The year is 1961, I am 34 years old, and I’ve been creating designs at the Blenko Glass Company for nine years. It’s Sunday morning, and I’m sitting in the small house that I built in Milton, West Virginia in the year that I moved there from New York to take the job as design director. The television is on, I’m watching “On the Road with Charles Kuralt,” and when the show breaks for a commercial, the iconic sun face comes up on the screen. And an inspiration enters my mind.
On Monday morning, back at work, I cut my own version of the sun face into one half of a styrofoam block, and a sunburst on the other half. I invented the process for making glass mold patterns in styrofoam. It allowed me to carve different looking textures than those carved into wood. I had the styrofoam patterns cast in an aluminum alloy. I chose the color tangerine. This color is produced by selenium, which only turns red when it is heated and cooled twice, a process called “flashing” by glassworkers. Years later, Blenko renamed the color “tequila sunrise.”
I introduced the color after consulting with the editors of House and Garden magazine, during a trip to New York. House and Garden had a huge wall chart showing trends in home products, and orange and charcoal were emerging to replace avocado green and harvest gold that had permeated the market for products from stoves and refrigerators, to drapes and pillows.
I contemplated making the sun face design as a round vase but decided that would interrupt the circle too much, and went with a flat-faced decanter. Why a pointed stopper? Maybe because the sun was worshipped by ancient cultures, and I saw the stopper as a kind of spire. Or maybe because the sun face idea came to me on a Sunday morning, with the sun rising over the American landscape behind thousands of rural churches like the ones in which my father preached.
This design, number 6218, (18th design of my 1962 line) became, and still is a favorite of knowledgeable collectors. Making the sun face decanter requires great skill—the base must be free-gathered and dropped onto a smooth iron plate, then the stick-up boy (that’s the term they used) guides the blown sun face onto the molten foot, making sure it doesn’t sag. And if that isn’t enough of a challenge, the foot is attached at the thinnest part of the sun face which creates more stress than just about any other place for attaching a foot or handle to hot glass. We ended up with a lot of seconds—with the sun face tilting forward or backward. I asked the Blenko VP about four years ago, “Why aren’t you making the sun faces which were so popular, when you’re making so many of my other vintage designs?” He answered that they were too difficult to make well.
My textured molds are still evident in the Blenko line 50 years after I invented lost styrofoam patterns. Regrettably, the texture was picked up by many plastics manufacturers to make molds that were much cheaper than polished ones, and became ubiquitous in popular houseware designs.
ONCE IN A BLUE MOON AND THE PAWPAW MYSTERY.
About ten years ago, I was surprised to see that a Blenko employee had taken my suggestion and used my sun face mold to blow a blue moon. How great was that? But it disappeared quickly, as I suspect that it was made on the QT.
A new pawpaw version (shown above right) really tweaked my curiosity. I first noticed it when it appeared on EBay with a curious caption: “…only seven would be made and numbered and each would be sold to the highest bidder.” When I clicked on it to make a bid, it had already sold. I was able to contact the buyer, who promised to let me know who’d listed it but I never heard back from him. The graffiti-like etchings on the bottom are really intriguing, including the date of 2018, the inscription “First Edition,” and Walter Blenko’s signature. I’d like to have one, and of course learn the story of its origin.
Incidentally, the sun face design, like all my Blenko creations, were work for hire, so Blenko still holds all the rights. Those that are over 30 years old, I am advised, are free for anyone to copy.
THE TURQUOISE HEAD BOTTLE
Two months ago, out of the blue, I received an email from British author and authority on antique glass, Andy McConnell. Andy has been working on a book about glass decanters through the ages, from the earliest civilizations up to present day.
When he got to Mid Century Modern designs, of course Blenko appeared on his radar, and in researching information about this American company and its designs, my name popped up, Andy sought out Jim Heffner (of Blenko Collectors Group on Facebook) who gave him my contact info. In his first note he expressed surprise: “Lo and behold, you are still alive!” Thus, began a flood of emails which continues to this day. McConnell is an expert on the British Antique Road Show (which actually began in England). He sent me thumbnail photos of over 40 of my decanters asking me to identify and comment on each and every one of them.
It reminded me of that old tv show that began with “There are eight million people in the Naked City and behind every one of them is a story.” I have enjoyed recalling the stories that inspired many of the decanters, including identification of the mistakes—mismatched stoppers, and otherwise poorly made pieces. As is true of all good authors, getting it all perfect takes time, and in this case, we ran out of it. Andy had reached the publication deadline for his book. So what was to be a whole chapter on my decanters did not make it to the printers in time. Nevertheless, the chapter about my decanters will be published as a separate magazine article and used to bring attention to the book. If you send me your name and email address, I will try to see that you get a copy of the article and info on the book.
Andy was especially intrigued by one of the designs, shown above, that he found in purple at an auction for Ł70. I WAS able to solve the mystery of the Head Decanter. A turquoise version of it (below) appeared in Leslie Peña’s book BLENKO COOL 50s AND 60s GLASS. It was mistakenly credited to Blenko designer Don Shepherd. But the truth is, I created the design for it in 1962. The mold was seriously flawed, and we couldn’t blow good samples. The mold cavity was too shallow and the nose and back of the head too thin. We never attempted to make a stopper. Only a few were made, and we never put it into the line or catalog.
Who knows how it made it to a London antique auction. It’s amazing that it survived the trip.
With the help of a new friend and super talented artist and craftsman, Don Augstein, I am creating a new mold, and will have new Mystery Man Head Decanters made. Let me know if you’re interested in placing an order. It will be offered on this website, and also on chairish.com.
AND FINALLY, THE MAN-IN-A-HAT
One day back in 2015, I was working with Guido at Effetto Glassworks. He was blowing the Jazz in Glass “Green Dolphin Street” decanter. We decided at the end of the session to try something different. Make it shorter, don’t pull it out at the top, add facial features to it. Maybe even a moustache. What about a hat for a stopper? And there he was, the man-in-a-hat. Get him here, in the Gallery Store.