Article by Damon Crain
Published in "All About Glass"
Vol. 1 No. 4, January 2004
Produced by The West Virginia Museum of Glass
Exotic, dramatic, and still widely misunderstood, vintage Blenko glass is attracting attention now like it never has before. With so much to recommend it, -- stunning and vibrant colors, unprecedented scale, extravagant modern designs, and internationally renowned designers -- the only surprise is that Blenko has remained a Sleeping Beauty for so long. But the market for Blenko is still in its infancy and the greatest challenge for collectors today is the surfeit of misinformation still in circulation.
People are often eager to identify any glass that is big and bright as Blenko. The production of other contemporaneous West Virginia glasshouses is often mistakenly attributed to Blenko. This is not surprising given that they share similar basic characteristics (bright colors, simple forms, rough pontils) and because they were influenced by nearby company's designs. Italian production glass also often gets misattributed as Blenko, particularly the pieces that are outright copies of Blenko designs, mostly circa late 1950's to early 1960's. To defend against such confusion, collectors must arm themselves with knowledge.
Understanding Blenko begins with knowing it's most elementary identifying characteristics, which are a result of being free-blown. Blenko almost always has a pontil mark on the base, which is only occasionally polished. Exceptions to this include designs that rely primarily on a mold, such as square or heavily textured pieces. The thickness and heft of the glass is another important characteristic; the walls of Blenko vessels are thicker than most. The vast majority of Blenko's rims are fire-polished, meaning rounded and slightly uneven, an effect produced by briefly reinserting the item into the furnace to eliminate shearing and tooling marks after it has been shaped. Vintage Blenko is also very "soft," or porous, which means that it stains easily when used to hold liquids. This is a result of the fact that Blenko glass' original formula was meant for stained glass windows, not for vessels. Signatures are of very little use as they were only used for a portion of 1958 through to the early art of 1961. The silver foil "hand" shaped labels, mostly used prior to 1982, are unreliable identifiers not only because they can easily be peeled off, but also because rolls of unused labels are known to be available.
Beyond such basic and somewhat vague characteristics, one must rely absolutely on documentation and production catalogues to identify Blenko. If a design is undocumented, its authenticity is highly questionable regardless of guesses, provenance and attribution. With the publication of many of Blenko's catalogues, gone are the days when one could feign ignorance on the subject of age, designer, or how widely produced a given design is. For about a hundred dollars worth of books, one can determine as fact what designs were produced, in what colors, and for how long between the years 1959 and 2001. Many people reading this also know that from the West Virginia Museum of American Glass you can also order copies of the 1954 and 1957 catalogues. I personally rely on the production catalogues for attribution but for nothing else; as is often the case, none of the books are perfect, there are many misattributions and other equally serious errors in print. The production catalogues though, should be a collector's primary resource, as speculation on verifiable issues is entirely inexcusable. Information on earlier production though is not readily available beyond the invaluable overview provided by the out-of-print book Blenko Glass 1930-1953 by Eason Eige and Rock Wilson.
Understanding Blenko's early history provides the context necessary to building a collection. Blenko's early work, though not its most dramatic, is the strong foundation of its later success. Blenko's initial line was modeled after the wares produced by other, mostly Italian, companies and sold by the Carbone and Sons Company of Boston , through whom Blenko sold its first tableware. Pictured in a 1931 Carbone and Sons catalogue are photographs of Blenko's tablewares, providing some of the earliest documentation of Blenko's production. Carbone did not identify Blenko by name, instead calling it "Kenova glass, made in the foothills of West Virginia .blown by foreign craftsmen." ( Kenova , WV is about 28 miles directly west of Blenko's factory in Milton , WV . The Kenova area has seen several glasshouses but none by the name of Kenova, with Kenova in its name, or active at that time.)
