May 03, 2016 07:45PM
As a girl in the small Norwegian village of Ørland, Anna Eide dreamed of global adventures. She wrote in her journals about her wishes to leave the windy, flat, big-sky seaside she knew to fly in airplanes, to travel to America. Her writings would eventually end up in the attic of her childhood home. But her dreams took off.
Even as a first grader, she knew she would follow her love of art, and by age ten, she studied with famous painters. Her mother had given her oil paints—never crayons—even though a two-hour boat ride separated them from the nearest art supply shopping center. Anna’s mother was a painter herself, both decorating and reflecting daily life. Not bothering with canvases, her mother painted scenes of the kids playing in the backyard onto the interiors of her kitchen cabinets. Her mother had an eye for detail, setting the table with pressed linens and serving artfully shaved pyramids of butter accented with sprigs of parsley, even at everyday meals.
While Anna grew up, a completely different story was unfolding across the globe at Corning Glassworks. At the forefront of American engineering and manufacturing, Jim Giffen, a high school graduate with a reputation for being a “tenacious bulldog,” dreamed up a mechanical marvel to turn molten ribbons of glass into molded shapes of unparalleled strength, with speed and efficiency. The project evolved over a fifteen-year period, culminating with him wielding a $300,000 “electron beam welder” to put his “hub machine” together. The machine would turn a specialized glass called Vitrelle®—originally intended for TV screens—into affordable, nearly unbreakable consumer dishware called Corelle®.
In 1970, Anna was still in school, and had no idea that Corning had interviewed 8,000 women about their dishware preferences and learned that they wanted “good-looking, inexpensive everyday dishes” and “good strong dishes that don’t weigh a ton.” That year, the first Corelle dishes in “Winter Frost White” hit the market, advertised in magazines for their strength and durability with statements like, “Corning listened to women’s problems about everyday dishware and did something about it.” A twenty-piece set sold for $19.95.
By 1978, when Corelle sales had grown to about $40 million, people across the country were eating their breakfast, lunch, and dinner on Corelle plates. Anna had graduated from Norway’s Bergen Academy of Art and Design, intending to pursue a career in fashion (she and her mother had always sewn their own dresses of the latest fashions). She started her own weaving studio, called Opp en Trapp (Up a Staircase), where she designed vests and tunics reminiscent of traditional Norwegian costumes and sold them to boutique customers.
At the same time, she alternated working in the studio with catering on an oil rig in the stark North Sea. She initiated a plan to bring art shows to the bare walls of the rig, where the scenery and work was bleak—and yet money abounded. But in March 1980, disaster struck a different rig: a storm capsized the structure and 123 of the 212 men on board died. Anna quit the same day.
The event shook up Anna’s world, and sent her on a different path. With the Norwegian Peace Corps, she traveled to Kenya to help single women start their own sophisticated cottage industry weaving raw wool and silk to sell. She loved living on the beautiful shoulders of Mount Kenya and sharing her textile skills, but, after four years, she knew it was time to move on.
With a Finnish scholarship to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology, she arrived in Manhattan for the first time. “It was just—oh—wonderful. To go back to school after working was such a great experience,” Anna says with a slight Norwegian accent. “And then Corning came knocking. Why would they want me?” Anna wondered. She had never considered a career in glass. But she knew patterns. And patterns were key to Corelle.
In 1987, Anna flew to Corning for the interview and accepted the offer of Senior Designer. The job was quite the opposite of Anna’s weaving studio, which was a good thing. She had realized she “didn’t have the soul” to put into each and every thread hand woven with a loom. In Corning, the speed of production, and the chance to be an international jet setter, appealed to her.
Like so many people from afar who find their way to America, Anna brought her specific skills, and also her culture: a Scandinavian ethos of modern, functional design accessible to all budgets. Upon her arrival, she was shown a set of designs and asked which she thought was the bestseller. A grid pattern caught her eye. “I thought it was the coolest thing,” she says laughing, even when she found out it was a test plate used to check for mistakes.
Corelle was the most popular dinnerware in the country at the time, found in 35 percent of households. But The Weekly Home Furnishings Newspaper reported that Corning was frustrated with Corelle’s lack of presence in department stores.
“We’re in a time lock with buyers...Corelle has taken on a negative cast,” said the vice president general manager of Corning Consumer Products at the time. The director of sales added, “Corelle’s strength is only as valid as it is good looking, and it wasn’t good looking enough as time went on.”
