Chapter 5 1931 - 1940  5:7 Aesthetic tastes of decade

Back to Chapter 5

under construction

Aesthetic tastes of decade; e.g., prevailing popularity of arts and crafts design; neo-colonial revivalism-nativism
(Along with this section in each chapter --  "Aesthetic Movements that Impact on Amateur Woodworking" -- as a source of reference I created a quick-and-dirty guide to Furniture Styles.)

[Need to Check Harvey Green's Americans and the Craft Revival: Culture and Crisis" from Revivals! Diverse Traditions, 1920-1945: The History of 20th Century American Craft, Janet Kardon, ed.,New York: Abrams, 1995. pp 31-40; reviewed The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940. by Miles OrvellThe American Historical Review Vol. 96, No. 2 (Apr., 1991), pp. 615-616" addresses these same questions]

Gordon Russell, The Things We See: Furniture West Drayton, England: Penguin Books, 1947,  page 34, briefly but insightfully sketches out for several centuries the major furniture design styles that prevailed in England, emphasizing to a greater extent the Victorian, Arts and Crafts, and Modernist periods, stretching from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. Russell elaborates on his ideas in Looking at Furniture, London, Lund Humphries, 1964.

(With the exception of furniture styles popularized by the Colonial Revival, and Shaker, and other styles native to America, the styles Russell introduces are reflected too in America.)

For the 1920s and 1930s, a theory claims that modern design was deliberately simple, as a response to the growing complexity of the world. Modernist objects, including furniture, "look" different than those that came immediately before them. Without ornament and overt reference to historical style, these designs instead focus on industrial processes to create objects "that simplified and dramatized everyday life".

In international  politics, between WW I and WW II, isolationists and supporters of the League of Nations opposed one another, polarities that are reflected in aesthetic counterparts.

Radical differences existed between objects like furniture created by craftsmen  reviving traditional American crafts and those pieces created by artists affected by modernist ideas of avoiding over-decoration and in employing new materials
Political isolationism was reflected in "revivalism" ideologies, such as  the popular Colonial revival style, the indigenous 'folk' handcrafts of Southern Appalachia, and the expressions of African-American, Hispanic, and Native American communities.

In woodworker's manuals we see these sentiments expressed in 1924, in Reproduction of Antique Furniture, by Herman Hjorth.

In his preface, Hjorth observes that,


    A general refinement of the public taste in matters pertaining to art and interior decoration is making itself felt move and more clearly. One of the phases of this feeling and desire for better things is undoubtedly the realization of the charm, beauty of line, and individuality of antique furniture.

    Unfortunately the available supply of genuine antiques is so far below the demand that only the favored few- can enjoy the possession of artistic old pieces. For the great majority reproductions will have to (1o. If well made and of time proportions, they will be found to be just as pleasing as the originals, besides being much stronger.

    The higher class of furniture factories are meeting the demand of the times by turning out many excellent reproductions, which are not merelv common adaptations but follow time original in every detail.

    But reproduction of antique furniture need not necessarily be confined to professional cabinet makers. It may well be undertaken by high school boys, and many pieces can even be made by students of the eighth grade. Work of this kind may at first appear too difficult; but, when the processes are carefully analyzed, these difficulties will disappear, and the result will be ever so more pleasing and satisfying than the usual "Mission" type of furniture.

    With this idea in mind, the following material has been compiled. The pieces of furniture illustrated have been selected for their general simplicity and adaptability to the average home. They have been photographed, measured, and translated into working drawings, thus making them available for reproduction. A few suggestions and a short description of the principal technical difficulties involved in the construction of each piece have been added, as Well as a chapter giving a brief outline of the art periods and how to distinguish the most important of them.

    While the book is intended chiefly for school use, it is hoped that it may also prove of interest to cabinet-makers, amateur woodworkers, and people in general who are interested in good furniture.

    HERMAN HJORTH
    San Juan, Porto Rico

    Source: HERMAN HJORTH, Reproduction of Antique Furniture Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988, pages 176-177.