Carbone and Sons had a reputation of being a purveyor of the highest quality items, and William H. Blenko Sr. (1897- 1969, son of the founder, William J. Blenko 1854-1933) was undoubtedly aware of the standard that his glass needed to live up to. The May 1932 issue of Carbone's The Shard, a sales brochure, contains an editorial written by a person only identified as the director of the Kenova glass factory, with the initials W.H.B., presumably William Henry Blenko. The article, titled "Off Hand Glass Blowing" describes the attributes of off hand glass, namely tool marks and unevenness, and promotes these qualities as assets. Clearly Blenko knew that they could not compete with Carbone and Son's other suppliers on technical grounds. To this day, the "quirks," irregularities, and tooling marks of Blenko remain an appealing hallmark and part of the identity of Blenko glass, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. Such flaws are usually secondary to the overall form; and it is best to see them on a gray scale of acceptable to unacceptable-while always bearing in mind that there are certainly many poorly executed examples, or "bad blows" on the market.
The early part of Blenko's production prior to the tenure of their first official design director, Winslow Anderson (shown left), in the late spring of 1947, is informed by both Italian, Scandinavian and traditional historical influences. The Italian influence was a direct result of Blenko's association with Carbone and Sons. The Scandinavian influence originates from the Swedish brothers Louis Miller (a finisher) and Axel Muller (a blower), whom William Blenko hired from the Huntington Tumbler Co. circa 1930, to execute Blenko's first line of tableware. A later and very noteworthy Scandinavian influence is the Swede Carl Erickson who worked at Blenko from 1937 until 1942 when he left to start his own company, the now famous Erickson Glassworks. A third major influence on their early work was the Williamsburg Restoration reproductions that Blenko was licensed to make beginning in 1933. This work made Blenko familiar with executing certain historical techniques such as the air twist (shown above; first image).
During this early period, the overall production was uneven in both execution and style. Designs were primarily functional and somewhat clumsy copies of existing traditional items. Partly accounting for this is that the selection of designs for production was largely made by sales representatives and distributors rather than by a designer. In fact, it is fair to say that in this period there were very few moments of design innovation. Yet these moments are crystal clear and serve as a clarion call for Blenko's future. In works of this period, one must look for the use of techniques that Blenko later expanded upon in more meaningful ways, works that hint at the company's willingness to innovate and experiment. An excellent example of this would be the "Web" line. This line was vastly different from other things Blenko produced. It was adventurous, specific, and likely more costly to produce.
Beyond the early years, Blenko has had 7 official designers, each with a dramatically different approach to design. With a 73-year history of making tableware, Blenko has produced hundreds of original designs. To make sense of this huge body of work, one can refer to the catalogues to determine how many years a given design was produced, but what we can't know is how many have survived.
It is fair to assume that much of what was produced has not survived. When first sold Blenko was relatively affordable. Despite the clear potential to do so, Blenko did not market itself as luxury glassware in the likes of Lalique, Galle , and Tiffany. Yet, Blenko's best designs were extreme and outrageous in both design and scale , they were clearly decorative items. Consequently many people surely saw Blenko as disposable when their décor or prevailing styles changed. What does one do with a three-foot tall glass decanter when they don't want it anymore? Blenko has the added curse of appearing functional; Blenko vases, pitchers, and decanters seem to be begging to be used. However, many pitchers' handles crack alarmingly easily (#598 for example), pour poorly, and stain and chip with frightening ease. A workhorse Blenko glass is not. It is quite possible that despite the fact that Blenko glass was produced in similar quantities to companies like Tiffany, proportionally less has survived.
The unavoidable conclusion is that vintage Blenko, though currently extremely undervalued, is bound to become a very hot commodity. Prices are not nearly as absurdly low as they were only five years ago, but they are still extremely reasonable even on the hot online market. The advantagesa collector has today are significant-the essential information is readily available, prices are truly accessible and the most desirable Blenko designs have only just begun to come available on the secondary market. With somepatience, focus,and well-informed decisions, now is the perfect time to build an enviable collection of one of America 's great glass companies. Mark my words; this will be the golden age for collecting vintage modernist Blenko.