This month from our museum we’re featuring pieces in the Lei Lani pattern by Vernon Kilns. The tropical designs that adorn Lei Lani were created by Don Blanding, an artist, actor, "vagabond poet," and lecturer who maintained a love of the Hawaiian Islands for most of his life.
Blanding was born in 1894 in Kingfisher, Oklahoma territory. After graduating high school, Blanding studied at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1913 to 1915, supporting himself by sketching and working as a theater usher. It was during these years that 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 it wasn’t long before he left to see the islands for himself.
During his stay in Hawaii, Blanding 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 the Hawaiian Islands, working as a commercial artist and writing poems that appeared daily in the "Honolulu Star Bulletin" newspaper. Blanding 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. 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, while living in Los Angeles, he narrated travel films and gave 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 a round serving platter and a pitcher, along with a creamer and sugar bowl. The handles in the "Ultra Shape" were designed in 1937 by Vernon Kilns art director Gale Turnbull; evidently the "upside-down" handle design was 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." (In 1951, Blanding would write a Saturday column for the "Honolulu Star Bulletin" entitled, "Don Blanding Says ‘Aloha’.")
Vernon Kilns’ story begins in Vernon, California in 1931, when Faye Bennison bought Poxon Pottery (first founded in 1912 by George Poxon – a member of the famed Wade family of English pottery producers), and renamed it Vernon Potteries. At first, Bennison was content to simply continue producing Poxon patterns, but when an earthquake destroyed the company’s entire inventory of Poxon ware in 1933, Bennison was forced to reinvent the company. He formed an art department at Vernon Kilns to produce original designs, leading the company to join the ranks of other California potteries like Metlox, Gladding, McBean & Co, and Pacific Clay in producing brightly colored, hand-painted earthenware. In addition to Vernon Kilns’ staff of talented in-house artists, other professional artists like Don Blanding, Jean Goodwin Ames, Sharon Merrill, and Rockwell Kent were commissioned to design special lines of dinnerware. Vernon Kilns also became known for its ability to create special order items for specific needs, producing pieces for Disney movies, department stores, advertising, and historical figures, as well as items commemorating special events and places.
Over the decades, Vernon Kilns managed to survive numerous earthquakes, fires, and the Great Depression, but was finally forced to close its doors for good in 1958 due to high labor costs and foreign competition. At that time, its patterns and molds were acquired by Metlox Pottery, which produced several Vernon shapes and patterns until 1989.
While the Vernon Kilns Lei Lani items in our museum are not for sale, we do have a variety of Metlox/Poppytrail/Vernon pieces available for purchase in our inventory; be sure to browse our web site. And remember that we always invite you to visit our facilities – here you’ll see a stunning variety of silver, china, crystal, and collectibles. Our Retail Store is open from 9:00 am - 6:00 pm ET, Monday through Saturday and 1:00 pm - 6:00 pm ET, Sunday (except holidays); free tours are available Monday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm as well as Sunday from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm. The showroom and museum are conveniently located between Greensboro and Burlington, NC, at exit 132 off Interstate 85/40. We look forward to seeing you.