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June 2000

Profile of a lantern maker

Bob Morris-Giddy about lanterns

It would seem Bob Morris’ life has always involved fire — either literally or figuratively. In 1964, the Jackson, Mississippi, native studied in Munich, providing him with an experience that sparked an ongoing passion for the Isar city. A New Jersey resident with an “eye for what sells,” Morris, 56, continues to hone his connections with Bavaria by purveying one unusual item — paper lanterns. “I’ve been working very hard at making Laternen, or, lampions, as popular in the States as they are in Europe,” says the former German language major. “St. Martin’s Day parades haven’t caught on over there yet, but I’ve done well at introducing paper lanterns into American culture.” After returning to his hometown, Morris completed a bachelor’s degree at Millsaps College — “It was founded by my great, great uncle, a Harvard man” — and went into teaching after graduate work at Houston’s Rice University and NYU.

The mid-1970s mark the end of Morris’ conventional resume. While browsing the wares at a New Jersey toy trade show, the hobby artist admired a colorful, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. “I went home and built one,” remembers Morris. “I showed it to neighbors and friends and they all begged me to make one for their kids. When I saw the response, I knew there was a market for them, so I worked as a toy maker for the next 20 years!” During those two decades, Morris designed and made wooden toys, many of which he sold to German stores, including Kunst und Spiel and Spiel Galerie in Munich. In traveling to international trade fairs to hawk his trademark vertical “spinning mobiles” and sculpture puzzles, Morris kindled his relationship with München. “On my first night in Munich, back in ’64, I stayed at the Blauer Bock hotel near the Stadtmuseum,” explains Morris. “Now, if I have business anywhere within a reasonable commute from here, I stay there. The family who runs the inn doesn’t remember me from when I was 20, but they sure know me now!”

In 1988, Morris crossed paths with his future vocation. At a stationary shop in Amsterdam, the real-life Gheppetto was fascinated by a particular brand of paper lantern. “I’d seen lampions before, but these were exquisite,” says Morris. In 1990, while in Nuremberg for yet another toy show, the “honorary expat” discovered a stand run by the lantern makers he had so respected. “I took a large moon-motif Laterne back to the States and stuck it in a drawer. I would take it out and show it to visitors. They were crazy about it!” It was in 1995 that Morris, together with two friends, decided to go into the ambience business, convincing the Riethmüller Company in Kirchheim near Stuttgart to sell him their stock wholesale. “At first, they didn’t want to work with me. They felt there would be no market for them in the U.S. The funny thing is, they couldn’t have been more wrong — the response to the lanterns was immediate and enthusiastic.”

So beloved are the paper candleholders, in fact, that home decorating guru Martha Stewart features two of Morris’ white models in her “Martha by Mail” catalogue. “The association with Martha has done a lot for my business, let’s just say that,” grins the salesman, who bought out his partners in 1998. “I sell thousands to her company. She was the decorator of Matt Lauer’s [NBC’s “Today Show” co-host] wedding and used my lampions. When I am at fairs, people often approach my booth and say ‘are those Martha lamps?’” Putting his ego aside in the name of good promotion, Morris answers in the affirmative.

In addition to making his mark on American trends, Morris recently added a line of advent calendars to his German-made inventory. The invention of an architect and his photographer wife, the calendars picture the facades of famous buildings in Europe, (America will be added soon) including the works of the Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. “Those will take a while to catch on. For some, they aren’t ‘Christmasy’ enough. But they are wonderful. Behind each door is an image of an item actually found in the building represented.”

Morris still tinkers with toys in his spare time. When asked how his parents felt when he forewent a career in academia to sand, paint and give advice on how to keep a paper lantern from bursting into flames, he answers proudly: “They were supportive. My Dad was a sales-type himself.” It is apparent that Morris’ motto is not merely a pitch, but uttered out of a genuine love for his product: “Laternen,” he says, “are one of life’s simple pleasures.”

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