I was recently asked by Debbie Rosenfeld, a collector and reader of this blog, to talk about the Antigua line that I designed in 1963. I’m happy to oblige, for those were good old days for me, on my first trip to Europe and the opportunity to work with the Stelvia Glass Factory in Empoli, Italy, as the new Director of Design and Product Development for Lancaster Colony. Debbie lives in Columbus, Ohio where by coincidence I spent my ten years at Lancaster Colony.
I worked for Lancaster Colony Corp. from 1963 until 1972. During my tenure, my staff and I created hundreds of consumer products, including restaurant glass, rubber and vinyl car mats, toys, sporting goods, and aluminum cookware. LCC continues to be a major acquirer of companies, with over a billion dollars in annual sales. Stelvia, a glass factory twelve miles south of Florence, was one of many factories in Europe that LCC imported from. For blown glass they offered great pricing for the quality, although it wasn’t exactly Venetian glass. It became known for its colorful hand blown glassware and closed in 2001.
Prior to my trip to Italy, I had developed a radical new way to make aluminum molds from Styrofoam patterns. Using large Styrofoam blocks, I cut each block into two equal halves and drew a design on the surface of the Styrofoam with a ballpoint pen. I then cut shapes into it with a band saw and hobby grinding tools, and pinned all the parts together with nails, and voila! A mold pattern in foam—rather than the customary wood or plaster—was born.
My inspiration for the process came from an article I read about a sculptor at Iowa State University who used the lost foam process for his sculptures. I used the process myself to cast an abstract aluminum sculpture of a glass blower, pictured below, that won first prize in the West Virginia statewide Centennial Art Competition in 1963. (The local uproar when a judge from the Guggenheim Museum chose my abstract sculpture of a glass blower is the subject for a future blog post. It was covered in a double page article in the Sunday Huntington Herald newspaper. )
I created the Antigua line to satisfy Colony’s marketing decision to exploit the Spanish look, popular at that time. The shapes and patterns that I chose to cut into the Styrofoam for me suggested a Spanish motif. We chose colors similar to those that I worked with at Blenko.
I took my Styrofoam mold patterns to a foundry in Nitro, WV, a few miles down the road from the Blenko and Bischoff factories, where they were cast into aluminum. The melting Styrofoam produced a dense black and toxic smoke that OSHA would not allow today. The resulting molds looked crude compared to traditional molds.
I flew with my less than sophisticated molds from Charleston, WV to Rome, where I was met by Colony’s Italian agent, Count Giorgio Giorgini, an actual Count of Tuscany. We drove to Empoli to deliver the molds to the Stelvia Glass Factory in the Count’s Alfa Romeo, and then he dropped me off at the five star Excelsior Hotel in Florence. The next morning, he picked me up and we returned to the Stelvia factory.
My molds were laid out on the factory floor. Sergio, a factory manager, blow pipe in hand, looked at the molds shook his head and as translated by Georgini: “These molds are not usable.” Panic! All that time and money, not to mention my dream of working with Italian craftsmen. Gone! Giorgio was consoling “Don’t give up, we will come back tomorrow to see if the molds could be modified to work.”
Stelvia was smaller than Blenko with about 60 glass workers. They did not make art glass at the time—their production was primarily wine bottles, and their bottle molds were very refined compared to my foam patterned aluminum molds. After much discussion between Sergio and Giorgio, Sergio informed us that they could use the molds IF they could add bottom plates to them. (Bottom plates are a standard part of most molds, but we never used bottom plates at Blenko because of the high cost that they would add. A typical iron mold for an item the size of a water bottle in 1952, for instance, would rival my annual salary of $5,200.)
When I questioned whether Stelvia’s mold resource could machine the new bottom plates to fit my molds, they had a good laugh at my expense. The English speaking manager replied “The same machine shop makes parts for Maseratis, do you think they can make your bottom plates?”
What a relief! The bottom plates could be made in a week, during which time I would just have to find things to do in Florence. Here I was, a thirty something designer and art lover now within a Vespa ride (I rented one) of the Uffizi Gallery, Michelangelo’s David, La Pieta, the Duomo, Michelin four star restaurants, and the Tuscan countryside. There was one serendipitous event, a meeting with Bruno Gamboni, a famous Italian potter. When I admired an abstract ceramic wall plaque in his studio, Gambone said with typical Italian grace “You like it? Here, it is yours.” The Gambone plaque hangs on my wall to this day (see below). Bruno was the equivalent of Peter Voulkos in the United States. He was about ten years younger than me, and I believe he’s still living and working today.
I returned to Stelvia when the molds were ready. The craftsman blew the shapes beautifully and added the handles, feet and knobs with skills very much like Blenko’s. The language barrier was easy to overcome by sketching with chalk on the floor, just as I did at Blenko, although hand gestures worked very well too.
Unlike Blenko, where my designs could be made as and when ordered, we had to commit to entire containers, and pay overseas shipping and warehousing. So that made the very low pricing from Italy imperative. On that same trip, I also had designs made at Cive, another Itallian glass factory making pressed glass which helped fill the shipping containers.
The Antigua line was a very successful project and sold out in the U.S. One of the best customers was B. Altman’s in New York. There were eight designs produced in three colors (amber, emerald and copper blue), and as I remember but cannot confirm, Stelvia made from 100 to 500 of each design. Variations and pirated copies have appeared on Ebay long after the one year that Colony sold the original line. Stelvia also made variations of the designs that were sold in Europe.
Debbie Rosenfeld realized that some of her collection were not from the original designs. I would be interested to learn about any other collectors who have questionable copies and variations of the original designs.
Several years later in the mid 1970s, still at Lancaster Colony, I returned to Tuscany, to Volterra and created a bath line in alabaster. I also worked with glass factories in Czechoslovakia, and with Durand in France. I’ll talk about these experiences in future blogposts.
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