If you remember reading “It’s no secret that styles, techniques and technology advance as the years go on. But I had NO IDEA what wonderful history I was about to unveil as I sought out the expertise of our ornament designers to help me put together this [Annual Ornament Designs] post. My mind is still whirling.” Then you may have been waiting for this very post – a nostalgic look at the history of Bronner’s exclusive ornaments design process through the years!
And if you’ve been following Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland for any time, you likely know that what is now known as the “World’s Largest Christmas Store” actually started off as a sign painting and window trimming business back in 1945! It was while originator Wally Bronner was window trimming in Bay City that destiny would have him colliding in to the world of creating custom Christmas decorations! (If you’re new around here, welcome! You can catch up and learn a bit more about the humble beginnings of Bronner’s here!)
Creating thousands of unique, one-of-a-kind Christmas decorations is something Bronner’s has been doing for many decades now thanks in part to ornament artist Connie Larsen, who joined the team in 1972. Her energy while sharing memories from those early days was electrifying, which had me inspired to want to share them with you here.
Looking at vintage Christmas ornaments most people will either see (A.) cool stuff … history – or – (B.) something “simple and old” … outdated. But understanding the process of creation, I’m convinced will have even “B-types” having a new appreciation for these nostalgic relics!
Connie had first taken me to the ornament sample room back in 2017 and I was immediately and completely enthralled with what hung before my eyes! In the 10+ years I’d been with Bronner’s, I had no idea something so magnificent existed. That room felt like more of a time-capsule, displaying the evolution of Bronner’s exclusive ornament designs all the way back to the early 70s. I was intrigued to see designs that have stood the test of time, some offered still today, and other style trends staging their comeback.
I wouldn’t have even known where to start, there were so many ornaments! But that was the beauty of having Connie walk me through this ornament archive. To her, these were more than just “old ornaments” hanging on hooks – each design that she helped to create was an investment of herself, her time, her talent; they had meaning and memories. She would light up with each ornament she chose as she shared its history with me.
We started with what may seem a simple design by today’s standard – ice-crackled ornaments with titles printed on them, “Mom,” “Dad,” “Grandma,” “Grandpa” etc. (These were from the early 70s.) But these were actually produced through an intricate process from original hand lettered art in a time before the ease of digital hand-lettering and printing. This is where Connie gave me an introduction to former staff member, fellow artist and friend, Frank Fulco.
Connie explains of the process, “Frank would letter in black paint on cardstock [see image for some of Frank’s original lettering] … using our process camera we would create a film positive which would be sent to Austria (at the time.) They would make a screen with the image on the film, this was typical of the screenprint process, where film positive is mounted on emulsion-coated screen, exposed to ultraviolet light … areas where the film is dark protect the emulsion from hardening and it is power-washed away, leaving a screen to imprint the ornament on a machine with a squeegee.”
“This is me in the darkroom at the back of the camera where the film is positioned for exposure…this would be about 1975…the picture in the middle is also in the darkroom processing a film positive; and the far right are [in-factory] ornament screens [used to transfer the design on to the ornament].” Connie explained further.
DID YOU KNOW: Bronner’s hand-painted personalized ornaments are still done in the original hand-lettering style, similar to Frank’s early designs?!
Connie had also shown me a few other collections, a cross stitch set based on sewing patterns she had created for a publication and a Santa series. These were where I caught a glimpse of another way ornaments were produced. Line art would be printed on to the bulbs, much like the hand-lettered name ornaments were printed, but then European artists would hand-paint the color into each design! Looking more closely at others, I was intrigued to see the pinstriping was also done by hand on additional designs. Knowing that these vintage Christmas ornaments were each hand-painted … how can one not appreciate the craftsmanship in that?!
Thanks to Wally’s affinity for taking photos and documenting things, we have the privilege of getting to see the relationships he developed with many European producers and painters who brought these early designs to life through images like this:
Connie also showed me one of her prized collections, “The Birth of Christ” series. The amount of detail in each of the 8 ornaments in this set, I really got the sense it was a labor of love. It wasn’t until later that I learned just how much! This beautiful series was slowly released – one ornament a year from the mid-80s to the early-90s. Much like many of Bronner’s exclusive designs, Connie would start with a sketch and then once she had the details finalized she would turn them in to ink drawings to be photographed, screened and then printed on the ornaments. Though the series was sold as line art, there are a few surviving (private) collections that had been hand-painted.
TIME TO PLAN & DESIGN
Nowadays it’s nothing to send a message across the world and hear right back! And even still, it takes some time for our design committee to sort through ideas and demand for new products, our designers to create them, for our manufacturers to produce samples and for the product to be finalized and produced. I found it fascinating that in a March 5, 1975 article form the Frankenmuth News, Wally Bronner was quoted as having said “We program about 1½ to 2 years ahead of the actual Christmas season.” Shannon McGinnis, another talented Bronner’s ornament artist estimates that time now to be as little as 6 weeks to a couple of months on our exclusive round designs. Since those early days, Bronner’s now also offers a variety of formed glass or resin exclusive designs; these traditionally take a little longer according to Shannon, roughly “5-6 months from start to finish.”
Ornaments may now be printed through a variety of applications thanks to technological advancement. Shannon shared that in one process, called pad printing, the design area is limited to a 3 inch circle.
For ornaments that are still screen printed, “we try to limit it to 2 colors since getting the screens to line up around the bulb can be tricky.” But this method allows for a larger print area.
Because printing capabilities have evolved so much, color no longer needs to be applied by hand. But there are still ornament collections at Bronner’s that are done this way with glitter – our glass penguin family ornaments and glass snowman family ornaments are a perfect example. “The black on the snowmen and penguins is screened on then the colored glitter is all applied by hand,” explained Shannon.
TRENDS MAKING A COMEBACK
“What goes around comes around.” … “What’s old is new.” The old adage is definitely true!
In recent years I’ve seen the magic of ice crackle ornaments returning. But what surprised me when looking through the ornament room was that what I had perceived to be a “new” ornament style making its appearance in Bronner’s store was actually inspired by ornaments from Bronner’s early years: ornaments filled with angel hair.
DIY ANGEL HAIR CHRISTMAS ORNAMENT
Some other cool styles that I had seen in the ornament archive were ornaments filled with tinsel garland, tinsel icicles, or small tinsel branches. Lori shows you how to recreate this cool effect as well:
STANDING THE TEST OF TIME
Some of those ornaments we mentioned that have stood the test of time? Hop on over to Bronner’s vintage ornament collection to see which ones they are!