Appendix 32: -- The Arts and Crafts Movement in America

The operative term above is "movement", because whether in Britain or America, Arts and Crafts became more than styles of household chairs, tables, beds, and other like furniture. No, instead "movement" invoked an almost entire makeover of a family's lifetstyle, from top to bottom:



The Arts and Crafts movement was inspired by a crisis of conscience. Its motivations were social and moral, and its aesthetic values derived from the conviction that society produces the art and architecture it deserves. It was originally a British movement; Britain, first in the field as the workshop of the world, was the first to discover that factory conditions are far from ideal, and the realization that technical progress does not necessarily coincide with the improvement of man's lot brought with it the long campaign for social, industrial, moral and aesthetic reform that is still unresolved today. The Arts and Crafts movement represents one facet of that campaign, but be­cause the movement marks a stage in man's efforts to come to terms with industrializa­tion, it was not confined to England. Similar attitudes developed in European countries as they industrialized, and in the United States, so that when the theories of Ruskin and Morris and their successors began to reach a wider audience the response they evoked was generally sympathetic, and the products of the British movement were greeted with similar acclaim.

For a brief period at the end of the nineteenth century British design and British design theory enjoyed an unprecedented prestige. To some observers these achieve­ments represented the triumph of individuality: British architects and craftsmen had broken free from the trammels of the past, and had created a new art, a personal aesthetic that would embrace architecture and design as well as the 'fine' arts. The appeal to individuality, fashion and novelty was obvious, but the British promoters of this revival firmly disassociated themselves from the stylistic extravagances of Art Nouveau. Their endeavours were directed, ultimately, towards a social end, the establishment of a society in which all men would enjoy the freedom to be creative. Their concern, therefore, was not focused exclusively on end-products but on the society that shaped them, the men who designed and made them and on the people who bought them. Ashbee perhaps provided the neatest definition of this attitude: `The Arts and Crafts Movement', he wrote in Craftsmanship in Competitive Industry (1908), 'means standards, whether of work or life; the protection of standards, whether in the product or the producer, and it means that these things must be taken together.'

It was this concern to see the problems of design within a social context that was to have the most significant influence on twentieth-century design thinking; Van de Velde, Muthesius, Loos and Gropius, in fact the majority of the 'pioneers' who formu­lated the principles of the Modern Movement, were all stimulated by British precept and example to work towards the creation of an environment that would both serve and express people's needs. The methods each suggested and the solutions they proposed were in themselves radically different, but their concern was with one common goal— that of 'averting mankind's enslavement to the machine by saving the mass product and the home from mechanical anarchy and by restoring them to purpose, sense and life . . (Walter Gropius The Scope of Total Architecture).

Fundamental to the British Arts and Crafts philosophy, especially in the first stages of its development, was the conviction that industrialization had brought with it the total destruction of 'purpose, sense and life'. These nineteenth-century idealists had learned to spell out the cost of mechanical 'progress' in terms of human misery and degradation; they saw the destruction of fundamental human values reflected in poverty, overcrowded slums, grim factories, a dying countryside and the apotheosis of the cheap and shoddy. In such conditions, they maintained, the good (and therefore the beautiful), whether in art or life, was strangled at birth. As Morris put it : 'Men living amidst such ugliness cannot conceive of beauty, and, therefore, cannot express it'.1[1. Article in Commonweal April 1885. Quoted from William Morris, Selected Writings and Designs ed Asa Briggs, Penguin Books, 1962, p 141]

Their rebellion against what they conceived as the indiscriminate exploitation of the many for the profit of the few, led, in Morris's case at least, to a commitment to the idea of revolution; on a less radical plane it led to a rejection, or reinterpretation of the accepted definitions of the design process. For in England the socially aware within the design profession tended to be rebels against orthodox social and academic attitudes, and their non-conformity led to a rugged individualism. Having em­braced the Cause, as defined by Ruskin and Morris, each designer learned to forge his own path and establish a personal interpretation of the craft doctrine, so that talents as disparate as those of Crane, Benson, Gimson, Voysey, Mackmurdo, De Morgan, Lethaby and Ashbee were extending the conventions and philosophy of design and ornament, preparing the way, on the one hand, for Art Nouveau, and on the other, through their teaching and incessant personal analyses of the social pur­poses of design and architecture, for the ideals and dogmatism of the Modern Movement.

These were responsible men, intelligent and sensitive enough to understand that their concern with the values of the past might so conflict with the realities of the present that their work would be rendered useless. Gradually each came to realize—and with each it tended to be a painful process of self-realization—that machinery need not be a destructive force, and that men, as Voysey put it `must live and work in the present'. But in spite of the fact that many of these designers did work for industry and supported programmes for the improvement of industrial design standards, none of them were in a position to grasp the nature of the forces that were revolutionizing society. Theirs was a personal and subjective approach, and although they came to appreciate intellectually the fact of the machine as the normal tool of our civilization, they were unable, or unwilling, to absorb, as Lewis Mumford has put it, 'the lessons of objectivity, impersonality, neutrality, the lessons of the mechanical realm'.2 [ 2 Lewis Mumford Technics and Civilisation Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1934 ]

Nor were they as confident as their successors in Gropius's generation that men would be able to direct and control technology, and in this, of course, all the indications are that they will be proved right.

