When Production had a Good Name

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HomeLearning CenterBusiness and MarketingWhen Production had a Good Name
By Bruce MetcalfMore from this author

In researching this project, Don Friedlcih and I would often encounter craftspeople - whose business clearly entailed making multiples of the same designs - who would not admit that they were engaged in production. We would ask if a piece was a production design, and even if it had been reproduced dozens of times, we would get all kinds of evasions and denials. It is plain that production has a bad name, even among those who practice it.

Why this insecurity? Could it be because some academic types once said that craft production is less important than making art, even though I know few teachers who still indulge in this kind of blindness? Do some craftspeople still believe in the 60s notion that to engage in the marketplace is selling out, and they feel a little guilty? Whatever the reason, this peculiar ambivalence about producing multiples for the craft marketplace is fairly new in the United States. There was a time when craft production was honorable and adventurous and even aligned with the cutting-edge. Not so long ago, to be a production craftsperson was to be a cultural pioneer.

One must remember the postwar American craft was pretty much a new invention. The original Arts & Crafts movement was nearly dead, having lost its vigor by 1915. At the end of WWII, however, social conditions were ripe for a new version of craft to emerge. Americans had survived the trails of the Depression and the Second World War and the postwar boom was beginning. For the first time in fifteen years, people had disposable income in their pockets. Simultaneously, thousands of GI's returned from the military service, suspicious of all things regimented and institutionalized, and searching for a life's work. The GI bill handed them a free education and dozens of craft programs across the country were eager to offer training in ceramics, metalwork, weaving, and industrial education. (The rumor that there were very few craft programs in the U.S. by 1945 is false. There were many programs, though most were not very sophisticated.) At the same time, Modernism, still a fresh import from Europe, was being promoted with messianic fervor by forward-looking writers, curators, and artists. Together, these conditions set the stage for the revival of craft.

Modernist ideology was crucial to the reinvention of craft. Since the mid-nineteenth century progressive movements in the decorative arts held much in common. First, these movements typically held that the decorative arts should be elevated to equal status with the fine arts, which implied that craft was as good as painting and sculpture. Second, improving public taste was crucial. And third, the practical goal to reform was to create more beautiful interiors which should be available to everybody at a modest price. Early Modernism grew directly out of these ideals. Actually, I should say Modernisms, because theorists diverged on issues of machine-production versus craft production, and standardization versus unique and expressive design.

There was a German strain of Modernism, a product of the Deutscher Werkbund and the Dessau Bauhaus. This ideology called for a close cooperation between designer and industry, but it had little respect for the individualistic contributions of a single craftsperson. Standardization was paramount, determining that design should be directed toward mechanized production. This German ideology embraced new technologies and materials and the factory was seen as the locus of all things new. Perhaps the most famous product of this mindset was Marcel Breuer's famous B-32 tubular steel chair, which is still manufactured by the thousands today. In its home country German Modernism was socialistic, and promoted affordable housing and objects for the working class. It was also associated with the particular geometric style of the late Bauhaus, as well as certain architectural ideals like open, continuous space. And, of course, decoration was strictly forbidden: structure and function were supposed to be the only valid generators of form.

Some aspects of German Modernism were embraced in the U.S., some were not. Alfred H. Barr of the Museum of Modern Art was an enthusiastic promoter of some of the German ideals. Good Design was everything at MoMA. This idea encompassed many of the Bauhaus's virtues: new materials plainly exposed; simple forms reminiscent of abstract sculpture; a veneer of functionalism; a total absence of decoration. To illustrate his notions of good design, Barr would exhibit industrial equipment: the famous Machine Art exhibition of 1934 was full of springs, propellers, and laboratory glassware. Meanwhile, the German critique of capitalism was quietly dropped because it was impolitic for an American museum director, dependent on the good will of his wealthy patrons, to emphasize socialism. The result was a peculiarly American ideology of progressive design.

