Blenko’s new design team breathes fresh air into a beloved brand while holding with tradition.
Emma Walters has broken a glass ceiling—with glass, no less. Last October, Blenko Glass Company in Milton hired Walters as the first female designer in the company’s 125-year history.
“We have a lot of women who work at Blenko, but not currently on the factory floor,” she says, adding that she is excited to have joined the team and that “many, many women make this company run.”
Since joining the company, Walters and her partner, Andrew Shaffer, have redesigned the company’s entire tableware line, which consists of more than 100 items. “It has been a big whirlwind, in a great way,” she says. The new catalog came out in January, but the couple didn’t stop there. “We’ve been continually letting out new products.”
Blenko’s products have an identifiable style that inspires nostalgia in its many collectors, so Walters has been “investigating the past, as well as adding new to the future.” She wants to help move the designs forward without totally departing from the look customers love.
“You can find inspiration from the dirt or from the sky,” Walters says. “It’s not linear, and there’s not a formula.” Sometimes inspiration starts on the factory floor. When they design new pieces, Walters and Shaffer often work with the glassblowers who will eventually produce their designs. “It’s really amazing to work with that many skilled hands,” she says. Other times, the designers draw inspiration from historical designs or current trends.
Once the seed of an idea starts to grow, Walters makes sketches and builds prototypes from cardboard, blocks, and other materials, or creates a computer-generated model. Shaffer sometimes blows glass when the workers are done for the day, experimenting with new designs. All of this helps the team work designs out before they go to production. “You’ll see something in it that you want to bring out further,” Walters says.
Blenko Glass Company vice president Dean Six credits his new designers with bringing exciting change to the company. “We went off in a new direction,” he says. Shaffer and Walters stand apart from the company’s previous designers, who mostly came from academic backgrounds without the hands-on experience these two have. “One of their great strengths is that they are young, but also experienced,” Six says. “For them to choose to join Blenko is quite a compliment to us.”
Walters absorbed techniques while working with Czech glass artist Martin Janecky, American artist Pablo Soto, and Italian artist Gianni Toso, among others all around the country. She demonstrated glassblowing with the Corning Museum of Glass, in its museum and on cruise ships from Australia and New Zealand to French Polynesia and Hawaii. Shaffer, meanwhile, has worked in a host of hot glass houses around the eastern United States, including a stint as design and production liaison for the renowned Vermont glassblower Simon Pierce.
Walters and Shaffer have worked together for about five years. They opened a New York City studio together called Ennion, named for an ancient Roman glassblower and mold-maker. “It’s what we both do and what we both love,” Walters says. But it’s more than just experience that Walters and Shaffer bring to Blenko. “The combination of their enthusiasm is terribly contagious,” Six says.
Working at Blenko has brought a new excitement to her career, Walters says. “It’s almost like going back in time. It is literally a historic place,” she says. During the peak of the glass industry, there were 473 hot glass manufacturers in the state. Only four factories remain, along with a handful of artists blowing glass at their own studios.
Walters and Shaffer plan to continue adding new tableware items to the Blenko Line, but customers should expect to see fewer new pieces in the 2019 catalog, as the duo puts more concentration on lighting fixtures like table lamps and pendant lighting. Walters says they plan to do more intricate designs on these larger pieces.
Blenko Glass is known for “affordable and small, often colorful and fun” glass pieces, Six says. “And our friends and neighbors made it, which makes it that much more special.” With the help of Walters and Shaffer, “our goal is to keep handmade glass in West Virginia for years to come,” he says.
9 Bill Blenko Drive, 304.743.9081, blenko.com
written by Aldona Bird
photographed by Nikki Bowman