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Thursday, September 30, 2010

No more clock gadget :(

Sometimes you reach an age when you just have to admit that your kids have a better grasp of what's cool and what's not than you do. It's sad but true. You say you'll never turn into your mother...that you'll never not know the lyrics to songs or pick out a pair of shoes that look old ladyish, but it finally happens to the best of us.

My son-in-law said the clock gadget had to go. I argued that it looked cool...kinda like a vintage ball clock. He argued that it was lame, no matter what it looked like.

I stubbornly kept it up for a couple of days, but every time I looked at it, I had to grapple with my uncoolness, so today I'm officially saying goodbye to the clock.

Ugh...jury duty

I spent part of the day hanging out at the Criminal Justice Center, waiting to see if I got selected to serve on a jury and feeling a little like Arlo Guthrie in the “Group W bench” scene.  What a people-watching opportunity!  (If that movie reference sailed over your head, you’re either way younger than I am or didn’t have an old hippie mom like me.  Ask my daughter; she was raised on Alice’s Restaurant Thanksgiving-a-thons.)

Anyway…after a less-than-fun-filled day doing my civic duty, I needed something to cheer me up, so I looked at more 1950s TV commercials on YouTube.  Coincidentally, my cousin had emailed me some unbelievable old print ads today too.  In case you missed the link yesterday to the old Kool-Aid commercial, give it a look.  It’s interesting to see how much advertising has changed in the last sixty years, as well as how consumer sensibilities have changed.  These Cheerios, Miller High Life and Sugar Frosted Flakes commercials are a hoot, and the I Love Lucy "Vitameatavegamin" spoof of 50s food commercials is a classic that’s always good for a laugh.

I think this explains my Diet Coke addiction.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

For the very best drink you ever made

For people who grew up in the 1950s like I did, sometimes vintage pieces have more nostalgic value than monetary worth. That’s the case with the subject of this post.

As far back as I can remember, my grandmothers and my mother had sets of these multi-colored aluminum glasses with the matching pitchers and trays. Countless packets of grape Kool-Aid were mixed up and served in those sets for my brother and me, and I’ll never forget how frosty-cold those glasses felt.

Several companies manufactured them, with a few variations in style, such as wooden handles on some of the pitchers and a slightly different flare of the lip of the glasses. This picture shows the kind my family had, which were made by Color Craft.

The post title is an excerpt from this 1950s Kool-Aid jingle.

Color Craft anodized aluminum drinkware, c. 1955

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Joe Colombo

Joe Colombo (1930-1971) was an Italian painter, sculptor and designer. Colombo studied art, but in the 1950s he assumed control of the family electrical equipment company, and he used the factory to experiment with design.

He opened his own design company in the early 1960s, and for the next decade he produced a large body of innovative work.  He theorized that technology would transform domestic life, and he sought to achieve these new environments with new materials, such as fiberglass, PVC and polyethylene. His Impronta armchair (1961), Acrilica lamp (1962), Roli chair (1962) and Universale chair (1965) were made with these materials.

His Boby taboret (1970) has remained so popular that it is still in production today, selling for over $300.  My daughter and son-in-law, who are the luckiest estate sale shoppers in the world, have found two vintage models, one they paid $1 for and another they got for $5.


Tube chair - PVC, foam and fabric, 1955

Acrilica lamp, 1962

Molded plywood armchair, 1964

Boby taboret art cart, 1970

Monday, September 27, 2010

Dave Fetty gourd vase

Fenton Art Glass Company was founded in 1905 and produced prolifically all through the mid-century modern era. Nevertheless, their style during those years, for the most part, remained very traditional. Most Fenton glass, frankly, is too ruffly and cutesy for my taste, although they made a few swung vases I think are nice.

However, when Dave Fetty came to Fenton from Blenko in 1965, he began designing and making some of Fenton’s first limited edition studio pieces, and the company’s aesthetic began to change somewhat. Later, as production supervisor and trainer, he taught other Fenton glassworkers new skills.

