“It is allowing machines to be our masters and not our servants that so insures the beauty of life nowadays.” Ironically, this quote does not come from a contemporary philosopher decrying the computer age, but rather, from William Morris, the leading force behind the 19th-century British Arts and Crafts Movement.
As English critics Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin had done earlier, Morris denounced the Industrial Revolution and the wrongs brought with it. Rather than alleviating the drudgery of manual labor and freeing workers for more leisure time, mechanization proved dehumanizing. It created a world where the designer was no longer the maker of the object and where concern for beauty was replaced by concern for economy and profit. This resulted in poorly designed goods, poorly executed by exploited workers. Carlyle and Ruskin railed against this, but it was William Morris who acted.
While studying medieval society at Oxford University in the early 1850s, Morris began to formulate his philosophy which eventually became the basis for the Arts and Crafts Movement in England and America. He felt the designer and maker should be one and the same as in medieval times, asserting that it was an inalienable right of workers to enjoy and take pride in their work. Years later he was quoted in The Craftsman magazine as saying, “It is right and necessary that all men should have work to do which shall be worth doing, and be pleasant to do; and which should be done under conditions as would make it neither over-wearisome nor over-anxious.”
By freeing workers from enslavement to machines through the revival of traditional crafts, he hoped to create a better, more moral society. His efforts to bring about great social change stemmed from the following observation: “I have come thoroughly to understand the manner of work under which the art of the middle ages was done . . . only to discover that it is impossible to work in that manner in this profit-grinding society. So on all sides I am driven toward revolution as the only hope.” Although he was never successful in bringing about the social revolution he called for, Morris created a revolution in crafts which had far-reaching and long-lasting effects. Today’s studio craft artists in both America and Europe are indebted to the Arts and Crafts Movement for reviving the craft tradition.
Morris put his theories into practice in 1861 when his design firm, eventually to be called Morris and Company, was launched. Good design and quality craftsmanship marked his furniture and other objects for the home interior. He was a self-taught artisan, learning the various crafts through trial and error. He understood the artistic nature of the craftsman and the need for total dedication to artistic principles. Morris noted that “The true workman . . . must have a natural aptitude for his work so strong that no education can force him away from his special bent . . . He must refuse at anybody’s bidding to turn out . . . an indifferent piece of work, whatever the public wants or thinks it wants.”
Although Morris and Company was quite successful, it was 20 years before the Arts and Crafts influence in England became pervasive. It was at this time that handmade art jewelry was revived. Because William Morris was not actively involved in jewelrymaking, it was his followers who expressed the Arts and Crafts ideals in this medium. Taking their cue from John Ruskin, who had been outraged by the harsh brilliance of diamonds in Victorian jewelry, Arts and Crafts jewelrymakers created pieces characterized by simplicity, often based on natural forms and using the unpretentious cabochon stone cut. Aymer Vallance, a critic writing in 1902, disdained the use of diamonds in Victorian jewelry that he felt were introduced purely to flaunt “the commercial value they represent in pounds sterling.” He observed optimistically that “mere glitter and the vulgar display of affluence are gradually yielding before the higher considerations of beauty of form and color.”
Charles Ashbee, an English architect and metalsmith, preferred to work with semiprecious gems such as amethysts, amber and blister pearls. Arts and Crafts principles led him to believe that “the value of personal ornament consists not in the commercial cost of the materials so much as in the artistic quality of its design and treatment.” Abhorring the shiny surface of Victorian silver, he pioneered the matte zinish which became quite popular. This rejection of Victorian ornamentation in favor of simple designs and quality craftsmanship was to be echoed in all other craft media.
The British Arts and Crafts Movement made its debut in America in 1876 at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. There London’s Royal School of Needlework displayed designs by William Morris and his peers. During the next four decades the ideals embodied in these designs were to permeate the nation, though taking on a particularly American slant. There was no single leader with stature comparable to William Morris in this country.
