Over my 65 years of designing everything from glass to plastic to automotive accessories to food packaging, I must have attended more than 200 trade shows and consumer fairs that have ranged from ten-foot booths to a huge 60-foot booth with a second floor and a snack bar.
During my ten years at Blenko, there was at least one major show every year. In 1952 when I joined the company, trade shows were held in hotels. At the Pittsburg China and Glass Market, every room in the William Penn Hotel was occupied by exhibitors. Buyers from Macy’s and Gimbel’s, small gift shop owners whom we affectionately referred to as “Minnie Twitches,” and writers from House Beautiful and House & Garden roamed the busy floors. That first year, Cary Grant was a celebrity guest at the show.
Blenko stood out, attracting special attention by offering 30 or 40 new “out there” designs by me each year, while larger companies like Lenox China might only feature one or two new dinnerware designs.
I had both triumphs and failures over the years. The big pitcher with a loopy Rococo handle (shown below) was a hit in 1954, the year that I introduced charcoal as the new color for Blenko. Other designs, like the Sun Face and Jigger Bottle also created excitement at the shows, and were very successful mainstays in the catalog year after year.
After several years of hits, I finally had my comeuppance. My three "Rs" Raindrop, Regal and Rialto lines were introduced in 1960. Raindrop and Rialto bombed. (Buyers and editors shrugged and walked away with comments like “It doesn’t look like Blenko.”) My mistake was not recognizing that color was a hallmark of my wild forms, and without color it just wasn’t Blenko enough. That Monday after the show, I was summoned to the office of “King” William and “Queen” Marion Blenko (as the workers and townspeople of Milton called them behind their backs), and told “Wayne, maybe it’s time for you to move on.” My heart sunk. I never learned why they didn’t follow through, but I went on to spend another three years creating 50 to 60 new designs every year.
It’s sad to realize how many of the great glass factories that spread along the Ohio River—Fenton, Indiana, Viking, Pilgrim, Imperial, Bischoff—gone now, or Kokomo Glass up the river, like Blenko, reduced to a very small presence compared to what they were. It just became too hard to compete with imports from Eastern Europe, Mexico, and China, and later, studio glass shops making more decorative art glass.
Trade shows grew in scale in the 40 years after I left Blenko in 1963. In the 60s and 70s, the age of conglomerates, I worked for Lancaster Colony Corporation, who sold everything from salad dressing, to car mats, to dish drainers. In 1965, I introduced the Optica line, repurposing optical lenses from Lancaster Glass into sculpture and dinnerware. This was also the era of great growth in plastic. (Remember the line “plastics, my boy” from the movie “The Graduate”?) I designed the first plastic dish drainers that had tongue-like clips that could hold cups, a fold-over plastic facial tissue box holder, and a line of bath mats and waste baskets that were featured in the Miss USA beauty pageant. All of these products succeeded due to the willingness of the companies to invest heavily on expensive molds.
In 1967, the venue for the International Housewares Show in Chicago, McCormick Place, burned to the ground with its hundreds of booths and all that merchandise. While it was being rebuilt, the Housewares Show took place in a makeshift building next to the Chicago Stockyards. In August, when temperatures can typically rise to the nineties, the smell from the stockyards was sickening, which made this one of the more memorable trade shows for all the wrong reasons.
After Lancaster Colony, I was retained by Anchor Hocking Corporation as a consultant. For 15 years, their VP of Marketing and I would cover the Milan Trade Fair, and the international trade show or “Messe” in Frankfurt, Germany. These shows were so large, it took days to “walk the show” as the saying goes. I was required to observe new trends and report on them.
The Italian and German fairs were as different as their cultures. The reputation that the Italians have in the design world is one of “coraggio” or courage so evident in their new products. They were bold enough to build a mold as big as a car for the earliest fully injection-molded plastic chair. In the 80s, I was impressed and influenced in my designs by Ettore Sottsass’ radical Memphis designs for Alessi (pictured below).
The German designs are more formal, but wonderful in their detail, as you can see in Rosenthal’s Pompadour dinnerware set, and the mid century Schott Zweisel glasses shown below.
Walking the streets of Frankfurt, I was amazed to see German gentlemen with three-inch-long fencing scars across their cheeks like in WWII movies (they were elite graduates of Heidelburg University). One year my Dutch client, Zilverstad Schoonhoven, booked me into a German guesthouse in a room decorated with a huge, musty, stuffed eagle and portraits of Nazi officers.
I met brothers Arne and Arie Pluut, who ran the silver gift company Zilverstad Schoonhoven, at the Frankfurt fair. I traveled to Schoonhoven, Holland many times to create new designs and we became life-long friends. In fact, the Pluuts convinced my wife, Linda, and I to have our wedding in Schoonhoven, and we were crazy enough to take them up on it. Amazingly, many friends and family came over from the US to share in the adventure.
Last year, I was a featured speaker at the Modernism Show in Palm Springs, a hustling, bustling annual event that impressed upon me how popular mid century design is still.
This year, I had plans to attend the 20th Century Cincinnati Show and Sale that is featuring Blenko as its special guest. Show policies, and an unexpected boycott threatened by someone in Blenko management, forced me to abandon my plans for this year’s show. It created a quick storm of protests from collectors (Thanks for your support!), but the storm blew over, and for the better—I can now concentrate on next year’s show, where I’ve been assured “special guest” status. In addition to a better venue, I’ll finally be able to meet in person some of the collectors of my work.
I’ll also have time to further develop my current projects, including the Jazz in Glass Collection, the “Sonoma” big platter series, a new tech-age Tiffany lamp and clock combination, a giant public sculpture of a bunch of glass grapes on a copper leaf, and who knows what else.
I was recently featured in the Designer issue of Atomic Ranch Magazine. You can see the article at this link: http://pocketmags.com/us/onlinereader/html5_reader/false/159445
As always, I’d really like to hear from you with feedback and questions.