Although I’ve never had any desire to own a large collection of Fenton glass, I saw a 12” Dave Fetty gourd vase about a year ago, and it was love at first sight. At the time, I had no idea when it was made, but I knew it would be a perfect fit in my 1950 ranch. As it turns out, it was part of a 2006 limited edition set of 150, but it would be right at home in the midst of some of the most streamlined glass designs of the Fifties. The bent neck gourd shape seems to transcend time and is as beautiful today as it was sixty years ago.


Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Blenko heyday

In 1947 the Blenko Glass Company hired Winslow Anderson and became a major force in American glass design. Most glass producers did not have a full time in-house designer, but Blenko made the decision to do so. In addition,, they gave Anderson complete creative freedom..
Four designers take the spotlight in Blenko's heyday: Winslow Anderson, Wayne Husted, Joel Myers and John Nickerson. Husted pioneered a Studio Glass aesthetic before the movement even began. Myers was at the forefront of the movement when it began, and Nickerson was the first Blenko art director who came to the position with a full understanding of the Studio Glass Movement.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Blenko water bottles could be found in almost all homes. They came in a variety of colors. Decanters were also found in abundance, from small tabletop versions to huge architectural floor vases. Stylized pictures of them even became popular wall art. 


Teardrop decanter #920
by Winslow Anderson

Fish #971M by Winslow Anderson

Bird vase #5410 by Wayne Husted

Pitcher #5710 by Wayne Husted

Joel Myers gourd vase

Blenko decanter #6521 by Joel Myers

Decanter #7235
by John Nickerson

Decanter #7127 by John Nickerson

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Medium rare

Sometimes what you think is a massive find turns out to be only medium-sized.

I was at an estate sale the other day, and I ran across an olive green vase with a clear base that looked really interesting.  When I examined it, I found a triangular label, but it was very small and worn, and the only thing I could make out was the word “Finland,” even with the +3.25 readers that I always carry in my purse (a necessity for most of us over 60).  Of course, the thought immediately ran through my head that I’d found something produced in the 1950s by Iittala…maybe a Tapio Wirkkala or a Timo Sarpaneva.  How cool would that be?  And for only $3.00!!!!

I paid for my unbelievable find and headed for the house…and my set of magnifying glasses.  Looking slightly like Sherlock Holmes, minus the hat, pipe and sideburns, I crouched over the vase with the super-size magnifier (the one with the even higher power inset), and a logo became visible, and underneath it I could barely read R-u-h…no, maybe R-i-i-h.  Adjusting the lamp and tilting the vase at just the right angle, I could finally decipher the words “RIIHIMAKI SUOMI FINLAND.”

Speaking not a word of Finnish and knowing only slightly more about glass, I did some research and found out that Riihimaki is the name of a town in Finland where a glassworks factory was started in 1910 by the Kolehmainen family.  The name was changed in 1937 to Riihimaen Lasi Oy.  In 1985 the family sold it and its name was changed again, and in 1990 it closed. 

With a little more detective work, I was able to determine that my piece was designed by Tamara Aladin, who started working for the company in 1959 and, along with Aimo Okkolin, Helena Tynell and Nanny Still, acted as a chief designer for the next 20 years.

Instead of being a 1950s design, however, my vase was more than likely produced for the 1976 Export collection, so it didn’t have quite the mid-century significance I had hoped, but it’s still a lovely piece and in perfect condition…and $3.00 was still a bargain, even if it wasn’t a total steal.

A Wirkkala in a similar shape

A Wirkkala in a similar color

A Tamara Aladin in blue

My not-so-valuable Tamara Aladin vase
c. 1976

Friday, September 24, 2010

Glass masters

1950s glass, once called “the collectibles of the future,” has lived up to its name. The exquisite bottles, bowls and vases from Europe and America that graced almost every twentieth century home have now become highly coveted collectors’ items.

Beautiful glass was created by Italians Paolo Venini, Fulvio Bianconi, Dino Martens, Aldo Nason, Flavio Poli and Carlo Scarpa. Scandinavians such as Sweden’s Sven Palmqvist and Vicke Lindstrand, Denmark’s Per Lutken and Otto Brauer, as well as Finland’s Tapia Wirkkala, Timo Sarpaneva and Kaj Franck satisfied America’s love of dramatic shapes in both clear glass and vibrant colors.