Instead, a diverse group of influential crusaders spread the Arts and Crafts ideals across America through their work, lectures and writings: Gustav Stickley, a furnituremaker in Syracuse, New York; Elbert Hubbard, founder of Roycroft, an Arts and Crafts community in East Aurora, New York; Louis Comfort Tiffany, a stained glass artist in New York City; Frank Lloyd Wright, Chicago’s developer of the Arts and Crafts-inspired Prairie School of architecture; ceramists Mary Louise McLaughlin, originator of underglaze decoration and Marie Longworth Nichols, founder of the Rookwood Pottery, both from Cincinnati, and Adelaide Robineau, creator of fine porcelain work with excised decoration, from Syracuse; Candace Wheeler, interior designer and one of the original partners with Tiffany in the New York firm of Associated Artists; and Clara Barck Welles, metalsmith and founder of the Kalo Shop in Chicago. They were aided in their task by numerous magazines which championed the Arts and Crafts cause. Most notable among these were The Craftsman published by Stickley, The Philistine published by Hubbard, and Keramic Studio published by Robineau and her husband Samuel, as well as the Ladies Home Journal, House Beautiful and House and Garden. In many cities Arts and Crafts guilds were formed to promote the movement’s philosophies and to inform and instruct its members.
American Arts and Crafts designers, while stylistically influenced by Europe and Japan, were united in their desire to develop a truly American art. This led to a revival of early American crafts. In the spirit of nationalism, craftsmen turned to indigenous materials, using local oak instead of imported mahogany, and American motifs, such as native plants and animals. In addition, American Indian designs were studied and incorporated in this newly emerging style.
Rather than looking to medieval times as William Morris had done, furnituremaker Gustav Stickley urged Americans to draw inspiration from early pioneer days, when the taste for luxury and artificiality had not yet become ingrained. In his book Craftsman Homes, Stickley observed “that we should have in our homes something better suited to our needs and more expressive of our character as a people than imitations of [European] styles.” He criticized British Arts and Crafts furniture as being primarily an expression of individuality, an expression of art for art’s sake that had little to do with satisfying the plain needs of the people. “Any [American] style in architecture or furniture would have to possess the essential qualities of simplicity, durability, comfort and convenience and to be made in such a way that the details of its construction can be readily grasped.”
In 1898, the same year Stickley traveled extensively in Europe, he founded the Gustav Stickley Company, a furniture manufacturing firm, which exemplified these principles. As a boy he had learned stonemasonry from his father and furnituremaking from an uncle. Because he found it was “so easy to disguise bad lines with cheap ornamentation,” Stickley’s furniture designs were based upon the simplest and most direct principles of construction. The popularity of his furniture enabled him to establish franchises from coast to coast.
From 1901 to 1916 Stickley published The Craftsman magazine, a vehicle for expressing his views on all aspects of the Arts and Crafts life, discussing both social and esthetic matters. One of his readers must surely have been the architect Frank Lloyd Wright whose Prairie style was clearly influenced by Stickley’s ideas and furniture designs. As a proponent of the Arts and Crafts Movement, Wright designed homes which unified interior and exterior, used natural materials and had an overall quality of simplicity. The furniture, metalwork and stained glass he designed for these homes were akin to Stickley’s style in their emphasis on geometric, rectilinear lines.
Out of necessity, both Stickley and Wright developed a business acumen, a trait that practical-minded Americans injected into the Arts and Crafts Movement. While William Morris, son of a banker, was supported by a private income, his American counterparts rarely enjoyed the same advantage. Undoubtedly, the most commercially astute American Arts and Crafts proponent was Elbert Hubbard, founder of the Roycroft community.