In any case, Barr was not averse to enlisting handmade craft for his purposes. Intent on illustrating good design, Barr was happy to include both mass-produced and handmade objects in MoMA's exhibitions. MoMA mounted Modern Handmade Jewelry in September 1946, which is now regarded as the first significant group exhibition of modern jewelry in this country. MoMA also sponsored classes and published some of the first postwar craft instruction booklets. The institutional support MoMA also sponsored craft classes and published some of the first postwar craft instruction booklets. The institutional support MoMA showed for modern craft was mirrored by a number of regional museums. Exhibitions and publications patterned after MoMA's were mounted at the Brooklyn Museum of Fine Art, the St. Paul Gallery and School of Art, the Walker Art Center, the Corcoran Gallery, and many others. Through all these activities, MoMA's model of quasi-Germanic modernism was disseminated throughout the United States. Because industrialized production was so much a part the MoMA model, young craftspeople could find a great deal of inspiration (and institutional approval) in the idea of producing good design in quantity. In effect, to be a modernist craftsman was to be a member of the avant-garde.

The Bauhaus model also had a profound influence on American art education. In the Bauhaus, students should start their studies with a basic course which used abstract designs as devices to impart lessons about composition and materials. This system has become almost a universal standard in Western art education, but in the early part of this century, it stood in radical contrast to the entrenched method of teaching students by drawing from plaster sculptures or life. Instead of thinking of art as representation, students were forced to think of art as the manipulation of abstract form. This method was imported to the U.S. and served as the design foundation for many postwar craft students. Today, one can find a summary of the method in Philip Morton's book Contemporary Jewelry: A Studio Handbook.

The other powerful Modernist ideology was Scandinavian and it was in some ways quite different from the German version. The Scandinavian countries were less industrialized than England or Germany, so when the design reform movement started, many rural and urban craft shops were still intact. Objects were still made in small shops, and even in factories much of the labor was still done by skilled craftsmen. The German ideology was aimed at industrial production, but in Scandinavia such demands made less sense. Correspondingly, new industrial materials were never embraced as enthusiastically in Scandinavia. Wood, glass, and wool were commonplace, not chrome-plated steel. Because it was sympathetic to handwork and craft materials from the start the Scandinavian ideology of Modern design was much more receptive to the traditionally crafted object.

Two notable Swedish books outlined the Scandinavian view. The first was Skönhet för Alla (Beauty for All) by Ellen Key, 1899; the second was Vackrare Vardasvara (More Beautiful Things for Everyday Life) by Gregor Paulsson, 1919. Both books stressed the idea that beauty was a moral force on the public, and should be made universally available in domestic furnishings. Both books be made universally available in domestic furnishings. Both books were strongly influenced by Walter Pater, Matthew Arnold, and especially William Morris. Beauty was central to these individuals' theories, and was held to be uniquely able to improve peoples' lives. (Recall that such claims were made in the midst of rapid industrialization, which directly created crowded, sooty cities.) If people could live in the midst of beauty social tensions could be ameliorated and the character of the people would be elevated. The site for such moral improvement was the home, where children are nurtured. As caregivers, women were held to be especially responsible for bringing beauty to their families. Both Key and Paulsson underlined the importance of affordability, so that every social class could equally participate in the new domestic beauty.

Where the German ideal stressed exact sameness, more effectively accomplished in a factory setting, the Scandinavian ideal stressed an irregular beauty. Ellen Key in Skönhet för Alla stated: "Above all, homes must vary; everything must reflect the individual taste and needs of their occupants." Not surprisingly, the Scandinavian designs that became famous world-wide were made by hand in small factories and smaller shops: Orrefors glass; wooden chairs and stools designed by Alvar Aalto; the silverware of Georg Jensen.

Scandinavian design was widely disseminated in the United States. It was seen in special exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1926, 1927, and 1929; at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933, and at the New York World's Fair in 1939. The Scandinavian model was very influential in American Modernism, and some terminology was borrowed directly from Key and Paulsson. Art in Every Day Life, written in 1925 by two home economic teachers, featured the same emphasis on simplicity, light colors, and good taste in domestic life that characterized the Center published a bulleting titled Everyday Art Quarterly: A Guide to Well Designed Products which also emphasized the importance of modern design in the home.

Both the German and the Scandinavian strains of Modernism gave American craftspeople permission to pursue various paths. The German model encouraged craftspeople to think of themselves as designers, able to move directly into industry; and a few did, notably metalsmith Arthut Pulos. The title designer-craftsman is a testament to the Bauhaus ideal. On the other hand, the Scandinavian model enabled craftspeople to see handwork as completely contemporary. They could pursue the reform of design and lifestyle without sacrificing their commitment to their craft. Either way, both models encouraged people to think of production as a noble calling.