Produced in the United States and perhaps somewhat less exotic to middle-class Americans than European designs were the pieces that came from Blenko, Fenton and Viking. What they lacked in mystique, they made up in accessibility, because almost every mid-century home had a Blenko decanter or carafe, Fenton milk glass or a Viking swung vase.

Most of these pieces were purchased purely for their decorative value and were affordable in almost every home, marking a departure from a time when only the wealthy could own such luxuries.

Fulvio Bianconi

Carlo Scarpa

Sven Palmqvist

Per Lutken for Holmegaard - Flamingo, 1958

Otto Brauer for Holmegaard

Vicke Lindstrand for Kosta

Tapio Wirkkala for Iittala

Timo Sarpaneva "Devil's Eye" for Iittala, 1951

Blenko decanter by Wayne Husted, 1959

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Isamu Noguchi

Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) was born in Los Angeles, the son of an Irish-American mother and a Japanese father.  He spent his childhood in Japan and his adolescence and adulthood in the United States, and for the rest of his life, he was at home in both places.

Noguchi moved to New York to become a pre-med student at Columbia University, where he also enrolled in a sculpture class.  Art won out, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1927 led to an apprenticeship in the studio of Constantin Brancusi.  When he returned to New York, associations with technological visionary Buckminster Fuller and choreographer Martha Graham allowed him to explore new facets of his talent.

His first widely distributed design was the Radio Nurse of 1937, and the later Guardian Ear, an object containing a microphone, would pick up sounds from a child’s room.  In 1944 he revised a design he had created to illustrate the George Nelson article “How to Make a Table.” The biomorphic coffee table was put into production in 1947 by Herman Miller and became one of his best-known works.

His famous three-legged cylinder lamp was first made as a gift for his sister in 1944 or 1945.  He began designing his beautiful Akari lamps in 1951, which are still manufactured in Gifu, Japan, by the same company that began producing them in the early 1950s.  His wire and wood rocking stools were designed in 1953, and in 1957 Hans Knoll enlarged the small stool to the full-size Cyclone Table as a companion piece to Harry Bertoia’s wire chairs.

From the Fifties on, Noguchi’s focus was on what he called “the sculpture of spaces,” and he designed gardens, playgrounds and plazas.

From the essay “Isamu Noguchi: Art Into Life” by Bruce Altshuler on
Photos from

Isamu Noguchi, 1951

Bakelite Radio Nurse, 1937
Manufactured by the Zenith Radio Company

Cloud sofa and ottoman, c. 1948
Manufactured by Herman Miller

Custom beech table for William A. M. Burden, 1948

Rocking Stools, 1955
Manufactured by Knoll

Coffee table, 1944
Manufactured by Herman Miller

Cyclone table, 1957
Manufactured by Knoll

Akari floor lamps, 1950s
Manufactured in Gifu, Japan

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

George Nelson

George Nelson (1908-1986) is considered one of the founders of American modernism.  He studied architecture at Yale University and art history at the Catholic University of America, and, along with Eliot Noyes, Charles Eames and Walter B. Ford, he won the Rome prize for architecture in 1932. Despite his architectural training, however, Nelson found few building projects during the Depression and World War II years and began focusing on furniture, industrial and exhibition design.

Nelson traveled throughout Europe and subsequently met several of the early European modernists. Through his writing in “Pencil Points,” he introduced Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Gio Ponti to the American public.

His “storagewall” units, widely publicized through a 1945 issue of
Life magazine, doubled as room dividers, redefining the concept of the office. Herman Miller subsequently recruited him, where he served as design director from 1946 to 1965.

During his tenure there, Nelson brought many fine designers to the Herman Miller, including Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi, Harry Bertoia, Alexander Girard and Buckminster Fuller. Nelson and the talented designers working for him produced many milestone designs during this time, including the whimsical marshmallow sofa, the coconut chair, the Catenary furniture group, the slat bench and a line of clocks and bubble lamps.

Many iconic designs came out of Nelson's own design firm. As was customary, he received credit...and still does...for the work done by designers employed by his firm.


