I know that it happens in the fashion world every year, but it never ceases to amaze me how chain stores are ‘inspired by’ the design classics of today or yesterday. There I was, quietly going about buying some new display shelves in a major high street chain store, when I spotted something really rather nice, and also really rather familiar.
The forms were practical and classical, the lines were clean, and the colours were vibrant. I instantly recognised them as ‘based on’ the 1960s Blown Soda range designed by Geoffrey Baxter for Whitefriars. There were differences, however. The quality wasn’t nearly as good, the colour tones were different, and some shapes were interpretations – but the inspiration was clear to me. Although I was a little irritated, it did make me realise Baxter’s skill as a designer, in that his designs, produced over 40 years ago, still clearly have relevance and commercial value today.
The original Blown Soda range largely came about due to a fault, which caused a problem. Baxter had been appointed as Whitefriars’ lead designer in 1954, at a time when the company’s post war products were booming in popularity. Each year, participation in major trade events, such as the Blackpool Fair, meant that new collections had to be introduced, or old ones revisited, to keep the product ranges fresh and sales strong. In preparation for the 1962 Blackpool event Baxter had devised a range of organic, free blown blue or red vases and bowls decorated with applied white trails in swirling or randomly applied abstract patterns. All well and good – except for the fact that the white trails didn’t stick, to put it bluntly. This meant that, despite every attempt, the range had to be largely abandoned, with very few pieces being made.
The company still needed a new range to display, and quickly. William Wilson, who was Managing Director of Whitefriars at the time as well as being a successful designer in his own right, suggested that Baxter look at existing moulds with the aim of producing a mould blown range. This would mean that new expensive moulds would not need to be made, and a range that was both easy and economical to produce would result.
What Baxter came up with was both innovative and very much of its time. A range of simple soda glass vases were made using two part moulds, and then finished by hand. This latter factor resulted in slightly different sizes and heights for each piece produced, adding a unique aspect to the range. Baxter also used a number of lampshade moulds, a clever move that resulted in some extremely modern, angular forms that were also different from those on the market at the time. Colours were deep and strong, and included the dark and moody midnight blue, shadow green, twilight, and the more vibrant amethyst and ruby red. The glass was blown thinly, which not only resulted in a light weight, but also gives appealing, gently graduated colour tones when light passes through the body.
The combination of these simple forms and bold colours was also very much of the period. From the late 1950s-70s, Scandinavian glass had become immensely popular, and was arguably in its post war ‘golden age’ in terms of sales and popularity. British companies such as Whitefriars (and later Dartington Glass), were keen to take advantage of this trend and produce their own versions for the booming market. In this vein, it is possible to see the influence of Scandinavian designers such as Kaj Franck for Finland’s Nuutajarvi Nostjo, and Jacob Bang for Denmark’s Holmegaard, in the Blown Soda range. The range certainly shares the clean lines, unornamented surfaces and plain, strong colours of many designs by these leading lights, as well as a certain austere feel. Austerity is another interesting factor here. It could be argued that the almost Modernist simple forms and lack of surface decoration were typical of the post war austerity seen in many designs of the early to mid-1950s. However, these were updated with different shapes, and often more vibrant colours, to produce something quintessentially British – and quintessentially Whitefriars.
I’m always quite surprised that the Blown Soda range isn’t more popular than it is. After all, you don’t need to be a glass nut to ‘get’ them, and they fit incredibly well with today’s fashions and tastes in interior design. The effect is particularly stunning when different sizes, shapes and colours are grouped together. I guess that’s why that chain store took the commercial decision to release a range ‘inspired’ by them. In its day the range was extremely popular and was produced for a long period, meaning that examples are not too hard to find today. Prices vary depending on the size, shape and colour – some shapes or sizes are rare in certain colours. Unsurprisingly, ruby red and amethyst tend to amongst the most popular colours, over and above the duller greens. The sober yet resonant blue falls at the upper end between the two, but can be more desirable in large sizes.
Small pieces can be found for as little as £10-20 upwards, but I’ve seen examples at charity shops and car boot sales for a mere pound or two. Like so much glass, examples were unmarked, apart from a label that has typically been removed or fallen off. If you learn to recognise the shapes and colours, you’ll be equipped to find some bargains! Look out for rare forms, such as the decanter and glass set. Larger forms, particularly those with characteristic wide bulbous bases and flaring necks, can fetch up to around £100, but the ones to look for have an added, extra feature. In late 1964, Baxter added an opaque white trail to rims, which almost harks back to the failed range of 1961. He also designed a new series of unusual and modern forms to which these would be added, and the sober ‘Pewter’ colour was introduced to the range. As before, the rims were difficult to produce consistently on a repeated basis – getting an even, perfectly placed trail of molten glass on the thin rims was challenging. Due to this the range was discontinued in 1966. As a result, these pieces are considerably rarer, and can fetch anything from around £50-70 for a simple form, to nearly double that for a scarcer, more complex form with a flared mushroom style rim.
Some may ask, unless you find a bargain, why pay these prices when you can just pop down the High Street and buy something that looks like it? I doubt I really need to say why, as you’re reading this magazine, but for those who don’t know – here we go! Firstly the quality of the new ones is much poorer. Secondly, they’re arguably copies of what were original designs that represent an important movement of British decorative arts – as collectors and lovers and antiques and collectables we shouldn’t support this sort of thing. Thirdly, for those interested in such things and let’s admit it, we all are in some way – the new ones are hardly likely to represent good investments, not in our lifetimes anyway. The original is always the best!