That feeling ultimately inspired Bliss to start his Modern Christmas Trees company, celebrating his grandfather’s engineering brain, his appreciation for design and his love of Christmas.
Stoecker was living in Boulder in 1966 when he got the idea to create a Christmas tree from cardboard rings attached to each other and hanging from the ceiling. No one in the family is exactly sure what sparked the idea, because Stoecker invented things all the time. “He was an engineer and worked for Ball Aerospace, which did projects for NASA,” explains Bliss. “After that, he started his own business building A-frame cabins throughout the Rocky Mountains. He was a guy who liked to make things. One year he built an ice rink in the back yard, and all the neighborhood kids would ice skate in the back yard. Any time we had any sort of school project, we would always go over to his house and he would help us with it. He was a very handy guy.”
Bliss discovered the journal in 2008, as he was packing up his grandparents’ Boulder house to help them move them to a retirement community. “It was at the same time [that] I saw the tree in his garage and asked him if I could have it,” Bliss recalls. “I think he was surprised I would have any interest in it at all, but I thought it was just the most amazing thing. I don’t know if I thought it was so amazing because he made it, or just because it was so beautiful, but I took it home and left it up for like four years.”
During those four years, Bliss’s grandmother passed away, and Stoecker was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Bliss was devastated, and felt helpless as he watched his beloved grandfather slowly slipping away. He had his grandfather’s high school graduation picture tattooed on his arm. “I showed him, and he licked his thumb and tried to wipe it off,” remembers Bliss, laughing.
He made two trees based on his grandfather’s design and took them to the Denver Modernism Show in 2011. “It gave me an amazing opportunity just to tell people about him,” Bliss says. “I don’t know a better way to pay tribute to somebody than to talk about them and tell stories about them. But at that show, I got a lot of positive feedback, and I decided that I loved it not only because he made it, but because it was a great design.”
That year, Bliss launched the website for a Denver-based company he decided to call Modern Christmas Trees. He only sold about a dozen trees based on his grandfather’s design that first year, but the business was rewarding in other ways. “It was to honor my grandfather, and it’s also been a huge gift to me,” Bliss says. “I was in the mortgage business prior to this, which had no creativity. I studied art and design in college, so this was an opportunity for me to be creative and to create things that didn’t exist before I thought of them and made them.”
Just as Bliss was gearing up for his second season of selling trees, his grandfather passed away at the age of 85. If anything, Stoecker’s death fueled his grandson’s ambition to make Modern Christmas Trees succeed, and his determination was validated when the original Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, California, commissioned him to create trees for its annual Christmas display. “I made fifteen custom trees for them, and they’re part of the holiday display at the hotel every year,” says Bliss. “It was cool, because my grandfather passed away at the end of September 2012. About a week later, I was granted a patent for the design, and about a month later, the Disneyland Hotel was displaying his trees. Half my family lives in southern California, so they were able to say goodbye and bury him in Broomfield and then celebrate his contributions and his life at the Disneyland Hotel.”
“When I started this, I didn’t know anything about manufacturing or intellectual properties or patents, and there was no one I could really go to that could provide a lot of value in these things, so I had to make a lot of painful mistakes and kind of fumble my way through it.”
Those mistakes were not only painful, but costly. At one point the company was nearing bankruptcy, and Bliss went on Shark Tank in 2017 in an attempt to secure investors. Instead, the TV publicity brought Modern Christmas Trees a larger audience, setting up Bliss for several high-profile collaborations the following year.
“Part of my marketing strategy was to pair the tree with really unique and interesting spaces,” Bliss explains. In 2018, he got that opportunity after world-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind — who designed the Hamilton Building at the Denver Art Museum, among other international landmarks — created the topper for the Rockefeller Center’s Christmas tree using Swarovski crystals. Swarovski commissioned Bliss to make a custom tree for its Rockefeller Center store, featuring a mini replica of Libeskind’s tree topper and special crystal ornaments.
To date, Modern Christmas Trees have been installed and photographed all over the globe, including at the Governor’s Mansion in Denver, the Stahl House in Los Angeles, the Fairmont Hotel in Dubai — which displays a whopping 22 trees — and the Sculptured House, aka the “Sleeper House,” off Interstate 70 overlooking Denver. “That’s the really neat thing, is where the trees are being displayed and seen,” Bliss says. “To have the validation of some of these amazing places provides me a lot of joy.”
Between the coronavirus pandemic and a bad breakup, Bliss found himself slipping. “I’ve struggled with addiction to alcohol for a number of years,” he says, “and I found out from my mother that my grandfather had suffered from that, as well.”
But with the help of his family and friends — Bliss’s best friends are the company’s marketing director and its in-house photographer — he picked himself up and got into the full swing of the holiday season. A few weeks ago, he was able to do a photo shoot with one of his trees in the iconic Goldstein House in Los Angeles, designed by James F. Goldstein and featured in The Big Lebowski.
Despite the global pandemic, this has been a banner year for Christmas decorations — and that includes trees. Across the country, people were buying and decorating for Christmas earlier than ever, stuck at home and desperately wanting some seasonal spirit. According to the National Retail Federation, consumers are spending more money than ever on holiday decorations and other seasonal items — often an artificial tree. Many who usually go to tree farms have run into issues with social distancing, and the cost of a real Christmas tree has been steadily rising: According to a study done by the National Christmas Tree Association, a trade group based in Littleton, the median price of a real Christmas tree in 2020 is 7 percent higher than it was in 2019, and 23 percent higher than it was in 2018.
Not that Modern Christmas Trees are a bargain — unless you’re thinking long-term. While artificial Christmas trees are typically more expensive than real ones, they have a long life span. According to a study done by Statista, Americans spend between $25 million and $30 million annually on real Christmas trees, and from $10 million to $20 million on artificial ones.
Laird Plastics, a Denver factory. Modern Christmas Trees is currently offering a Classic Tree (7.5 feet tall) and a Soaring Tree (a whopping 10 feet tall) designed to hang from the ceiling like Stoecker’s original, as well as a tabletop tree (33 inches tall) and a wall-mounted version. They’re sold undecorated or adorned with globe ornaments and chandelier crystals, and range in price from $279 to $1,500. Fully decorated, the largest tree only weighs about fourteen pounds — and it folds flat for storage.
There are other advantages to its local manufacture. “The carbon footprint that a traditional artificial Christmas tree creates is significantly more than ours,” notes Bliss. “One, because of the sheer volume of plastic material, but the other thing is, every artificial Christmas tree is made in China. They make it, put it on a boat, and they ship it over here, and then it gets shipped to somewhere else and shipped to somewhere else and somewhere else, and then finally to the customer.”
Still, for Bliss, the tree’s greatest selling point is the unique design. “It offers the ability to have a memorable holiday that’s a little bit different, because there’s nothing to compare it to,” he says.
This Christmas is certainly looking special for Bliss. “By year’s end, we should have sold more trees this year than any previous year,” he says. “There’s been a lot of ups and downs with this business, but thankfully, I’ve learned a lot of important lessons this year that I will continue to work on moving forward.”