I have a new understanding of the term populist.
I was one of four presenters at this year’s Portland’s Rain of Glass Annual Convention in late May. VP of Marketing at Blenko, Dean Six, had a very interesting presentation titled "Flasks, Fruit Jars, and Soda Bottles." Another speaker, Sam Kissee, gave a talk on early cut glass and Victorian art glass.
Both Dean’s and Sam’s presentations surprised me with an AHA! moment when I realized the distinctions between populist and elitist glassware.
Simple and common as the antique flasks and jars were, they were well-designed and useful in the home—as decanters, for food storage and packaging, etc. Raised letters or other graphics on the surface were designed to be decorative, but also functioned as a grip aid on a liquor decanter, or, advertising for the company that made the product within.
Sam showed examples of elegant and intricate glassware from the Victorian era—formal designs created (and priced) for the elite classes. This shed a light on the important differences between ornamental glassware that reflected the upper class status of its owners, and the simple glassware typically found in homes of commoners of that era.
Glass for Masses
I remembered that in the 2002 PBS film “Blenko: The Story of Three Designers,” a curator from MOMA in New York described my designs as “populist,” and at the time I understood him to mean popular.
In my job interview at Blenko in 1952, I was seated across the desk from William Blenko, Sr., and he asked “what do you know about glass?” Without thinking, I blurted out “nothing.” Oops. That would have ended most job interviews, but Mr. Blenko responded “Great! You will try things that you wouldn’t if you knew anything about glass.”
My mid-century designs at Blenko Glass, influenced by the Bauhaus School of Design, WERE essentially populist—utilitarian and decorative, designed for middle class homes of the era.
Early in my career at Blenko, I was given carte blanche to do whatever I wanted, and I tried to do it all. Following Bauhaus principles, I tested what could be done with the material—glass. It can be pulled, pushed, twisted, stamped, pressed, spun. It can be made small or big, and molded into any shape.
One typical experiment resulted in the 5413, a free-form bowl, which some now refer to as the “Giant Spoon Rest” was both useful and sculptural. I took a blown shape and wound it with glass, crushed it, flattened it, and closed it with a bit at the top. We lost a lot of these, even after they made it to market, so they are more rare than many other of my experimental designs.
Following another Bauhaus tenet that form follows function, I was inspired by the milk carton on my breakfast table. I went to the factory, and designed the lidded bottles shown in the 1954 catalog, the 547, 548, and 549—new and elegant forms for ordinary daily function.
Again and again, following the “try everything” principle, we experimented with processes. With the 5419 decanter, we used sheers to cut a notch in the stopper. In 1957, I created the “Napolean” Decanter (seen photo at top and below), cutting the stopper twice. (If one is good, two is better.) Also in ’57, I created the “Big-Ass” floor pieces. This was my transition from the functional to just-to-look-at, non-functional pieces.
Ironically, some of my vintage Blenko designs have become “elitist” given the high prices that they’re selling for in the collectors market.
Fast-forward to today. One would be hard-pressed to actually use the decanters in my Jazz in Glass Series. Pouring wine out of the tiny spout of the “Night in Tunisia” decanter is a challenge. I’ve revisited the “big-ass” concept with the “Ruby My Dear” and “Take Five” decanters. Jazz in Glass is decorative in the populist sense, but in a totally different way than the Victorian style.
You can collect the Jazz in Glass series by visiting the Gallery Store on this website. We’re offering the line as a limited edition, hand signed and numbered, and delivered with a Certificate of Authenticity.