In the American version of Modernism, no practical distinction was made between manufactured and handmade goods. Modernist design was the unifying element and the means of production seemed unimportant. Eames chairs, manufactured by Herman Miller, were depicted in advertisements right next to hand-woven fabrics or pottery. Modernism, both the German or the Scandinavian variety, was seen as a new broom to sweep away all that was old-fashioned and inappropriate to the modern age. Whether the object was made by hand or by machine counted for little.

It's hard to imagine, fifty years later, the revolutionary impact Modernism had on American Craft after the end of the World Was II. First, the Bauhaus system of foundation courses taught students to see design in terms of abstraction, rather than as decoration or representation. The new emphasis on abstraction was held, in an almost revolutionary way, to be better than what had come before. It certainly was different. The influences that immediately preceded Modernism were the Arts & Crafts' homey Mission-style furniture and flowery ceramics; and the Colonial Revival's backwards-looking historicism. After World War II both looked old-fashioned. Teachers and students enthusiastically embraced non-objective design.

Secondly, the ideologies of German and Scandinavian Modernism aligned hand production with the avant-garde. Most of the ideals of either movement could be applied directly to craft. Young craftsmen or women could be applied directly to craft. Young craftsmen or women could see themselves as prophets, bringing new beauty, simplicity, and social relevance into the homes of the masses. The new craft went hand-in-hand with the new painting and sculpture, too. Taken together, these factors created an almost religious devotion to the ideals of Modernism. People who lived through the era still speak of a feeling of camaraderie among craftspeople, and a shared sense of pioneering.

In this atmosphere of dazzling cultural exploration, production craft would play a central role. Young men or women informed by the experience of the Great Depression saw training in the crafts as an opening to a steady job, not to personal expression. For many, production was the only way to make a living with their craft. But since the ideology of Modernism declared that new design should be disseminated as widely as possible in order to bring beauty and good taste to the masses, craft production was on the same stylistic wavelength, ideology, taste, and economic means were all part of the same enterprise. As long as it was Modern, it was OK.

So, for many years, craft production was an honorable activity, supported by a dominant ideology, People felt no need to apologize for producing multiples. Many of the first stars of the art-jewelry world were open and enthusiastic about making multiples. Margaret De Patta; Sam Kramer; Ed Weiner; Paul Lobel; Art Smith; Betty Cooke; Ronald Pearson: all repeated some designs many times. Kramer even sold kits for making modern jewelry.

Times have changed. Modernism has split and fractured. Different styles have multiplied. The ideology that once justified hand production for the mass market has eroded. It is as if the craft world, having freed itself from the strictures of Modernism, has in some ways lost its bearings. A new hierarchy, one that elevates unique artworks and marginalizes production craft, seems to dominate craft discourse. And yet, on close examination, such a hierarchy is highly questionable. The beneficial influence of craft in life-as-lived still operates much as 19th century visionaries imagined it could. Production craft still has the power to bring beauty to ordinary domestic spaces, where fine art rarely travels. Production jewelry still touches many more people than so-called art jewelry. Sadly, the discourse that empowers production seems to have gone underground, or has been transformed into trivial self-promotion. As a result, people who make production jewelry - some of it very good - often seem ashamed that they are engaged in production. What a difference from only 35 years ago!

The purpose of this publication is to reveal the continuing beauty, inventiveness, and value of production metalwork and jewelry. The evidence is in the work itself, and our polemic will stand or fall on the quality of the work we have selected. Hopefully, our message will give confidence to the community of production craftspeople, and inspiration to jewelry/metalsmithing students who are contemplating a career choice.

Since graduating from Rhode Island School of Design with a BFA in 1982, Donald Friedlich has shown both one-of-a-kind and production jewelry through leading galleries and crafts shows. In addition to exhibiting, he has also frequently served as a juror for craft shows and competitions and has lectured on production issues at many universities throughout the United States. He is currently an Artist-in-Residence and Visiting Scholar at the University of Iowa.

Bruce Metcalf is a jeweler who lives in Philadelphia. His work has been exhibited internationally. While most of his jewelry is one-of-a-kind, he once worked for a small production jewelry shop, as well as for silversmith Kurt Matzdorf. He has also been involved with Metalsmith magazine since its first issue in 1980, as a writer and as a Contributing Editor.

By Bruce Metcalf
Metalsmith Magazine – 1997 Exhibition
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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Bruce Metcalf

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