If I only I had known about patents and contracts as a fledgling designer at Blenko!
In 1961, at the age of 26, following the principle that need is the mother of invention, I came up with a new process for making centrifugally cast glass bowls…more about their invention after the following anecdote.
Last week, one of my four daughters invited me to see her new house near Lake Tahoe and I spotted this pink lotus bowl in her kitchen bay window. As you can see it is thinner than any centrifugal bowls made at Blenko, but this rare pink color, the unusual etching and (strange to me) marking on the bottom (no trade mark of sticker) is interesting, and tweaks memories of the rosé color that I first introduced at Blenko in 1958.
We began making designs in the rosé color after Bill Blenko and I made a fateful trip to San Francisco to visit I Magnin, a prestigious store on Union Square. Bill and I met in the ground floor office of senior buyer, Jacques DuPree, who only then divulged his idea: “Up ‘til now, I Magnin has only done special promotions of European glassmakers, but right here in America, we have Blenko, which is as good or better than the European glassmakers we’ve been featuring. So I have suggested to the president, Hector Escobosa, that we have a special showing of Blenko glass.” With that, the three of us took the elevator to the top floor elegant offices of Mr. Escobosa, who was cordial, but insisted that I sit directly across from his desk, while Mr. Blenko was relegated to the second row with Mr. DuPree. When I demurred, Mr. Escobosa said “No, I want to talk to your designer.” Mr. Escobosa swiftly pushed a Blenko catalog across his desk toward me and politely asked me to “Point out your best selling designs.” When Bill Blenko began answering, again Mr. Escobosa insisted that he wanted to hear it from me. When I pointed out the designs that I knew sold best, Mr. Escobosa spun in his chair, pulled out a pad of fabric color swatches, pointed to a specific pink color and asked; “Can you make this color?” Finally, Bill Blenko was able to respond to a question, which was “Yes, we can make that color.” With terseness, Escobosa said “Make those items in that color. Good day, gentlemen.” The three of us descended to DuPree’s office, at which time, Jacques said he was too busy to join us for lunch, and dismissed us. Standing in the glorious April sunshine in Union Square, Mr. Blenko smiled and said “We’ll make those items in that color, but that son of a bitch will never get them!” For weeks thereafter, Mr. Blenko’s secretary was told by him to tell Mr. Escobosa “Mr. Blenko is too busy to take your call.”
A New Kind of Mold for Blenko
The idea for centrifugal forming of glass began with my curiosity about what would happen if I spun molten glass in a dalle mold on a potters wheel the way that clay is spun to make ceramic bowls. (Dalle is the French word for slab, and the term for the colored glass slabs that are used at Blenko for making stained glass windows.) I had molten glass dropped onto a dalle metal frame on my potters wheel. As the glass spun on the wheel, I was surprised to see that it not only spread outward, but it also curved upward into the corners. Centrifugal force formed it like spinning syrup in a bowl. It was a small step to imagine how molten glass would behave when spun in a shaped mold.
I made a trip to the local hardware store to get a simple metal bowl that I could use as a pattern, and found an interesting jello mold. We experimented with the jello mold and voila! The molten glass spun up the sides like a flower. We then created custom molds shaped like flowers and made the first generation of the petal bowls. Over 60 years later, this design is still made at Blenko.
This new process of spinning molten glass eliminated the need for the complex press mold and traditional plunger. Spinning provided fine sculptural forms and economies in production.
After leaving Blenko in 1963, I carried the concept further with Viking Glass by sculpting a lotus in plaster and having it cast into the metal spun mold that made the rosé bowl like the one pictured above.
As I recall, Blenko’s lawyer, Bill Blenko’s cousin Walter, advised that my discovery wasn’t patentable, as centrifugally cast products, such as chocolate Easter bunnies and TV tubes, were common. Years later, I was told by another patent attorney that the process could have been patentable, but for decorative glass bowls only. As the inventor, I would have owned the patent exclusive of Blenko. So “If only I had known!”
Traditional Cherry Wood Molds
Many of Blenko’s designs are blown into two part, hinged cherry wood molds that are handcarved. This is how my Jazz in Glass designs and the Rollatinis are formed. Before molten glass can be blown into them, the wooden molds are burned with a torch or swabbed on the inside with molten glass, leaving a charcoal lining. Then, the molds are soaked in water and always stored in water until time to blow into them. When the molten glass hits the wet surface, steam forms between the mold and the glass. The hot glass never touches the wooden mold—it rides on the steam. And that is why the surface of the glass is shiny and smooth and the cherry wood mold does not burn.
Kudos for Blenko collector and darn good photographer
In 2005, Schiffer Publishing released a revised and expanded edition of Leslie Piña’s, BLENKO: COOL 50s AND 60s GLASS about mid-century Blenko glass, first published in 1999. In preparing for my lecture at Portland’s Rain of Glass in May, I bought a copy of the later edition. What a surprise! The quality of the new photographs is stunning, and correction of errors from the first edition is edifying (although there are still a few to be addressed if there is a future edition).
New photos in the book are by Blenko authority and collector Gordon Harrell. I first met Gordon when Leslie Piña recommended that I call him while on a visit to New York. Leslie said “Gordon would never ask you, but I’m sure he would appreciate your offer to sign your pieces in his collection of Blenko glass.” I met Gordon at a restaurant in the Village, and we then proceeded to his home. His glass collection was overwhelming—lots of great Winslow Anderson pieces, but OMG, there were about 130 of my designs, ready for me to sign.
He handed me a small pitcher to sign, and I didn’t recognize it as mine, saying “I can’t sign this, it’s not mine” and he showed me the picture in a Blenko catalog identifying me as the designer. Gordon bought and sold thousands of Blenko pieces over the years, sometimes buying and replacing pieces five or six times before he found the one that he deemed good enough for his collection.
Gordon’s appreciation of detail and quality make him one of the most admirable collectors whom I have had the pleasure of knowing.
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My posts for “Can We Talk” are the basis for a crowd-sourced book project, and I welcome your comments and input for inclusion in the book. You will receive credit.)