In 1894, after abandoning a successful career as a soap salesman, Hubbard founded the Roycroft Press, adopting as his motto “not how cheap, but how good.” Earlier that year he had journeyed to England where he met William Morris and learned firsthand of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Like Morris’s Kelmscott Press, the Roycroft Press produced hand-printed books, on handmade paper, using old style type. One of its most successful products was The Philistine magazine, Hubbard’s controversial forum for his simplistic version of Morris’s ideals. At its height the circulation of this monthly magazine filled with homespun homilies was over 200,000. The success of the Press eventually prompted Hubbard to open a furniture and leather shop, a metals shop and an inn on his Roycroft campus. Neither an artist nor designer himself, Hubbard had a remarkable ability to attract talented artisans. Dard Hunter and Karl Kipp were two of his most accomplished designers. The former, inspired by an issue of The Philistine, left Ohio State University and came to Roycroft where he designed furniture, metalwork, leaded glass and books. In 1908 Kipp deserted a career in banking to join forces with Hubbard. As head of Roycroft’s copper shop, he designed functional objects characterized by a noble simplicity. The quality of Roycroft products was complemented by Hubbard’s entrepreneurial genius. He was the first to exploit mass advertising via The Philistine to sell craft products of esthetic value. During peak years Hubbard employed over 500 people to meet public demand for Roycroft products.
At the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum from Stickley and Hubbard was Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of the founder of Tiffany and Company jewelers. While the latter unabashedly made luxury items for the rich, the former was involved with making utilitarian objects to meet “the needs of the people.” Like all Arts and Crafts proponents, however, Tiffany frequently used American motifs and was concerned with the nature of materials and the importance of process. His prime interests were stained glass windows and decorative glass vases, but his firm, Tiffany Studios, also produced a large variety of decorative accessories including lamps, desk sets, plaques and containers. His studio employed several women who made important contributions in the field of metalwork. Patty Gay and Julia Munson, working out of Tiffany’s home in New York City, managed a small female staff experimenting with enamels. Impressed with the work of Lalique, Tiffany encouraged these women to produce enamels with an iridescence and vitality that would rival faceted gems. Another female metalworker, just beginning her training, devised a unique method for cushioning her sheet of metal while doing repoussé work. It is said that Tiffany preferred the results of the new technique, created by this unnamed woman, to those of the professionally trained Englishman sitting beside her.
It was not only in Tiffany’s studio that women played a role in the Arts and Crafts Movement. In America, the movement was especially fueled by socially prominent women studying china painting in Cincinnati, Ohio. Perhaps this was inevitable: Since Arts and Crafts ideals found expression in the home interior, the traditional domain of women, many of the crafts upon which this philosophy was based could easily be practiced by women at home. It would be misleading, however, to represent the Arts and Crafts Movement as a golden age of women’s liberation. Gustav Stickley found that the significance of the Arts and Crafts ideals to women was in minimizing their housework. He assured women that “The idea that housekeeping means drudgery is partly due to our fussy, artificial, overcrowded way of living and partly to our elaborate houses and to inconvenient arrangements.” It is likely that his views on woman as homemaker were consistent with majority thinking. In Craftsman Homes he explained that “Woman is above all things the homemaker and our grandmothers were not far wrong when they taught their daughters that a woman who could not keep house, and do it well, was not making of her life the success that could reasonably be expected of her, nor was she doing her whole duty by her family.”
Stickley’s views notwithstanding, the presence of women in ceramics and textiles and to a lesser degree in metalwork, was pervasive and their influence substantial. The art pottery movement, so dominated by females, began in Cincinnati in 1874 when several upper-class women enrolled in a china painting class at The School of Design. These amateurs were sufficiently proficient by 1876 to display their work in the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. There they were exposed to William Morris’s Arts and Crafts embroidery as well as European innovations in ceramics, especially underglaze painting. Intrigued and inspired by what they had seen, they began experimenting with various techniques upon returning to Cincinnati. One of these women, Mary Louise McLaughlin, was the first American to develop a method for producing underglaze decoration. Years later she pioneered a technique for creating hard-paste decorative porcelain which she named Losanti ware. Her rival, Marie Longworth Nichols founded the Rookwood Pottery in 1880 with the financial aid of her father. Nine years later, its financial success was assured when the Rookwood Pottery received a gold-medal in the Paris Exposition. While most women art potters cast their pieces from molds, Adelaide Robineau was one of the few who actually threw all her own work. Her high-fired porcelain was reknown for its delicate incised decoration and superb glazes.
The Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition also played a decisive role in the life of Candace Wheeler. Inspired by the exhibition of Arts and Crafts embroidery from the Royal School of Art Needlework, she joined five others in founding the New York Society of Decorative Art. Along with the traditional Arts and Crafts ideals, this group espoused the radical notion that work and creativity were a necessary part of women’s psychic well-being. They encouraged women to take up embroidery as a profession, “not indeed to prevent starvation of the body, but to comfort the souls of women who pined for independence . . . From what was perhaps a social and mental, rather than a physical, want, grew the great remedy of a resuscitation of one of the valuable arts of the world, a woman’s art.” In 1879 Louis Comfort Tiffany asked Wheeler to become a fourth partner in a design firm. The goal of this new business, Associated Artists, was to produce artistic and unified interior decoration. In her new role, Wheeler became one of the first female interior decorators, opening this profession to countless women in future generations. Wheeler supervised the production and design of embroideries, needle-woven tapestries and loom weaving. Although the firm dissolved in 1883, Wheeler kept its name and continued to create designs for interiors. Like other Arts and Crafts followers, she emphasized American motifs—indigenous flora and fauna, traditional patchwork and American Indian designs.
Just as women hobbyists in Cincinnati were attracted to china painting, metalsmithing was the craft frequently chosen as a pastime by upper class women in Chicago. And, as in Cincinnati, some of these amateurs eventually became innovative professionals. Many learned their craft at Hull House, founded by Jane Addams in 1889 following her visit to Charles Ashbee’s guild and school in London. Founded as a settlement house to help the new immigrant population, Hull House had an art gallery and offered classes in various crafts for Addams believed that art was an essential part of life. She felt the absence of art was as harmful as the lack of food or clothing.
The Art Institute of Chicago also played a leading role in promoting the Arts and Crafts Movement both through craft courses and its annual exhibitions of decorative arts. One of its graduates Clara Barck Welles opened the Kalo Shop in 1900, specializing in jewelry and holloware. It is likely that she was inspired by Charles Ashbee and Walter Crane when both prominent British Arts and Crafts enthusiasts lectured at the Art Institute. While her early work strongly resembled Ashbee’s, she soon developed a style of her own characterized by soft curves and a gently rounded look. The motto she adopted for her Chicago shop, “Beautiful, Useful and Enduring,” was reflected in her finely crafted, elegantly simple pieces. In true Arts and Crafts tradition, metalworking became both a profession and a lifestyle to Welles. She devoted as much time to her mostly female staff, hired to meet the growing demand for her work, as to their products. Besides supervising apprentices, she taught classes in the Kalo workshop to beginners, hoping to give women an opportunity to become metalsmiths. Many of these neophytes eventually were employed by Welles. Amidst all this activity, her business and her work flourished. Her pieces were frequently exhibited at the Art Institute and in 1937 the Metropolitan Museum of Art included her work in a show of contemporary design. Critics described her work as “freshly creative,” “definitely her own” and “emphatically American.”
Clara Barck Wells, like other Arts and Crafts practitioners, believed in Morris’s basic concept that people who took pride and pleasure in their work would eventually create a better world. Perhaps it was this idealistic belief, coupled with the Arts and Crafts tendency to look backward for inspiration rather than toward the future for growth, that caused this movement to fade. With the coming of World War I and industrialization firmly entrenched in society, the faith that a better society could be created through handcrafted objects seemed both naïve and impractical. As a way of life the Movement waned, but not before making generous contributions to the craft tradition in America.
Examples of Arts and Crafts products are currently on display in the traveling exhibition, “The Arts and Crafts Movement in New York State (1890s-1920s),” organized by Dr. Coy Ludwig and sponsored by The Gallery Association of New York State. The tour schedule is as follows: Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum, Rochester, NY (November 17, 1983-February 24,1984); Tyler Art Gallery, State University of NY at Oswego (March 4-April 12, 1984); The Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, NY (May 13-July 8, 1984); Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, Buffalo, NY (July 19-August 20, 1984); Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire (September 8-October 21, 1984); The Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY (November 25, 1984-January 4, 1985); Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY (May 15-June 23, 1985); New York State Museum, Albany, NY (July 27-October 20, 1985).
A catalog for this show is available for $15.00 from: Peregrine Smith Books, P. O. Box 667, Layton, UT 84041.