTER, ANCIENT TO MODERN, that includes a chapter about my designs for Blenko in the fifties and sixties.
Like members of a club, fellow exhibitors wandered about and socialized before the show opened. One was James Smith, a government scientist who is also a collector and exhibitor.
James walked into the booth holding a ceramic platter that I’d made in 1951 at the Harding Black Pottery in San Antonio, Texas. WOW! What a shock—I was stunned when he returned to my booth on Sunday and told me that he’d like me to have the platter. I mean, I’d have gladly traveled to Cincinnati and traded any piece from my colleciton to acquire that platter, even without the show!
Harding Black, Vincent Price, and the Platter
In the summer of 1951, I hitchhiked from New York to San Antonio, Texas to visit my soon-to-be fiancé. I had no idea that I would be hired by Blenko eight months later and had in fact planned to take the job of teaching ceramics at the University of Illinois in Carbondale.
I felt very lucky and privileged to be able to have a summer job at the philanthropic McNay Trust and to live in the huge vacant studio of Gutzen Borgium, the sculptor who created Mt. Rushmore. I was the envy of my peers to be able to work every day for about three months with the famous ceramist Harding Black. Harding, sixteen years older than me, had a total devotion to glazes. I was able to throw pots on Harding’s wheel, mix his glazes and learn what I would be encountering when I took the job in the fall at the University of Illinois.
Harding was a master of glazes and a pioneer of studio ceramics in the 20th century. Without formal academic training, he discovered the secrets of China’s Ming and Song Dynasty glazes, as well as Scandinavian satin mattes and many others. (from the website of the Harding Black Ceramics Research Center at Baylor University Dept. of Art and Art History.) Harding holds a high place in the world of ceramics.
It was a big deal for me to brag back at school at Alfred University about “What I did this summer”. Harding’s formulas even inspired the interest of Daniel Rhodes, Alfred’s famous potter, professor, and glaze expert. Rhodes’ book, CLAY AND GLAZES FOR THE POTTER, published in 1957, is still used in college ceramics classes all over the world.
The clay for my platter has its own indelible memory as I dug it with Harding in a very special clay deposit south of San Antonio and halfway to the Mexican border. It was called Elmendorf clay, and fires at the high temperature of cone 13. Elmendorf clay (named for a nearby very small and historic town) also has natural specks of iron oxide (ilmenite) that form a specked egg look when melted into clay.
My platter probably ended up as a “second”, long lost and left in Harding’s studio. I also possess a teapot that I threw on a potter’s wheel there in 1951 with the same clay and glaze as the platter.
It was a typical summer day in Texas and we were in an open field with no shade, so it was great when a farmer nearby shared a huge watermelon that he sliced smoothly with single strokes from his machete.
I returned to Alfred happy and tanned, and on a visit to New York City, I was strolling down Madison Avenue one evening when I noticed, in the window of a shop that specialized in Scandinavian crafts, a couple of the pieces like those that I made in Harding Black’s studio that summer. A tall man approached and also looked down at the display of ceramic platters in the window. I thought he looked familiar, and then I realized that it was the famous actor Vincent Price! He smiled at me and we exchanged a few words about Scandinavian design, and then he walked off. Who knows, I like to think that he returned and bought the plate. He was respected even then as an art connoisseur and collector.
I came across the platter on eBay a year or so ago, offered at the very high price of $2,999. When I went back to check on it a day later, it was gone. What are the chances that I’d see it again in Cincinnati, and that the generous collector James Smith would be at the show and give it to me. The treasured platter is now hanging on my dining room wall.
Lazarus II, the Decanter
The second out-of-the-blue thing that happened at the show was meeting Chad Eames, a wood sculptor. The booth was crowded when Chad Eames entered and told Linda how he and his partner really liked my vintage Blenko designs.
We talked about his wood sculpting and by the end of the conversation, he expressed an interest in working with me and carving a mold for a new design I was developing, the successor to my Lazarus Face Vase, Lazarus II, the decanter.
We took several Lazarus vases in different colors to the show, and they sold out on the first day. They drew lots of attention. The mold for that first Lazarus has burned out now, and we won’t be making any more. Anyone who has one of the Lazarus vases should be pleased to hear that the value of their vase will certainly go up, as they are rare—there were only 16 made.
After returning home, I was thrilled to get an email from Chad saying that he had the essential raw cherry logs, tools and skills and would be willing to try to carve a mold for a Lazarus decanter. We had daily emails with drawings and photos back and forth for over a month. Then after a lot of apprehension, a FedEx truck pulled up to our house and handed me a clip board to sign for a big box in a tight black plastic wrapper containing a hinged cherry mold with precise wooden parts, kept moist with soaked sponges. I couldn’t wait to open it.
It’s a masterpiece—the most amazing wooden mold that I’ve ever seen! Our next step is to take the mold to the Glow Glass Studio in Oakland, where we’ll cross our fingers and see how it works. Glass artist Alex Abajian, will season the mold, blow some test pieces, and make artist proofs first in clear crystal and then in color. When the technical details are worked out, we’ll begin making a numbered, limited edition in four or five colors—the original amethyst, ruby red, opal, and other colors to be determined.
The new Lazarus II will be closer in design detail to the original vintage “head decanter” that mysteriously showed up in an auction house in London, and that is now featured in Andy McConnell’s book, THE DECANTER: ANCIENT TO MODERN. It will have a round neck, and stopper, similar to the one I designed at Blenko in 1962.
Stay tuned for my next blogpost for photos of the making of Lazarus II. At that point, we’ll have some to sell. If you’re interested in reserving one, let me know. We’ll start a waiting list. Thanks to all for your great comments and support.