Arriving at the Corelle factory at 1 Steuben Street in Corning, Anna was catapulted into the totally different world of American manufacturing. “I loved it. I felt it was something to explore, like the jungle of Kenya and the jungle of New York City. It was another mysterious place full of opportunity,” she says.
Known as the Pressware Plant, the 1938 corrugated building punctuated with smokestacks had originally produced Pyrex. By the time Anna arrived, the factory was dedicated to Corelle alone—and it was bucking a depressing American trend. Since 1978, two million manufacturing jobs had been lost in America, but the Pressware Plant soldiered on with about 500 hourly employees.
At the edge of the Chemung River, the factory roared with the white noise sounds of combustion and ventilation, like a home furnace amplified to mammoth proportions. Inside, deafening noise and white haze surrounded equipment that rose up two stories, with tangles of big tubular ducts sucking air in or blowing exhaust away from different machines. Conveyor belts whirred. Steel steps lead up and down the grey-white-black interior as if inside artwork by the Dutch artist M. C. Escher. “It was gigantic. I felt like a little matchstick,” Anna says.
Overlooking a giant vat from a high platform, a thick tube swung in slow circles from the ceiling, spitting out a sandy mixture of sand, feldspar, limestone, and salts—the raw materials that would soon metamorphose into Corelle dishware now found in 50 percent of American households. Beneath the gritty surface of the twenty-foot-diameter vat were 600,000 pounds of molten glass, at 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The powdery material on top would slowly sink to join the molten material below, thanks to the 4,000 volts of power supplied by giant electrodes probing deep into the cauldron.
Below, Giffen’s hub machine wheel jerked and turned with relentless motion as molten glass poured out of an orifice above, squeezed between steel rollers, and flowed onto the outside of the wheel. Previously described as a “flaming Ferris wheel,” the machine was about ten feet across and slightly wider than a Corelle plate, and it emitted powerful heat from red-hot glass draping over it.
The ribbon itself was a feat of engineering, a three-layered sheet composed of an inner core thinly laminated on both sides with a glass of a slightly different formulation. Once cooled, the layers fuse together but do not intermingle. Their different chemical composition makes them respond differently to stress—like the stress of being dropped onto the kitchen floor—and actually increasing the material’s strength.
On the outer face of the wheel were molds in the shape of Corelle’s products—a plate, perhaps. As the wheel turned, the ribbon of glass was sucked into the molds by vacuums and the excess was trimmed to be reused, like scrap dough from cutting out biscuits. Loud shots of compressed air cooled the plates somewhat, one by one, as mechanical arms transferred them (before they toppled off the edge of the turning wheel) to a conveyor belt. A gauntlet of noisy blowtorches flame-finished the sharp edges before traveling onward.
Eventually pieces made their way into the decorating room, where twisting robotic arms, spinning tubes of enamel, and vacuums helped transfer patterns to dishware, in a process akin to silk screening that filled the air with a faint paint smell. Patterns were limited to six colors, and simpler machines added single bands of color for more minimalist design.
Not long after arriving in Corning, Anna dyed her hair the color of molten glass. She was deep into her design work, traveling the world, researching trends, meeting with artists, and shopping. As design director, she and her team decided which trends to follow, which color pallets to pursue, which patterns to develop. She does not draw the designs herself. Instead, she describes her work as that of an editor: creating a vision, finding artwork, and modifying it for production.
“When I had my own boutique, I designed for my own taste and for a few customers. Designing for the masses is much harder,” Anna says, explaining what she loves about the material: it’s compact, strong, light, hygienic. “My taste is not better than your taste. You might like strawberries, I might like coffee. It’s fascinating to study trends and try to find a pattern that tugs at the heartstrings of Middle America. And that’s different from what works in Korea, or China, or Australia. Do I have the recipe? No.”
Sometimes, Anna just has a sense of what will work. Once, in Frankfurt Germany, she saw that another designer had brought back an embossed look, and she knew it would work for Corelle. But another time, a retail buyer demanded solid colors, and Corelle’s manufacturing limitations would not allow it. Would she lose this important customer? In an effort to understand the buyer, Anna flew for an in-person visit and discovered that the retailer wanted bright, cheerful summer colors—which were possible with the current Corelle process and patterns. Anna flew home with a $6 million order.
