We are pleased to be kicking off the celebration of the 40th anniversary of Department 56 as a company! Many things have happened during the course of the last 40 years, some great, some important and some that we’ve like to pack away with memories of days gone by!
We started our company literally shipping from the garage of the company’s founder, Ed Bazinet in 1976. Ed has since retired and we have seen many employees come and go. We started with just a few giftware items, and six very simple lighted buildings – four houses and two churches. These pieces were packed in simple cardboard boxes with no bottom stamps on the buildings, or printing of any kind on the packaging. Because Mr. Bazinet came from the giftware side of a local floral company (Bachman’s, Minneapolis, MN), his business contacts were in the floral industry and he called on many of them to buy his new products. That is why so many of our long time customers have been floral shops and garden centers. We have expanded both the types of stores that we sell to as well as the kinds of products we offer.
As demand for the Villages grew, so did the variety we offered. The little ceramic houses got more detailed and the painting improved. Then in 1984, a local artist who was retiring from his career as a graphic artist at a well-known Minnesota company (General Mills) came to Department 56 with an idea. His name was Neilan Lund and his idea grew out of his family’s love of a Victorian classic, “A Christmas Carol” by beloved author Charles Dickens. The Lund family enjoyed the tradition of reading the story every Christmas and Neilan had some sketches from the story that he thought would look great on note cards or tins. Ed saw the little Village designs and proposed another idea. What if these designs were expanded and used on little houses like the “snow houses” they were currently making? Neilan’s designs were more detailed so Ed and his creative team looked for another material that would allow these designs to incorporate the details from the drawings. It was decided to make the new collection, origin ally called “The Streets of Dickens’ Village” from porcelain with a matte finish to distinguish it from the snow houses. Originally the set of buildings included an inn, a candle shop, green grocer, a baker, a smithy, a butcher, and a basket shop. When reviewing the pieces, someone commented, “We have the butcher, the baker, but where’s the candlestick maker?” So Neilan quickly designed the candle shop to make the first offering seven pieces. A Village church was added the following year as well as something they called a “limited edition” – the Village Mill which was numbered and limited to 2,500 pieces. And the race was on! Collectors fell in love with the series and scoured gift shops to find the illusive lit Village.
What started as a retirement project blossomed into a full-time second career for Neilan. He gradually brought members of his family into the project helping with research and design. In 1989 the work load grew to include not only Dickens’ Village (the name changed in the second year of production), but Alpine Village, New England Village, North Pole and Little Town of Bethlehem. He brought one in of his three daughters, the very talented Barbara Lund into his studio to learn the art of designing the houses. While we have lost Neilan, Barbara is now the principal designer of these Villages.
Another of our most popular lines started in 1986, when a young talented artist who had worked for several years as a freelance designer for Department 56 creating giftware packaging designs, and designing Snow Village accessories, was hired to create a series of porcelain figurines. These snowy children, named “Snowbabies” by Department 56 were inspired by antique figurines from Germany and Japan found by one of our creative directors in an antique shop.
That artist was Kristi Jensen Pierro who has taken this collection and expanded it to one of our most beloved series. Kristi was also the creative force behind many giftware collections including Winter Silhouettes, All Through The House, Merry Makers, Billy Buttons and Snowpinions.
To keep pace with the expanding interests of our collectors, Department 56 has included many licensed designs in the last 20 years. We have worked with Disney, Coca-Cola, Harley-Davidson, McDonalds, and Peanuts, as well as iconic movies like “A Christmas Story”, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”, “The Grinch” and “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” just to name a few. This year we will add “Elf” the movie to our Villages.
Our giftware offerings have dominated the giftware industry and our artists are constantly looking for new ideas and new trends as inspiration for their upcoming collections.
We are anxiously looking forward to whatever giftware and collectible trends come our way and are ready to tackle new ideas and new products for a new generation of collectors and hope that you will be along for the ride!
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