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Museum Feature

Vernon Kilns Lei Lani – Don Blanding, Designer

Sometimes the history of tableware offers up the life stories of great characters, and artist, poet, actor, and self-styled vagabond, Don Blanding (1894-1957), who also designed patterns for the legendary American china company, Vernon Kilns, was one of them. Our museum feature, pieces in the Lei Lani pattern by Vernon Kilns, are essential representations of Blanding’s life and career.

The “National Cyclopaedia of American Biography” (New York: James T. White and Company, 1963) notes that Blanding was born in 1894 in Kingfisher, Oklahoma territory (Oklahoma had not yet achieved statehood). Blanding would later study at the Art Institute of Chicago (1913-1915), supporting himself by sketching and working as a theater usher. He joined a literary group that included authors Ben Hecht and Sherwood Anderson, and painted a set scene for Hecht’s play, “Publico.” In Kansas City, MO, Blanding saw a production of the play, “Bird of Paradise,” and was so taken by its portrayal of Hawaii that he almost immediately undertook a journey to the islands.

That was the beginning of Blanding’s love affair with the Hawaiian Islands. He worked as a cartoonist for a Honolulu newspaper, painted portraits, and produced a play. He would return to the mainland in 1917 to serve in the U.S. Army. He studied art in London and Paris after his military discharge, and traveled in Guatemala, Honduras, and the Yucatan Peninsula. In 1921 he returned to his beloved Hawaiian Islands, working as a commercial artist and writing poems that appeared daily in the “Honolulu Star Bulletin” newspaper. He would go on to publish several volumes of verse and prose, some illustrated with his own art.

In 1942, at the age of 47, Blanding reenlisted in the U.S. Army (some references say he did so in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 1941). He served for 11 months and was discharged in 1943 with the rank of corporal.

At the height of his writing career he traveled extensively, sometimes producing articles for the magazine, “Asia,” and living in places as far-flung as Honolulu, Hollywood, Carmel, Taos, Florida, and Los Angeles. Late in his career, notes the “National Cyclopaedia of American Biography,” while living in Los Angeles, he narrated travel films, lectured widely, and in the last year of his life, delivered some 236 lectures across the U.S.

Blanding began designing for California-based Vernon Kilns in 1936. Lei Lani was inspired by the profusion of magnificent flowers on the Hawaiian Islands. Our featured pieces are the round serving platter (13 3/4 inches) and the pitcher (11 1/2 inches tall). Also shown are the creamer and sugar bowl and lid. Note the “upside-down” handles, called the “Ultra Shape,” designed in 1937 by Vernon Kilns art director Gale Turnbull (1889-1962), who began his career in England, emphasizing the power of color in design. (For Vernon Kilns Turnbull worked with other artists as well, including Rockwell Kent and Walt Disney.) Evidently the handles were the idea of Jane Bennison, daughter of Vernon Kilns president, Faye Bennison. The backstamp shows the pattern name, along with the signature, “Aloha Don Blanding.” (Later, in 1951, Blanding would write a Saturday column for the “Honolulu Star Bulletin” entitled, “Don Blanding Says ‘Aloha’.”)

While our Lei Lani pieces are not for sale, Replacements, Ltd. carries other patterns from Vernon Kilns. Be sure to browse our web site. And remember that we always invite you to visit our facilities! Here you’ll find a stunning variety of silver, china, crystal, and collectibles!



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