But here lies the paradox of nineteenth-century idealism; once the idea of practical expediency was abandoned, and design reform was considered a Cause and a Crusade, an element of impotence and unreality entered the proceedings. In Britain Ruskin and Morris and their disciples within the Arts and Crafts movement saw the uncontrolled advance of technology as a threat to man's spiritual and physical well-being, but at the same time they had no clearer understanding of the nature of their adversary­industry—than had Henry Cole and his associates. They carried their banner in the name of humanity, but the new society that they envisaged bore so little relationship to contemporary reality, that its delights were a snare and a delusion, and possession of its products confined to an appreciative, affluent and intelligent elite. Both Ruskin and Morris died frustrated men, having spent their lives proselytizing a seemingly indiff­erent public, and Ashbee, in his unpublished Memoirs, defined the nature of his and their dilemma. 'We have made', he wrote, 'of a great social movement, a narrow and tiresome little aristocracy working with great skill for the very rich.'3 [3 C. R. Ashbee 'Memoirs', unpublished typescript, 1938, Vol IV, Victoria and Albert Museum Library, p 201] This ambiguity between their ideals and their achievement was obvious to their successors.

Their sympathizers, men like Van de Velde, Muthesius and Gropius, acknowledged the ideal and broke the taboo, attempting to extend the values of the Arts and Crafts movement to machine production. But the idealism was open to misin­terpretation and many critics were to ignore the underlying social concern and see the efforts of these nineteenth-century reformers at best as quaint and misguided. As early as 1899, for example, Thorstein Veblen was equating the desire for the hand­made with conspicuous consumption, thus neatly reversing the values that the move­ment had sought to establish :

`... the generic feature of the physiognomy of machine-made goods as compared with the hand-wrought article is their greater perfection in workmanship and greater ac­curacy in the detail execution of the design. Hence it comes about that the visible imperfections of the hand-wrought goods, being honorific, are accounted marks of superiority in point of beauty, or serviceability, or both. Hence has arisen that exalta­tion of the defective, of which John Ruskin and William Morris were such eager spokesmen in their time; and on this ground their propaganda of crudity and wasted effort has been taken up and carried forward since their time.'4 [4 Thorstein Veblen The Theory of the Leisure Class The Macmillan Company, 1899; Mentor Edition, The New American Library, 1953, p 115]

In the twentieth century their reputation has varied with the response to the idea and ideal of the 'machine' as a redemptive force in society. It reached its lowest ebb, pre­dictably enough, with the Futurists, and the technique-oriented theorists of the '20S and '3os. In 1912, for example, Marinetti urged members of a London audience to

`... disencumber yourselves of the lymphatic ideology of your deplorable Ruskin... with his hatred of the machine, of steam and electricity, this maniac for antique sim­plicity resembles a man who in full maturity wants to sleep in his cot again and drink at the breasts of a nurse who has now grown old, in order to regain the carefree state of infancy . . 5 [5 F. T. Marinetti, lecture to the Lyceum Club, March 1912. Quoted from Reyner Banham Theory and Design in the First Machine Age The Architectural Press, 1960, p 123]

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's The New Vision created a new myth by declaring that the `Ruskin, Morris circle in the 1880s . . . opposed the machine so strongly that, in order to deliver their hand-made products to London, they ran a horse-coach along­side the hated railway'; 6 [6 László Moholy-Nagy The New Vision George Wittenborn, Inc, 1947, p 16]

J. J. P. Oud believed that Ruskin and Morris had committed a 'cardinal error' and had 'brought the machine into disrepute by stigmatizing an impure use of it as its essence',7 [7 Quoted from Hans L. C. Jaffe De Stijl Thames and Hudson, 1970, p 97] and, more recently, Reyner Banham has declared that `the human chain of pioneers of the Modern Movement that extends back from Gro­pius to William Morris, and beyond him to Ruskin, Pugin and William Blake, does not extend forward from Gropius. The precious vessel of handicraft aesthetics that has been passed from hand to hand, was dropped and broken, and no one has bothered to pick up the pieces.'8 [8 Reyner Banham op cit, p 12]

The aim of this book is to examine the nature of the handicraft aesthetic as it de­veloped in England in the nineteenth century, and to outline its impact on design theory in Europe and the United States. The basic hypothesis is that the 'precious vessel' was not shattered but cracked and tarnished, and its purpose misunderstood, and that the attitudes of twentieth-century designers, even those who feel themselves totally alienated from their counterparts in the First Machine Age, are nevertheless still conditioned, for better or worse, by the efforts of these nineteenth-century re­formers to create a world fit to live in. The ways and means differ, as does the nature of the compromise between aesthetic, commercial and functional requirements; but the ideal, as defined by Moholy-Nagy 9 [9 László Moholy-Nagy op cit, p 17] remains the same: to lay down the basis for an organic system of production whose focal point is man, not profit'.

Parts 1 Through 4:

    Part 1:-- Its Initial Stages in the Era of Manual Education, 1880-1900

    Part 2:-- The The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Era of Gustav Stickley, 1900-1915

    Part 3:-- The Arts and Crafts Movement Under the Radar, 1915-1970

    Part 4:-- The Arts and Crafts Movement's Longest Run, From 1970 Into the 21st Century