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The Duke of Decorations

Christopher Radko designs ornaments for every occasion and holiday. So what sort of decoration would hang on a surfer's Christmas tree?

December 18, 2005|Barbara Thornburg

It all started with a shattering crash. The 14-foot-tall family Christmas tree with 2,000 glass ornaments lay in a heap on the living room floor of a home in Scarsdale, N.Y. It was 1984, a week before Christmas, and Christopher Radko had just replaced his mother's old tree stand with a shiny new aluminum model. "It apparently couldn't hold the weight," he says, still wincing at the memory of the broken ornaments and his grandma Veronica's pronouncement--"Christmas is ruined forever."

After the holidays, Radko returned to New York City in the doldrums. During lunch hours from his mailroom job at ICM talent agency, he reconnoitered Big Apple emporiums but found no substitutes for the Old World glass decorations that his family had handed down from generation to generation. "I mostly found things made out of Styrofoam and plastic.... I felt really terrible."

That spring he visited a distant cousin in Poland and resumed his quixotic quest. Instead of finding Christmas decorations--"April in Poland is not the best time to look"--Radko made the acquaintance of a test-tube glass blower who, in his spare time, liked to make old-fashioned holiday ornaments.

Radko commissioned two dozen handcrafted creations, based on sketches he made of ornaments he had grown up with. When he returned home and showed them to friends, they bought them on the spot. Stores around town--Henri Bendel, Georg Jensen and Royal Copenhagen--began buying them as well. Radko says the ornaments not only helped make amends with his family but augmented his meager $12,000-a-year--"that's $8,000 after taxes"--mailroom salary.

Two decades and 10,000 ornaments later, the 45-year-old Radko is the undisputed king of holiday ornaments. Some 1,000 craftsmen in Italy, Poland and Germany make ornaments for his eponymous company, which has its design headquarters in an 1854 Victorian in Tarrytown, N.Y. Sales have grown from $20,000 in 1984 to more than $30 million last year.

Radko has expanded his business to include other holidays from Valentine's Day to Halloween, and even weddings, anniversaries and baby's birthdays. "We're the Hallmark card of ornaments," says the designer. "We have one for every holiday and occasion." Festive jewelry, plates, cookie jars, tree lights, stockings and snow globes are part of his ever-expanding holiday line.

For this year's 20th anniversary celebration, Radko rereleased 500 of his favorite ornaments from the last two decades. "I just gussied them up a bit and in some cases made them larger," he says. Ranging in price from $22 to $75, they are one of the hottest collectibles in the U.S. His 1997 Russian St. Nick sold this year on EBay for $1,200; a TV-shaped ornament that he designed as a take-home gift for the 2001 Emmy Awards Governors Ball hit EBay the same night and sold for $100.

Radko's whimsical tree decorations are far-ranging in style, including ubiquitous snowmen, angels, Santas and nutcracker figures, as well as more unusual holiday picks such as pink robots, poodle purses and frog kings.

Each meticulously detailed ornament takes seven days to create. First, molten Pyrex glass is blown into a carved metal mold, then removed and cured overnight in a kiln. Silver nitrate is inserted into a hole at the top, swished around to create a reflective surface and placed in boiling water to adhere. After a wash and dry, matte white lacquer is applied as a base coat. For the next three days various sections are painted and dried. "We start with the larger areas like Santa's jacket, down to the boots, buckles and rosy cheeks," explains Radko. "We have one lady who specializes in painting nothing but eyelashes." As a finishing touch, and to achieve the sparkling effect, as many as 12 colors of glitter are sifted onto the glass.

Radko can't believe two decades have passed since the disastrous, albeit fortuitous, tree incident. His grandmother forgave him long ago, he says.

The designer has pretty much taken over the tree trimming at his mother's suburban New York home. This year's 9-foot-tall noble fir will be decorated with 500 blue, silver and teal ornaments from his upcoming 2006 collection. "Each year I put up next year's collection," he explains.

Happily, there's no risk of the family tree toppling over. It's now mounted in a sturdy cast-iron stand, its midsection wrapped with a wire attached to an eye screw in the wall. "If you have kids, pets or live in an earthquake zone," says Radko, "it's a smart thing to do."

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Ornaments are available year-round in the Radko Room at Roger's Gardens in Corona del Mar, (949) 640-5800.

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