In 1998, Corning, Inc. sold its eighty-two-year-old consumer housewares division, including Corelle, because the unit was underperforming in comparison to more profitable technical products like fiber optics. World Kitchen became the corporate umbrella for Corelle, Pyrex, and other housewares brands beyond Corning. In 2002, World Kitchen declared bankruptcy, but soon emerged intact. The company continues to collaborate with Corning, Inc. on technology development.
Today, Corelle remains the number one dinnerware brand in the U.S., controlling 13 percent of the category. The factory runs twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week and, on nine different production lines, pumps out as many as 300,000 pieces per day to be distributed to sixty-five countries globally.
Each new pattern introduced represents a big investment by the company: market research, technical feasibility, design details, running trials, and more. And yet the company has managed to produce 700 different patterns launched globally since 1970. Winter Frost White remains the most popular design, and today Splendor is another top seller.
Each new shape introduced represents another technical challenge, says Steve Olesen, a former Navy man who worked his way up from shift manager at the Pressware Plant to senior manager in research and development. And each shape requires new molds for the “flaming Ferris wheel.” Steve says that each mold is terribly expensive—they are forged from a hybrid aluminum bronze alloy to withstand the constant heat and pressure of producing one dish every two minutes. Only a handful of foundries in the world can make them, and the process yields about one accurate, usable mold for every three made. So the company can’t go introducing new shapes willy-nilly.
When square plates became trendy, Steve was onto a big technical challenge: how to create a large square mold that would work with the machinery and the three-layer molten glass formula. It was the first new shape developed since 1998, and the process took about a year and a half. “There was very little process knowledge around how to design and build the tooling required to form the shapes,” Steve says. “When you have a round, symmetrical shape it is easier to predict how the shape changes when you heat it up. As you begin to create more complex asymmetrical shapes it becomes harder to predict.”
“The other problem was fire polishing,” says Steve. For shapes that are not round, a frame must fit around the dish to deliver a fiery blast that will smooth sharp edges. “Each shape requires its own unique burner design. At the time, no one in-house had ever designed a new burner before, so we had to learn how to do that.”
Shapes matter. A European soup bowl might look like a pasta bowl to an American. A Korean family is accustomed to deep noodle bowls, and smaller soup and rice bowls with distinct contours. A Chinese rice bowl must have a ring around the bottom, for easy handling while eating, and a rectangular plate is an ideal fish dish. Anna makes up her own uses for various shapes. She might store jewelry in small plates on her bureau and serve lunch on a fish plate with soup in a small cup.
The newest Corelle collection, called Market Street New York, will launch this summer. It is a more upscale, ivory-colored set that the company says “brings to life the historic charm and re ned taste of the brand’s birthplace—Corning, NY.”
“We are putting an increased focus on reaching Millennials and are continually investing in innovation to create top-of-the-line products that not only deliver outstanding functionality, but also spark an emotional connection with consumers,” says Kris Malkoski, President Global Business & Chief Commercial Officer at World Kitchen, LLC.
The six new designs are “equal parts inspiring and durable,” according to the company. Steve’s crew overcame challenges to tint the glass its subtle ivory color. Anna’s team drew inspiration from Corning’s Market Street, with patterns inspired by ornamental details of the Baron Steuben building and tree-lined streets. Gold and silver tones and coordinating pieces like carafes and wooden serving trays are intended to appeal to Millennial brides who opt out of traditional fine china on their registries, but desire a touch of elegance in their homes. “We wanted to capture the richness of Market Street in this line,” Anna says, “And it could also be any Market Street across the globe.”
Perhaps it was a combination of her mother’s influence and Norway’s harsh and wild landscape that spawned Anna’s artistic inclinations. Like many Scandinavian designers, she upholds an aesthetic that prioritizes utilitarian beauty, minimalism, and a careful use of color. “The clarity of design, the simplicity speaks to me,” she says. Now, she has fused her love of art with an American product that withstands breakage as well as corporate reorganization, economic ups and downs, a U.S. manufacturing exodus, and technical challenges.
Today, Anna drives down Route 352 and marvels at the upstate New York landscape, sometimes stopping to take photos. On a misty foggy morning, she says, the hills are reminiscent of the Adirondack pattern in the Market Street New York line.
“I just love it here. There are always challenges, always something new.”