Collection Highlight: Don Blanding’s Floridays and Vernon Kilns Dinnerware

Upon my first encounter with Miami and its environs, I could not help but feel the seduction of this place as entirely due to the tug-of-war between manmade city and irrepressible nature. The papaya plants in every yard, the exuberant vegetation of the hammocks, the tree canopy over Old Cutler Road, the sublime horizontal expanse of sky and sea contrasting with the vertical thrust of modern towers. With Miami Beach’s native daughter and artist Michele Oka Doner, I spent my first day here swimming through mirror-still warm Atlantic waters, marveling at a microcosm of miniature shrimp, crabs, and fish living in a small clump of Sargassum seaweed. A kindred spirit in my fascination for this city teeming with life, Michele pointed me to “a classic work of South Florida kitsch” in The Wolfsonian’s collection, Don Blanding’s Floridays.

We bind our identities to the landscapes, geography, climate, flora, and fauna inherent to a sense of place. Regional and national identities form one of the major themes found in the museum holdings. Donald Benson Blanding was one of the cultural forces that defined and popularized America’s tropical landscapes from the 1920s through the 1950s, having produced enormously popular books and even dishware patterns for Vernon Kilns, California.

After attending the Art Institute of Chicago from 1913–15, Blanding began his lifelong romance with all things tropical and especially Hawaiian after he saw the play The Bird of Paradise in Kansas City. He worked as a cartoonist for the Honolulu Advertiser, and as a commercial artist for Charles R. Frazer Advertising Company. During a stint as a copywriter, he wrote short poems that described Hawaiian local life and its colorful characters for Aji-no-moto soup powder ads in the Honolulu Star Bulletin. Given the popular reception, the newspaper’s executives suggested he compile the poems into a book, Leaves from a Grass House, which immediately sold out the first two thousand copies and led to a lifelong career producing numerous editions of books illustrated with his own pen-and-ink drawings, including Vagabond’s House (1928) and Floridays (1941).

The critical reception of his books further popularized his work and the exotic locales they portrayed, glamorizing the tropics to an audience anxious to escape the realities of an impending war. Writing for the St. Petersburg Times shortly after the release of Floridays, Lillian Blackstone claimed “his illustrations, in black and white, are intoxicating…flourishes that emphasize the tendrils of Florida ferns, the drooping beauty of coconut palm blossoms, the waving glory of the sea oats and the Spanish bayonets.” Intertwined with the plant illustrations, Floridays weaves together the identities of the peoples who populate the Miami landscape. Drawing on his travels through Central America and his encounters with the Latin American populations of Miami, Blanding mixed botanical allusions with what have become tropical stereotypes in the poem “Tabu: Africo-Cuban Song,” in which he describes “a little lady from Havana…That Zombie of Song / That Hot Tamale / Of the Hot Spots / Of the Hot Countries / That Seductive Senorita / C O N C H I T A”:

With the eyes of a cat and the mouth of a wench.
With flesh that is gold and lips that are wine,
With a body as lithe as a jungle-vine
In a sheath of silk and sequin-fire
Like burning coals to inflame desire.

His page layouts conflate plants with Latin American identities, in the formal comparisons between the bend of a monstera deliciosa vine with the angle of Conchita’s elegantly braceleted arm, or the twists and turns of a feathered Mayan serpent. Floridays delivers a kaleidoscopic image of the organic and the artificial, the seedy and the sublime, the local and the exotic—qualities that describe the many commingled peoples, places, and plants that lend South Florida its characteristically glamorous and seductive charm.

—Christian Larsen, curator, The Wolfsonian

 

Captions (click below to enlarge):

Top:

Book, Floridays, 1945
Dan Blanding (American, 1894–1957), author and illustrator
Dobb, Mead & Company, New York, publisher
8 5/8 x 5 7/8 inches
The Wolfsonian–Florida International University, Gift of Peggy A. Loar
XC1996.58
Photos: David Almeida
p. 20 [illustration of Mostera deliciosa vine]

Bottom:

Book, Floridays, 1945
Dan Blanding (American, 1894–1957), author and illustrator
Dobb, Mead & Company, New York, publisher
8 5/8 x 5 7/8 inches
The Wolfsonian–Florida International University, Gift of Peggy A. Loar
XC1996.58
Photos: David Almeida
p. 60, [illustration of performer in bata cubana rumba dress]

Book, Floridays, 1945
Dan Blanding (American, 1894–1957), author and illustrator
Dobb, Mead & Company, New York, publisher
8 5/8 x 5 7/8 inches
The Wolfsonian–Florida International University, Gift of Peggy A. Loar
XC1996.58
Photos: David Almeida
p. 61, Tabu

Book, Floridays, 1945
Dan Blanding (American, 1894–1957), author and illustrator
Dobb, Mead & Company, New York, publisher
8 5/8 x 5 7/8 inches
The Wolfsonian–Florida International University, Gift of Peggy A. Loar
XC1996.58
Photos: David Almeida
p. 112, Yucatan

Platter, Coral Reef pattern, c. 1940 (designed 1938)
Dan Blanding (American, 1894–1957), designer
Vernon Kilns, Vernon, California, manufacturer
Glazed ceramic
1 x 16 ½ inches diameter
The Wolfsonian – Florida International University, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection
85.7.168
Photo: Lynton Gardiner

 

Article Image(s): 
Collection Highlight: Don Blanding’s Floridays and Vernon Kilns Dinnerware
Collection Highlight: Don Blanding’s Floridays and Vernon Kilns Dinnerware
Collection Highlight: Don Blanding’s Floridays and Vernon Kilns Dinnerware
Collection Highlight: Don Blanding’s Floridays and Vernon Kilns Dinnerware