Ronald Stennett-Willson was born in Padgate, Cheshire in 1915. He did not train in business or design and yet has done more than any other British designer to transform the glassware we have in our homes.
Stennett-Willson started work in 1935, when he took a job as an office junior at a company that imported decorative glassware, mainly from Sweden. He got on well and developed a passion for modern glass. In 1951 he joined J Wuidart & Co, a Scandinavian importer, where he became sales manager.
He travelled to Sweden in the early fifties to see the glass being made there. It was a revelation – Sweden, as a neutral county, had been untouched by the war and by the early 1950s the people were rich and life was good. Selling the innovative Swedish glasswares to retailers in Britain was not easy. British glass was still much as it had been in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, colourless and with historic cut glass patterns.
Ronald decided that he needed to create hybrids that would give a British slant to Swedish colours and forms. His first design was a re-modelling of the classic Paris goblet. It was produced for 34 years in sold in the millions. Some of his more innovative pieces had to be made by Bjorkshult in Sweden, as many British glassworks refused to make his modern designs.
He went on to design hundreds of pieces of decorative and functional glassware and often consulted with retailers in order to make the most stylish pieces that would sell in the shops. Business boomed and Ronald was in great demand. While still running Wuidart in 1961 the Royal College of Art recruited him as a tutor. Here he met with some of the most pivotal figures in British post-war design, including Robert Gooden, David Queensbury, Robin Pye and Kenneth Grange.
Initially, the glass department had no furnace and the pieces had to be made in Stourbridge. Ronald supervised the installation of a furnace and 1967, the first step towards what was to become the British studio glass movement which created a huge interest in one-off statement pieces.
In 1963 he opened Choses, a modern Scandinavian lifestyle shop, in Hampstead. Here he sold Swedish and German ceramics, teak and pine furniture and blue and white striped butchers’ aprons. It became the place to be seen and anyone who was anyone would congregate there on a Saturday morning. One of the customers was Terence Conran, who is said to have been inspired by the use of wire shelving and backlighting and he opened Habitat the following year.
Ronald had a big break in 1967 when he managed to get financial backing to found his own glassworks at King’s Lynn – Lynn Glass. He initially employed 35 people, 15 of them were skilled Swedish glassmakers.
The most enduring Stennett-Wilson designs are his trio of candlesticks ‘Sheringham’, ‘Brancaster’ and ‘Sandringham’, all named after Norfolk villages. They were all handmade and Sheringham required each disc and stalk to be fitted together individually. When it was first launched in 1967 the nine ring model would have cost £22, which was about a week’s wages for the average person. These candlesticks continued to be produced even after Wedgwood took over the company in 1969. Wedgwood already owned Waterford and exported largely to the United States. Lynn Glass enabled them to offer contemporary designs in contrast to the traditional Waterford pieces.
In 1979 Ronald founded another glassworks, together with his former leading glassmaker, Paul Miller. He died in 2009 and the Langham glassworks are still going strong under Miller’s direction. Lynn closed in 1992 after Waterford bought out Wedgwood.
If you are interested in contemporary glass the good news is that Stennett-Willson pieces are not difficult to find. They were produced in large numbers and over several decades. You can pick up one of his re-designed wine glasses for a few pounds. The ‘Harlequin’ suites of glasses he designed for Lemington Glass in the 1960s can be had for around £25 each and the iconic ‘Sheringham’ candle stick usually goes for between £25 for a single to around £400 for the nine ringed version.
Ronald also made a limited number of studio vases using the ‘Ariel’ technique of trapping pockets of air beneath the surface. Most of these were signed and would cost between £400 – £1,500. Most of the designs are available at such good prices that they cost hardly more than imported modern Chinese pieces sold in the High Street. Owning a Stennett-Willson design means you have a little piece of British design history that will retain its value for a very long time.