Mar 20

Restructuring, millennial appeal helping Blenko find success | News | herald-dispatch.com

MILTON – The Blenko Glass Company lives by a line once quipped by French fashion designer Coco Chanel: “In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different.”

When it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May 2011, there was a very real possibility the Milton glass factory’s furnaces would never again glow, heating and shaping molten glass on the banks of the Mud River as it had since 1921.

As Blenko’s administration shuffled responsibility and reconfigured its internal distribution of capital, no one knew what would become of one of America’s last great glassblowers. Within weeks, Blenko had saved itself from the abyss. Five years later, all its vital signs are strong.

Six said a number of factors contributed to Blenko’s bankruptcy, most significantly the high price of natural gas in 2011, compounded with the poor economic climate. Trends at the time saw more people spending their disposable income on electronics, which Six said had historically been spent on home goods and interior decorations. As the housing market collapsed and the construction of new homes slowed to a crawl, Six said the company’s sale of architectural flat glass also took a hit.

In May 2011, Blenko ceased operations, preparing to enter the history books with Fenton, Pilgrim and hundreds of other handmade glass factories before it. Six said the internal restructuring that brought Blenko back from the dead was last minute, but it worked.

And today, it’s still working.

“I can only tell you that, over the last 14 or 16 months, all trends are looking upward,” Six said.

While still in the Blenko family under current president Walter Blenko Jr., Six said reconfiguring administrative duties, along with a generally strong economy, are the primary factors in Blenko coming off life support since 2011. With origins in manufacturing stained glass, Six said Blenko is re-embracing architectural glass while partnering with national sellers and increasing its online sales.

Acknowledging simply getting buyers into their showroom won’t be enough for the factory to stay open, Six said Blenko must take advantage of its role as one of last great American glassblowers. Six added a huge part of Blenko’s ability to survive relies on how well it makes use of the Internet, selling and shipping all over the world.

The Blenko brand is active on Facebook and will soon begin producing short videos on its YouTube channel to, as Six said, keep the idea of West Virginia handmade glass out where the public can see it.

“All these things are what the world is today,” Six said.

For a more intimate experience, Blenko also hosts hands-on monthly events for enthusiasts. Six said making Blenko more of a destination keeps the public engaged and creates new interest.

Though Blenko’s golden age may have struck with the baby boomers, Six said millennials definitely want to buy glass, particularly large, colorful pieces with retro looks. Six said millennials find pieces made around the 1960s tend to have a “cooler” look, and in response the factory will release its “Retro Blenko” line later this year.

“(Millennials) are buying back the past,” Six said. “It’s their turn to be nostalgic.”

Blenko employs 48 people and has never had a presence anywhere outside of Milton. In keeping Blenko alive and thriving, Six said the impact goes far beyond keeping a Mountain State treasure afloat.

“Not just West Virginia glassmaking, but for American handmade glass,” Six said. “There’s no one else in America who does handmade glass on the scale, and in the way, that we do it. This is a factory. Not an art studio, but a factory.”

With hundreds of historic Blenko glass pieces in its collection, the Huntington Museum of Art has an interest in preserving local glass’s past, though its future now looks a bit brighter. Senior curator Christopher Hatten noted Blenko is the lone survivor in West Virginia’s long-standing glass industry, with roots dating back to the early 18th century.

“If you go up to Blenko and watch them work, you’re going to be hooked.” Hatten said. “It’s so fascinating to watch that team of craftsmen work.”

Hatten said Blenko’s brilliant colors and design make its pieces what the museum most wants to collect, particularly those created between the 1940s and 1970s by designer Winslow Anderson. Acknowledging Blenko is a business and does what it must to survive, Hatten said Blenko’s work is worthy of preservation. With strong sales and production in 2016, Hatten said he’s glad Blenko has preserved itself for another generation.

“It’s something that, we as West Virginians who struggle for something to be proud of, we’re very proud of Blenko Glass,” Hatten said “It’d be great to keep them around for many more years.”

“We all keep our fingers crossed they make it out there,” he added. “They’re a great plus for the area.”

Follow reporter Bishop Nash on Twitter at @BishopNash.

List of upcoming events

Blenko Glass Co. in Milton hosts a variety of events throughout the year for longtime collectors and those new to Blenko. Here’s a look at upcoming 2016 events.

>> Spring Open House, March 19: During this one-day, Saturday-only event, enthusiasts can take classes and make handmade glass Easter eggs. The Spring Open House is a Blenko family signing event. Limited edition pieces for sale include Blenko’s annual hand-formed bunny as well as a spring vase and pitcher.

>> Blenko Warehouse Sale, March 19-25: The Blenko factory warehouse is opened with overstocks, preferred seconds and some unique and one-of-a-kind pieces offered at discount prices.

March 19 25. Seven Consecutive Days!

>> Blenko Glass in the Garden Party, May 13-15: Visit the newly reborn Blenko Glass Garden at the lakeside for sales and exhibits. A special event is planned for Friday, May 13, and the Garden Party will be open to the public Saturday and Sunday, May 14-15.

>> West Virginia Day celebration, June 17-18: Blenko will offer its annual limited-run West Virginia Day piece, numbered at 153, for West Virginia’s 153rd birthday. The West Virginia Day piece is offered beginning at 8 a.m. Saturday, June 18, on a first-come, first-served basis. The Friday, June 17, open house event includes special prices.

>> Festival of Glass, Aug. 5-6: During this annual event, classes are offered for all ages at the Blenko Glass Factory. From hot glass to crafts with wood, glass and glue for youngsters, enthusiasts young and old have the opportunity to enjoy a hands-on experience. The weekend includes special prices tours, signing events and family activities in addition to complimentary annual commemorative pieces.

>> Milton Pumpkin Festival, Oct. 6-9: Located across the road from the Blenko Glass Factory at West Virginia Pumpkin Park, Blenko offers a full “pumpkin patch” of handmade glass pumpkins for the autumnal celebration.

>> Blenko “Inside The Factory” Public Auction, Nov. 12: Glass artisans craft special pieces for the auction and find examples of developmental pieces crafted as part of the process of creating new designs. The pieces are sold at auction to the highest bidder and are listed online two weeks in advance. Telephone bids are accepted prior to the day of the auction.

Nov. 12, 2016 Saturday evening

>> Blenko Holiday Sale, Nov. 25: This one-day sale kicks off the holidays with limited edition seasonal offerings including blown vases, ornaments and more. Also the large “choir” of handmade snowmen arrive at the Visitor’s Center.

November 25, 2016

>> Blenko’s Spirit of the Season Open House, Dec. 1-23: Throughout the holiday season, visit for traditional free hot wassail and holiday cookies while crossing items off your holiday shopping list, including seasonal designs featuring snowmen and Christmas trees.

>> Coming in 2017: Look for Water Bottle Weekend to begin in April 2017.

More online

Hillary Homburg believes Blenko Glass is a West Virginia treasure that spans generations and that nothing symbolizes the state of West Virginia better or more beautifully than Blenko Glass. She maintains an active Blenko Glass blog, Heart of Glass, at www.herald-dispatch.com where you’ll find information about upcoming Blenko events, connect with fellow Blenko enthusiasts seeking new pieces, folks seeing new homes for their Blenko collections and more.

Source: Restructuring, millennial appeal helping Blenko find success | News | herald-dispatch.com

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