Chapter 9: 1971-1980 9:7 Aesthetic Tastes of Decade

The text below comes from a survey of the styles of furniture that prevailed throughout the 20th century, up to the 1980s. This survey is approriate here, the the context of the 1970s, because -- with the appearance of Fine Woodworking in 1976, woodworkers, especially talented woodworkers, were confronted on pages of that magazine with examples of fine furniture being designed and built by American woodworkers in that decade.

Nineteen Seventies Craft Revival/America

The ideals of the contract furniture designer, effectively an industrial designer, are far removed from those of the furniture artisan, the craftsman-designer who finds in the creation of finely hand-finished pieces an intimate, even poetic form of expression. A respect for craft and a respect for tradition have long characterized the approach to furniture of the less heavily industrialized Scandi­navian countries. In other countries of Europe and in the United States, where the domestic landscape has become dominated by the machine-made, furniture design had, in the eyes of the new generation of craftsmen, become depersonalized.

Craft work has been described as a mediation between the purely practical and the purely artistic.

"Handcraftmanship", wrote Octavio Paz in In Praise of Hands of 1974, "is a sort of fiesta of the object: it transforms the everyday utensil into a sign of participation." It is a philosophy which has strong echoes of Ruskin and Morris, though today's most prominent furniture craftsmen-designers realistically accept that their clients will be the minority who can afford costly hand work and not the Utopian masses at whom Morris's promises, if not his creations, were aimed.

The leaders of the current craft revival in furniture see in the regeneration of traditional skills a means of preserving standards which could all too easily be lost and an opportunity to instill in a new generation of artisans a sense of commitment and a sense of involvement in the creation of their environment, values which are in jeopardy in an increas­ingly mechanized world.

A respected pioneer of the craft furniture movement is Wharton Esherick, who died in 1970 but whose influence is very much alive. Setting up a hillside retreat near Philadelphia in 1913, he proceeded to carve all the furniture and furnishings which he needed. He has been described as the direct descendant of the Shaker tradition. His was the saying, `A little of the hand, but the main thing is the heart and the head.'

Probably the most influential figure in American craft furniture today, both as practitioner and teacher, is Wendell Castle, a worthy inheritor of Esherick's mantle. Castle, born in 1932, studied industrial design and sculpture at the University of Kansas, graduating in 1961. Evolving a highly personal style of furniture, he has been the subject of numerous one-man shows and is now repre­sented in major museum collections across the United States. His characteristic approach is to carve out the form of his furniture, usually in swollen and undulating contours, from massive blocks of wood built up in layers. 'My firm', he writes, 'is really quite small, and might most appropriately be characterized as an extension of myself as an artist and designer ... Everything produced in my workshop is designed, personally supervized and signed by me.'

Another great exponent of the highly sculptural style of American craft furniture is Michael Coffey who, from his workshops in Poultney, Vermont, produces sensual organic forms in rich, polished, often exotic woods, such as walnut, mozambique, rosewood, marnut and cherry.

In a 1976 survey of the craft scene, John Makepeace illustrated the work of other Americans whose eccentric sculpted forms evoke the extravagant organic forms of French Art Nouveau, or the baroque Art Nouveau of Gaudi; these included Roy Superior, Peter Danko, Sam Forrest and Stephen Hogbin. Less elaborate, and less costly, is the work of Paul Epp, a craftsman whose straightforward but carefully considered and well-made furniture is designed with price accessibility as an important factor. On Art Nouveau, read more here.

Source: Philippe Garner, Twentieth-Century FurnitureNew York: Van Nostrand, 1980, page 206.

In the way of framing the aesthetic tastes of America's growing ranks of amateur woodworkers, more portentious of things to come was the 1972 exhibit -- and accompanying heavily-illustrated coffee table book:-- The Arts and Crafts Movement in America, 1876-1916. To call the exhibit catalog merely a "coffee table book"does it an injustice, however. For one, its attention to such figures in the history of American Arts and Crafts movement as Harvey Ellis -- to begin restore his rightful place as an icon of design excellence -- was propitious. Moreover -- even if all-too-little notice -- to recall the indebtedness of the American designers, such as Ellis, to the band of British architect-designers: -- Arthur H. Mackmurdo, Charles F. A. Voysey, M H Baillie Scott, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, heralds solid understanding of the revival of a famous American design movement, as the title of Clark's book shows, begun a century before, but destined to prevail longer than the original.

harvey ellis chairs celebrated in 1993An exhibition of nineteenth-century American decorative arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1970 had a salutary effect on rehabilitating that century's artistic reputation. Then, in 1972, an exhibition titled "The Arts and Crafts Movement in America: 1876-1916" took place at Princeton University and traveled to Chicago and Washington, D.C. The show and an accompanying catalogue were sparks that ignited an interest that has only grown stronger.

Other shows followed in the 1970s. The "California Design 1910" show and catalogue at Pasadena Art Center was, for example, the first assessment of the movement within an entire state.


Today [1993], the Craftsman style has resumed its place as part of a permanent language of decoration. Period furniture and objects are still available through a number of dealers and auction houses. Reproductions of furniture, lighting, textiles, and wallpaper are now widely offered by a variety of companies.

[To Mayer's claims about the astonishing extent of the popularity of Arts and Crafts we must not neglect the fact that today's woodworker's magazines and countless woodworker's manuals attest to the evidence of a revival among amateur woodworkers of a dimension far exceeding the interst of woodworkers in the first decade of the 20th-century.]

Source: Barbara Mayer, In the Arts and Crafts Style San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1992, pages 22-23

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