Matt Bliss rediscovered his grandfather's playful designs from the '60s, and decided to share them with the world
“The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, and concentric circles of light and shadow danced in a modernist tableau, all over the ceiling.” Wait, what? If you’re accustomed to old-fashioned fragrant evergreen trees, sticky with sap and heavily laden with ornaments and string lights, the spare glow and futuristic lines of the modern Christmas tree will knock your proverbial stockings off. The first thing you might notice about these trees is that they look “Modern” with a capital M—as in postwar, midcentury design. Yet they’re not vintage, and they weren’t manufactured until fairly recently. While these novel trees were designed by engineer and builder Lawrence Stoecker in the 1960s, they were not produced until Stoecker’s grandson Matt Bliss launched The Modern Christmas Tree in 2011.
Lawrence Stoecker, who was known affectionately as Bud, was the quintessential mid-20th-century designer-maker. He was a Navy veteran who served in World War II, and he worked at a company called Ball Aerospace, which helped create the liquid oxygen tanks for NASA’s Apollo missions in the 1960s. Later in his career, he left aerospace for a more rustic life when he established a company called Delta Vacation Homes, which built several hundred A-frame homes throughout the Rocky Mountain region in the 1960s and '70s.
Stoecker also loved putting his creativity and know-how to use at home to surprise and delight his children and grandchildren. In the mid-1960s, he built a space age-style Christmas Tree in his home workshop. This first tree (in retrospect, the original prototype) comprised a series of concentric cardboard rings in graduated sizes, with the smallest at the top and largest at the bottom, each one connected to the next with wire, decorated with bands of fringed tinsel and glass ornaments. Bliss recalls seeing the tree—which was elegantly suspended from the ceiling, and positioned on a base—spin slowly in the lights, watching the shadows play on the wall as the ornaments sparkled. Stoecker was so pleased with this first cardboard tree that he started making new ones every Christmas, testing out new materials like masonite board, and eventually deciding that plexiglas was the best choice. Its translucence allowed light to pass through the tree’s entire structure, as though it were made from glass. The trees were different colors each year, and Stoecker kept notebooks to plan each new variation as the holidays approached. Vintage photographs on the Modern Christmas Tree’s website show some of the early trees in their full vintage glory.
By the mid-2000s, Bliss, now 43, was grown up and working in the mortgage industry, and he hadn’t seen one of his grandfather’s trees in years. He happened upon one of them while helping his grandparents move into a retirement community, and when he asked his grandfather if he could keep it, Stoecker happily gave it to him. His grandmother passed away a few years later, and soon after that, Stoecker was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Bliss knew exactly how to pay tribute to his grandfather: The prototype trees from Colorado would become a reality for families all over the world. With his business background, Bliss was prepared to fabricate and produce the trees in quantity and tell their story visually. By 2011 he premiered his Modern Christmas Tree at the Denver Modernism show, where they were an instant hit. At the end of September the following year, Lawrence Stoeker passed away. A week after Stoeker's death, Modern Christmas Trees was awarded its patent.
Since then, it’s fair to say that Stoecker would be dazzled by the success of his invention: Modern Christmas Trees have been installed in elegant settings including the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim (where they hang upside down from the ceiling), the Four Seasons San Francisco, the Fairmont Hotel in Dubai, the Ritz-Carlton in Hawaii, among others. Their breezy, hollow forms and lack of fussy greenery seem to work well in warm-weather locales. And the TWA Lounge on the 86th floor of One World Trade Center, modeled after the iconic Eero Saarinen–designed TWA Terminal at JFK airport, plans to use the trees, too—with special Saarinen bases, naturally. Recently, Bliss braved the waters of NBC’s Shark Tank in December 2017, and the trees were lauded by host Barbara Corcoran for their “dazzling ornaments, sparkly crystals, and shimmering rings.” Bliss struck a deal with Corcoran for $100,000 backing in exchange for an 18 percent stake, not to mention national media exposure.
Realizing that his trees would appeal to serious modernists, Bliss had the trees photographed inside a series of classic 1950’s and ’60s homes that have dramatic glass exteriors, so that the trees can be seen glowing from within. These include the 1951 Farnsworth House, designed by Mies van der Rohe, in Plano, Illinois; the 1963 Sculptured House, designed by architect Charles Deaton, in Genesee, Colorado, and the Stahl House in the Hollywood Hills—known to architects and historians as Case Study House #22—which was designed by Pierre Koenig and named for his client, Buck Stahl.
So who’s buying Modern Christmas Trees, besides design-savvy hoteliers? According to Bliss, about 40 percent of his buyers are baby boomers, which makes sense given that their generation was raised on aluminum trees, wall-to-wall string lights, and brilliantly colored ornaments. About a quarter of his sales are going to young, urban families, which suggests that in addition to a fondness for midcentury style, space-conscious millennial families are keen to buy trees that can be packed and stored flat. On the design horizon, Bliss is thinking about how trees can resonate “beyond Christmas.” There’s no reason not to make spirits bright all year long.
***Sarah Archer is a writer based in Philadelphia and the author of Midcentury Christmas: Holiday Fads, Fancies and Fun from 1945–1970 (Countryman Press, 2016). The new Midcentury Christmas: Stocking Stuffer Edition was just published. She's currently at work on a new book about the midcentury American kitchen, which will be on shelves in 2019.