Marshmallow sofa

Catenary chairs

Spindle clock

Slat bench

 Coconut chair

George Nelson with a display of bubble lamps
from a 1952 copy of Interiors Magazine

Update: 11/24/2013 - I recently ran across this photo of George Nelson that I had never seen before. It's the first really good informal shot of him I've ever seen, and I think it's my new favorite.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A clock by any other name

The Noguchi Ball Clock? I'm sorry, but that just doesn't sound right.

I found a humorous account on attributed to the book George Nelson: The Design of Modern Design by Stanley Abercrombie. This is so interesting that it bears retelling.

George Nelson recalled the iconic design of the Ball Clock as being a result of a night of drinking with friends and associates Isamu Noguchi, Buckminster Fuller and Irving Harper. According to Nelson:

“And there was one night when the ball clock got developed, which was one of the really funny evenings. Noguchi came by, and Bucky Fuller came by. I’d been seeing a lot of Bucky those days, and here was Irving and here was I, and Noguchi, who can’t keep his hands off anything, you know. It is a marvelous, itchy thing he’s got. He saw we were working on clocks and he started making doodles. Then Bucky sort of brushed Isamu aside. He said, “This is a good way to do a clock,” and he made some utterly absurd thing. Everybody was taking a crack at this…pushing each other aside and making scribbles.

At some point we left. We were suddenly all tired, and we’d had a little bit too much to drink, and the next morning I came back, and here was this roll [of drafting paper], and Irving and I looked at it, and somewhere in this roll there was a ball clock. I don’t know to this day who cooked it up. I know it wasn’t me. It might have been Irving, but he didn’t think so…We both guessed that Isamu had probably done it because he has a genius for doing two stupid things and making something extraordinary…out of the combination….or it could have been an additive thing, but, anyway, we never knew.”

According to, many years later Irving Harper claimed that he was the actual designer of the Ball Clock, but since nothing was officially written down on paper, the mystery will always remain.

Ball clock, Model #4755, 1964

Monday, September 20, 2010

Shedding new light

Another extreme departure from the ornate design of earlier periods was in the area of lighting. Many of the major furniture designers created lamps and hanging light fixtures as well. Like other pieces of the period, their lighting was characterized by sleek lines and innovative shapes and materials. Plastic, in particular, fascinated not only the general public but also many of the designers of the day.

George Nelson's bubble lamps have become symbols of the period. He designed them in 1947, and they were in production until the late 1970s. He never gave specific names to the lamps. Rather, they were referred to by numbers. The large saucer was, for example, known only as "Bubble Lamp H-727." When Modernica was allowed to reissue the lamps in the 1990s, they gave them the names Ball, Saucer, Pear, Cigar, etc. In 1998, Modernica received all the original tooling from Herman Miller, and they distribute the lamps worldwide.

Isamu Noguchi designed his well-known cylinder lamp in 1944 and began working on Akari lighting in 1951. In an interview, he explained:

The name akari, which I coined, means in Japanese light as illumination. It also suggests lightness as opposed to weight. The ideograph combines that of the sun and moon. The ideal of akari is exemplified with lightness (as essence) and light (for awareness). The quality is poetic, ephemeral, and tentative. Looking more fragile than they are akari seem to float, casting their light as in passing.

Poul Henningsen's famous artichoke fixture, as well as his halo pendant, are still extremely popular today and are being reproduced or copied by a number of companies and offered in varying price ranges.

Other lighting designers whose lamps and fixtures are synonymous with mid-century are Marion Geller, Gilbert Watrous and Gerald Thurston. Variations of their designs have become so widely recognized that we sometimes forget their innovative ideas revolutionized modern lighting. Their use of tripod bases, cone-shaped, perforated and dome shades in plastic, metal and glass became the standard for much mid-century lighting style.

George Nelson lighting display offered to retailers free of charge by Herman Miller
From a sales brochure, c. 1968

Isamu Noguchi's cylinder lamp

Marion Geller's flying saucer-shaped reflector lamp with tripod base

Poul Henningsen's artichoke light

Gerald Thurston's tripod lamp

Gilbert Watrous's ball-and-socket lamp
 with magnet that held the ball in any position