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WV Design Team: W.Va.’s rich modernism

By By Chuck and Connie Hamsher
WV Design Team

We are often asked what first drew us to mid-20th-century design. Our answer, while quite simple, often catches people off-guard.

“West Virginia,” we clearly and proudly tell them.

While modern design and art is not the first thing to pop into most people’s heads when thinking of the Mountain State, West Virginia has a strong modernist heritage. From the factories, which produced what have now become iconic pieces of art glass and mid-century utilitarian ware, to artists who worked in a modernist style which was quite unconventional at the time, there were masters at work in West Virginia.

Out-of-town visitors to our gallery are often more aware of West Virginia’s mid-century modern products than are the locals — although there is also a strong collector base among those close to home.

The products of our state produced in the postwar period of the 1950s and 1960s have become basic decor items for those seeking to reflect 20th-century modernism in their homes.

Blenko Glass is world known for the products which came out of Milton during their golden years under the guidance of such designers as Winslow Anderson, Wayne Husted and Joel Myers.

But even before Anderson, Husted and Myers were designing the glorious pieces during the 1950s and ′60s, there was the time that has come to be known as the “pre-designer” period.

While really not true, as these pieces had to be designed by someone, it was prior to the hiring of a full-time industrial designer by the firm. During this time most pieces were designed primarily by Richard Blenko Sr., along with his team of craftsmen.

The sales department also played a role in developing items they believed would do well in the marketplace.

Certainly the work coming out of the company prior to 1948 did not lack in style, imagination or beauty.

Vintage Blenko glass has become a staple of mid-century home decorating and is often as useful as it is beautiful. From glassware to lamps to large “floor decanters,” the addition of Blenko glass items to a home adds color, character and style.

Other glass makers in West Virginia included Morgantown Glass; Rainbow Glass, of Huntington; and Fostoria Glass, which relocated to Moundsville from Fostoria, Ohio, in 1892, where it remained until its closure in the 1980s.

Fostoria’s American line, introduced in 1915, was produced by the firm for decades and remains a classic which looks equally gorgeous in traditional and modern settings.

West Virginia’s modern art heritage is just as rich. In fact, one of our nation’s modernist pioneers, Blanche Lazzell, hails from Monongalia County and was among the first American artists to incorporate cubism into her art. Lazzell, however, produced most of her work outside of West Virginia.

Many of West Virginia’s artists worked here, though, and were both influential to and influenced by modernist aesthetics.

Robert E. Martens was born in Illinois in 1919 but lived most of his life in Charleston. Martens studied architecture at Yale University and at the Cranbrook Academy of Art under Eliel Saarinen. He went to work for the Charleston firm of Martens and Son Architects with his father, Walter Frederick Martens, who designed several local landmarks, including the Governor’s Mansion.

In his career, the younger Martens designed such buildings as the United Carbon Building, the original portion of the Charleston Civic Center, and Alderson-Broaddus College.

His work on the United Carbon Building (now Boulevard Tower) created a landmark in Charleston where Robert Martens’ sculptures still grace the entry portico on Kanawha Boulevard — including “From the Fullness of the Earth” (United Carbon Man). Martens’ sculptures are among our favorites and we have been pleased to have some grace the homes of our clients.

Charleston artist Hank Keeling, who was one of the founding members of downtown Charleston’s Gallery Eleven in addition to being an art professor at the University of Charleston, was one of West Virginia’s great abstractionists. With a body of work which stretches from the 1950s to just before his death in 2010, Keeling’s work can still sometimes be found in galleries, antique stores and in estate sales.

His good friend Felix Krasyk is one of our favorite West Virginia artists. Felix produced much of his work in New York City in the 1950s while in school but then packed it all away to move back to Charleston to care for his parents in 1959. There they stayed until a brief exhibit at the University of Charleston in 2006.

After another showing in downtown Charleston, Felix began to work again. Although in his early 80s and suffering from macular degeneration, Felix produced art until his death in March 2010. Although most of his early works are now in private collections, his later works and limited-edition prints of his 1950s pieces, issued just months before his death, are still available.

These artists and the glass makers we have highlighted here are just the tip of the iceberg of some of the fabulous art and home accessories produced in West Virginia which can enhance your home. With some patience (and diligence), a well-curated collection of West Virginia modern design and art can still be obtained or built upon. This not only adds character to your home but also is a reflection of our state’s rich history.

Chuck and Connie Hamsher are collectors of 20th-century design and art and owners of The Purple Moon, in downtown Charleston, which specializes in mid-century, industrial and contemporary home furnishings and accessories. Follow The Purple Moon on Facebook or visit them online at http://www.thepurplemoon.com. Chuck and Connie can be contacted at 304-345-0123.


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