Ronald Stennett Willson

The content for this brief history or biography of Ronald Stennett Willson was provided by Chris of http://ronaldstennettwillson.com, an excellent reference source for anything relating to this designer.  We are much in gratitude to him and his partner.

Ronald Stennett Willson, known in the glass fraternity by his initials "RSW", was undoubtedly one of the great designers of
the 20th century.  Unfortunately he passed away in December 2009.  In terms of glass he left behind him a legacy of iconic designs and an influence on a number of other twentieth century glass designers, especially Frank Thrower (Wedgwood Glass and Dartington Glass).

Born in 1915 in Padsgate near Warrington, Cheshire, Ronald Stennett Willson initially wanted to follow a career as a journalist.  Instead he started his glass career in an unlikely fashion for a future designer, working for an importer called Rybeck and Norstrom in the years leading up to the second world war.  Part of Rybeck & Norstrom's portfolio of products was a selection of Scandinavian glass which influenced Ronald Stennett Willson's designs until the end of his career.  The glass being produced by Orrefors and others was clean in line and form, and very different from the Art Deco and Art Noveau glass that still dominated the UK marketplace at the time. 

After serving with honour in the war as a Captain in the Royal Tank Regiment, Ronald Stennett Willson rejoined Rybeck & Norstrom before moving onto J. Wuidart and Company in 1951, where he worked in a sales role.  Ronald moved up to run the company and was active in introducing and educating the British public to the wonder of brands such as Orrefors, Kosta and others.  

The trade fairs he set up in London at Wuidart’s showroom created considerable interest in the trade press.   As a result he was asked to write about glass and wrote several articles for the trade magazine "Pottery and Glass".  These articles included “Design Begins with the Material” an account of contemporary glassware in November 1954, “Three aspects of Display” in May 1955 and “The Responsibility of the Retailer” in January 1956.  He eventually went on to write a book, "The Beauty of Modern Glass" which was published in January 1958.  This book included many photographs of international glass designs selected from the Decorative Art Studio Yearbooks from the previous 10 years.  It brought attention to glass from Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Holland, and how their designers were collaborating with the makers, greatly influencing studio production.

His natural love for the art form led him to start designing in his own right, initially for sale through Wuidart and then with Lemington Glassworks, a subsidiary of GEC.  His designs were in a typically Scandinavian style, with smooth clean lines, and were mainly of simple form, including vases, pitchers, jugs, tankards, cruets and goblets.  The glass was manufactured in various Scandinavian glassworks including Bjorkshults, Ekenas, Strombergshyttan & Johansfors.

In 1959 he designed various functional, thick bottomed tumbler and sherry glasses in clear and harlequin sets, which were made at the Lemington Glassworks.  He also produced vases, bowls and lidded jars.  The complete range was very popular with the design press and he won the Design Award for his ‘Canberra’ vases, which were originally conceived for P&O as cabin vases. Ronald Stennett Willson designed all the on board glassware for P&O and also designed for British Rail and Gilbey’s ( a range of glasses and carafes known as the Gilbey Glasses).  He also designed the ‘Tower Service’ for the Carlton Tower Hotel in London that was initially made by Nazing in Hertfordshire, and later by his own King’s Lynn Glassworks.

In 1960 he set up a shop in Hampstead called Choses (French for ‘All Things’), selling UK and Scandinavian modern ceramics, glass, furniture and kitchens.  In 1961, whilst still working part-time for Wuidart, he was appointed Reader in the Department of Industrial Glass at the Royal College of Art, and went on to teach there for a further 5 years.   Within 3 years he had improved practical facilities including a new workshop block with furnaces, and had started teaching glassmaking and design.
He found it very difficult to persuade British manufacturers to make modern glass and eventually left the RCA, setting up his own factory in 1967 - the King’s Lynn Glassworks in King's Lynn, Norfolk.  He started producing high quality modern tableware and ornamental glass, all of which was handmade.

There were initially four furnaces at Kings Lynn Glass, employing some 35 people, including 15 skilled workers from Sweden to train up local apprentices.  He also recruited some highly experienced Austrian glass-blowers who were able to blow very thin stems which were to be seen in the ‘Sandringham’ range.  After just two years King’s Lynn Glass was employing over fifty people, which later grew to one hundred, a significant employer in a town of the size of King's Lynn.

The iconic ‘Sheringham’ candlestick design eventually grabbed the public's attention.  It was made in various sizes and colours, each piece made by hand, and resulted in the award of the Queens Award for Industry.   King’s Lynn Glassworks' success eventually led to being bought out by Wedgwood Glass, becoming a wholly owned subsidiary in 1969 and eventually changing its name to Wedgwood Glass. Ronald Stennett Willson stayed on as Managing Director and Chief Designer of Wedgwood Glass until the 1970s, finally retiring in 1979.  Wedgwood Glass closed in 1988.  RSW then started a new business with Paul Miller at Langham Glass in Norfolk which is still running today.  At Langham Ronald designed stemware, goblets, paperweights and tankards, staying until 1987. 

Ronald Stennett Willson greatly influenced Caithness Glass and Dartington Glass and he is destined to be known as one of the great British designers of the twentieth century. 

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