THE IRONY OF ARTS AND CRAFTS
By: Fred Taylor
What began as a philosophical reform movement in England in the mid 19th century became the first widely popular new furniture style of the 20th century in America – Arts and Crafts. By the middle of the 1800’s both England and America were awash in the excesses of the Victorian Era, mostly as the result of the maturing of the Industrial Revolution. Mass production of almost everything allowed the slightest whim of an industrialist to become a reality on a large scale. But every stage of every civilization naturally has its detractors, even revolutionaries, and 1850’s England was no exception.
William Morris (1834 – 1896), an English designer of the period, is often credited with being the father of the Arts and Crafts movement in England but even he drew inspiration from someone else and that someone was John Ruskin (1819 – 1900). Ruskin, the pampered son of a wealthy merchant, indulged his passion for art, literature and travel and became an expert on the relationship between art and morality, at least in his own eyes. He rebelled against what he perceived as the socially debasing effects of the Industrial Revolution and declared that art had reached its moral zenith in the Gothic Art of the late Middle Ages. He felt that individual craftsmen working on individual projects, if left to their own devices, would design and produce morally pure works.
Morris picked up the essence of this drift and in turn advocated a return to more simple furniture (among other things) produced in smaller shops, using simpler tools and based on designs more suited for the common person. His “Morris chair” was an example of that thought process. It was simply designed, simply built, sturdy, comfortable and extremely serviceable. The only problem was that since it was so painstakingly handcrafted, none could afford his work except the wealthy.
Charles Eastlake (1836 – 1906), another English designer, was an early proponent of the “return to simplicity” movement and touted both it and William Morris in his hugely successful book “Hints on Household Taste”, first published in England in 1868 and in America in 1872.
By the end of the 1870’s, influenced by Eastlake and the English movement, small colonies of “Arts and Crafts” artisans had established themselves in America, primarily around Boston and Cincinnati, producing small amounts of furniture and artifacts that reflected the simpler tastes and high ideals of the founders. But the movement in America didn’t really catch on until it was espoused by Elbert Hubbard, brother-in-law of John D. Larkin, of soap fame. It was Hubbard who had devised the famous coupon/premium scheme for Larkin’s soap business. Hubbard visited William Morris in England in 1893/1894 and became a confirmed subscriber to the Movement, just as it was dying out in England. He returned to America and opened the Roycroft Press and artistic community in East Aurora, NY in 1895. The “Roycrofters” were devoted to the ideas of simplicity, substance and directness in their works as advocated by Morris.
But this small colony, along with others like it such as the Artworkers Guild of Providence, RI, could not produce goods and artifacts along the preferred philosophical lines in great enough quantities to have any effect on mainstream America. The transformation from art to industry was left to another traveler to England from America by the name of Gustav Stickley (1858 – 1942).
Stickley went to the source in 1897 and even though Morris had died the year before, he returned to America, convinced he could produce a line of furniture that would meet the criteria of “Arts and Crafts”. In 1898 he opened United Crafts and introduced his first “Craftsman” furniture line. In 1900 he designed and produced what was called the “New Furniture” collection for Tobey Furniture Company of Chicago. The line consisted of about seventy-five pieces of oak furniture, many allegedly based on designs of furniture found in California’s Spanish missions while others were based on contemporary English and Scottish designs. The simple designs and lack of ornamentation were immediately accepted by the buying public and Stickley was on his way. By the end of 1900 he had severed ties with Tobey and was on his own.
Gustav Stickley successfully produced a line of furniture that embodied all the tenets of the original Arts and Crafts founders except one. His furniture was not hand made by individual craftsmen. It was closely supervised and had a lot of hand work done on it but it was essentially made in a factory using the latest technology and machinery available. This was true of all of the major players in the Arts and Crafts furniture business in the early 20th century. Gustav’s major competitors were his brothers but others were there too such as Tobey, Limbert, Lifetime and eventually an unnamed host of lesser producers. Gustav went bankrupt in 1916, bought out by his brothers but by the end of World War I, the Arts and Crafts furniture movement in America was largely done, a victim of its own straight line severity and lack of flexibility in adapting to the new age in this country. It was eventually totally supplanted by another idea that also espoused a return to the past, the Colonial Revival.
But ironically the Arts and Crafts movement eventually did exactly what its founders in the mid 19th century had set out to do. It provided an inexpensive, well made, simply designed and sturdily built line of serviceable furniture for the great middle class. And it did so by using the implements of the Industrial Revolution which it had originally so despised.
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