In Focus

Rockin' Around the Radko

In a cozy room lined with hundreds of Christopher Radko ornaments and featuring—in the middle of the floor—a colorful, dazzling, multitiered display of the newest ones, Joseph Walden is beaming as he seeks and finds along one wall a Wee Jolly Gent, a smiling Santa that is one of his personal favorite designs.

Walden is one of just two designers for the company, a somewhat startling fact when you realize that each year’s collection catalog features about 600 pieces, of which more than 450 are new.

We are in York, Pa., at Christmas Tree in the Mansion, a historic home where, according to local legend, Naughty Confederate soldiers once slept on the lawn as they figured out a way to cross the mighty Susquehanna River just to the east. The six-columned house is now a Nice retail shop, comfortably stuffed with home decor, gifts and collectibles, including this room almost exclusively devoted to all things Radko.

It’s one of about 30 combined stops, including seven in Texas, that Walden and fellow designer Mario Taré will make this year in their annual October through December pilgrimage. This holiday tour is an important part of their jobs — they sign ornaments for seasoned collectors and new fans, getting new ideas along the way and also boosting the brand’s strong connection with its customers, whom Walden calls “extended family.”

As Christmas tunes play merrily in the background, Walden, fashionably and festively dressed in jeans, a purple gingham shirt and a tailored vest, points out another of his favorites — this season’s Frosty Shopper, a glittery snowman whose twig arms hold colorful bags filled with wrapped presents. The arms were made with real branches found in the woods of Poland, where all of the collection pieces are handcrafted. The snowman has a big smile on his face.

Happy smiles seem to be a Radko hallmark. As I look around the room, I see a multitude of shiny Santas, snowmen, penguins, bears, cats, elephants and other creatures, all in Radko’s bright, signature color palette, and all with big eyes and charming grins — including a Lonestar Armadillo, new this year, that is bedecked in cowboy boots, a red bandana, a Texas-shaped belt buckle and a cowboy hat with the Lone Star flag.

I look back at Walden, and he has almost the exact same smile on his face.

“Texas is huge for us,” he says, explaining that there are at least three new Texas designs each year. (Destinations is one of about three dozen categories of ornaments in the 2014 catalog, and Walden says only New York and Chicago do as well as Texas in that category).

“I love drawing fun characters,” he says, noting that “I get to draw every day, and it puts a smile on my face.”

All this smiling is a bit contagious. In fact, this is starting to feel less like an interview and more like, well, a holiday party where most of the guests are 3 to 10 inches tall. I realize that Walden and I have been talking for 20 minutes, and we’ve yet to sit down.

Walden has been a designer at the company for almost 15 years. He was hired and trained by Christopher Radko, as was Taré.

“We were basically his little elves,” Walden says gleefully, talking about the half-dozen years he worked alongside Radko before the founder sold his namesake company to Rauch Industries in 2005. Walden says that Radko would nurture his designs from beginning to end, giving each a great deal of detail.

He believed “every piece should be a character that tells a story,” says Walden, who seems to be taking the responsibility of continuing that legacy to heart.

He briefly recounts the now-famous story of how Radko started the company and then elaborates on the process that is still followed to create glass ornaments based on vintage Eastern European designs (the company now has two other product lines, including Shiny-Brites based on mid-century American designs and Home for the Holidays, which are produced in other ways).

The story of how the Christopher Radko company began goes back to Christmas 1984, when a young Radko urged his family to buy a new stand for the 14-foot family tree. They did, and the stand promptly failed, breaking thousands of heirloom hand-blown ornaments made in the family’s ancestral homeland of Poland and causing Radko’s grandmother to declare that he had “ruined Christmas.”

A story that ran in Columbia College Today in 2004 gives more detail, describing how a precocious Christopher Radko started college at the age of 16 and how his parents, both doctors, had hoped he’d follow in their footsteps — or at the very least go to law school. He did neither, but chose instead to work in the mailroom of a talent agency.

Eager to redeem himself after the fir fiasco, he took a trip to Poland and commissioned some hand-blown ornaments. Long story short: Soon his commissioned pieces were stocked by places like Bergdorf Goodman, Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, and by 2003, sales totaled $50 million.

Walden says that today’s Radko ornaments are created by the same family-owned-and-operated workshops in Poland that Christopher Radko worked with, and follow the same process.

When the illustrations are done, they are sent to Poland, where models are sculpted by hand. Once approved by the designers (through the magic of technology that allows them to supervise every step along the way), they are hand-sculpted in a harder clay, which is then made into a cast-iron mold. Samples are made of each new ornament and sent back to the States for Walden and Taré to review. And every year, a small handful are rejected, deemed not quite up to the standards for various reasons.

As the Christmas music jingles along, I find that the cheerful, happy colors surrounding me are starting to affect my mood, in a good way. I am tempted to ask, but don’t, “So you make your list, and then check it twice?” It would be Naughty to interrupt, as Walden is now explaining the seven-day Radko production process.

On Day One, Polish glassblowers “the size of football players” fill “every nook and cranny” of the molds with clear, tempered glass. On Day Two, the ornaments are injected with liquid silver.

Holding a Santa in his hand, Walden explains that without the silvering, you could see through the ornaments, somewhat like stained glass. But when light hits the painted ornament, it bounces off the silvering, creating the bright vibrancy for which Radko is known.

On Days Three to Five, two matte base coats are layered on, and then the painting is hand done, color by color.

Day Six is glitter-dusting day. I ask Walden how many pounds of glitter they use each year, and he bursts into a jolly laugh.

“I don’t know,” he says, “but lots. Lots, lots, lots! I end up wearing it myself!” He then recounts a dinner he went to with his wife in his early years with Radko during which she told him he was “sparkling.” He thanked her, and then she pointed out she meant he was literally covered with glitter.

On Day Seven, the ornament gets the Radko trademark gold crown.

The Radko team works about a year in advance — the 2015 line is already done and this January to June, the designers will work on 2016, getting their samples by summer’s end. In an annual August meeting with the sales team, they’ll decide on limited editions, truly special pieces that will be produced for one year only and will be numbered. The sales team will also help them come up with new ideas based on trends in fashion and design — and based on what customers are asking for.

For Walden, whose favorite holiday tune is Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, it’s Christmas 365 days a year.

So, does it ever get old? Walden gives me that contagious smile.

“It’s a pretty happy gig to have,” he says, noting one of the more unusual benefits: “My kids think I personally know Santa.”

And now, thoroughly in the spirit of the season myself, I have what can only be described as a Miracle on 34th Street moment. Wait, that Wee Jolly Gent he designed does look so lifelike. And Walden did just describe himself as an elf. “Could it be?” I think to myself, deciding it wouldn’t be Nice to ask.