Against this backdrop of nativistic, Colonial revival, are pluralist, multicultural, and regional expressions of craft, some strongly influenced by European modernism. Labeled Craft in the Machine Age: 1920-1945 by Janet Kardon, at the American Craft Museum in New York, this movement is the result of trans-Atlantic interaction, where -- as seen in Chapter 4, a focus on artistic developments from the influx of European émigrés and ideas, and the direct experience of American artists who traveled to Europe. [Link to piece on Bauhaus]

The period from 1920 to 1945 falls between the decline of  the Arts and Crafts movement and the craft industry that emerged in the post-WW II era and the revival of the Arts and Crafts movement in the 1960s.
In those intervening decades, America was introduced to a variety of European designs, including hybrids from moderne and "zigzag" styling to Scandinavian Modern, the International Style, and Italian influences. (On the latter see the page on Mario Dal Fabbro; on the attempts by woodworking magazines to define and address modernist tastes for furniture in projects by amateur woodworkers, see Appendix 13: Defining Modernistic Furniture Design for Amateur Woodworkers in the 1930s.

According to the material culture historian, Kate Carmel in "Against the Grain: Modern American Woodwork", page 74

 

As distinctive American styles began to evolve, the sleek machine aesthetic and the exigencies of industrial production were of much greater interest to designers than the charms of natural wood or the idiosyncrasies of handcrafted objects. Yet this period is important to the history of American woodworking, not only for the pioneering of interesting shapes, methods of construction, and mate­rials made possible by the machine but also for the endurance of wood as a favored material for craftspeople and, ultimately, the renewal of public interest in organic beauty and in the unique handcrafted object as an antidote to the anonymity of mass production.



During this period, woodworking was marked by a wide fluctuation in levels of skill, often dictated by variations in modern styling. In the creation and production of wood furniture and objects (whether decorative or functional), some very distinct models emerged. In the 1920s, designers working in the decorative moderne or zigzag style provided drawings to established artisanal firms for refined execution using traditional skills. Beginning in the 1930s, craftspeople skilled in the fabrication of wood models and prototypes were employed in the emergent field of industrial design, which addressed the need for uniform con­struction techniques and the use of more economical materials. A striking aspect of modernism was the de-emphasis of expert carving and craftsmanship as stan­dards of quality and their eventual replacement by simplified forms designed for large-scale production.

The potential of new wood products was frequently explored and expanded by architects and craftspeople working in studio settings. Craft training became the basis for industrial design education, setting standards of quality and providing modelmaking skills. Many modern architects, continuing an Arts and Crafts tradition, controlled all aspects of a project, favoring simple built-in and free-standing furniture of their own design, constructed by carpenters on the building site. Finally, and least common of all, there was the artist-craftsperson who con­ceived and made unique functional objects. The fusion of the many branches of modernism and the various modes of execution gave rise to a confusing plethora of hybrids that prevents a simple line of development in this narrative.

 Early Modernist American Furniture 

Furniture of the early 1920s shows striking links with the Arts and Crafts movement as well as with the first wave of modern style. 

(Sources:The designs of the British Industrial Arts instructors, Percy A Wells and John Hooper , and the designer-woodworker, Gordon Russell, helped promote and popularizes these elaborations on Arts and Crafts designs. 

Another study of early modernist American furniture is Marguerite Smith's 1947 master's thesis, "Modern Design in Ameican Domestic Furniture, 1925 to 1945". Only 50-pages of double-spaced typecript -- accompanied by photos by Smith and clippings from magazines -- Smith briefly but capably outlines the contributions of major players and analyzes the threads of development, noting in particular that these designers were tuned into the applications of their designs in mass produsction settings. 

 Janet Kardon, Craft in the Machine Age, New York: H.N. Abrams, in association with the American Craft Museum, 1995,  especially Kate Carmel's chapter "Against the Grain: Modern American Woodwork", page 74+;  Noel Riley, ed., Elements of Design: A Practical Encyclopedia of the Decorative Arts From the Renaissance to the Present new York: free press, 2003.)

/blockquote>

Popular Science Monthly "modernistic" blueprints.[image coming]

[When I get this image uploaded it will show how, in 1933, as part of its "Home Workshop Blueprints" service, a mailing service, at $.25 each, readers could order from a selection of about 30 projects at least five projects that incorporated a "modernistic" design. In October, 1933, on pages 82-83, Herman Hjorth has an article -- with diagrams and photos -- on how to design a "Smoking Stand", "designed on simple modern lines".]

("Modern" or "Modernist", evidently are then  sort of like code words for the rectilinear styles that emerged from the Bauhaus movement. Nowhere, though, I located where Popular Homecraft, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Home Craftsman, Deltagram, and so forth has given readers a background on the historical origins of the style. Evidently the style was so pervasive that the editors of these periodicals thought an explanation was superfluous, and  not necessary or useful. However, Popular Homecraft presented its readers with a little more background than any of the other woodworker's magazines. I have gathered some of this evidence into a single, which you can view by clicking on this link. )