"Truth-to-materials" -- which we often encounter as a phrase in 19th- and 20th-century writings on arts and design, such as woodworking -- is a maxim of the school of thought which believes that the innate qualities of the materials should influence the projects created from them.
Truth-to-materials, a principle of art in the modern era (as opposed to any "postmodern era"), holds that, first, any building form shall be used where it seems most appropriate and, second, its true nature should be obvious. Concrete, for example, shall not be painted and its means of construction celebrated by, for instance, not sanding away marks left by forms used for creating the structure.
For surface patterns, many consider the "flakes and flecks" of quarter-sawn white oak a desirable "natural" features of that material, but -- is there in the background a lurking question about a "truth" to the material? The answer: the quadralineal effect is achieved easily from entirely natural processes -- i.e., the grain of white oak is sawn in a way that allows the "flakes and grains" to be highlighted on the object's surfaces. Historically, any woodworker who employs a riving knife for working oak is exposing the "rays" which create the "flakes and flecks" of quarter-sawn white oak. This practice traces back centuries, because it is the only way woodworkers can "work" oak logs without the use of primitive "pit-saws". At worst, this is a process of manipulation, and with the intention definitely not deceptive.
The truth-to-materials doctrine appears as a consequence of technological development. Before the advent of the Industrial Revolution, truth-to-materials is not an issue. Following the truth-to-materials doctrine, under a minimal finish, a wood's natural grain is allowed to show, or rather than be polished to an artificial shine, the rich, green, patina of copper is left untouched.
For example, in the 1930s, the sculptor, Henry Moore, argues
"that sculpture in stone should honestly look like stone; that to make it look like flesh and blood, hair and dimples is coming down to the level of the stage conjuror".
In writing about these objects, Moore's theorizing about "truth to material" and sculptural form emerges. For example, Moore wrote in 1941 that
[o]ne of the first principles of art so clearly seen in primitive work is truth to material; the artist shows an instinctive understanding of his material, its right use and possibilities.
Moore is discussing Mexican sculpture:
Its 'stoniness', by which I mean its truth to material, its tremendous power without loss of sensitiveness, its astonishing variety and fertility of form-invention and its approach to a full three-dimensional conception of form, make it unsurpassed in my opinion by any other period of stone sculpture.
Sources: : Henry Moore, "Primitive Art", reprinted in Alan Wilkinson, Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations, London: Lund Humphries, 2002, pages 62-68, as cited by Susan Hiller, " 'Truth' and 'truth to material': Reflecting on the sculptural legacy of Henry Moore", Henry Moore: Critical Essays, ed. by Jane Beckett and Fiona Russell, Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2003, pages 68-69.
During the Festival of Britain ten years later, Hiller notes, at an exhibition the British Colonial Office sponsored, "Traditional Art from the Colonies", when asked about the relationship between artist and material in the works exhibited, Moore argues that:
the material is dominated by the artist in almost every case. The soapstone figures from Sierra Leone have a quality of stoniness about them because the artists have avoided the more deeply carved and slender forms which are easily possible in wood, but they show a mastery of the possibilities of stone; they are not just incised lumps of stone — but have forms fully realised in the round. In most of the wood carvings the sculptor has imagined something which has no relation to the original form of the tree trunk.'
Sources: Henry Moore, "'Tribal sculpture: A review of the Exhibition at the Imperial Institute', interview in Man, 51 (165), 1951, pages 95-6, or reprint in Wilkinson, Henry Moore, pp. 106-8, p. 106. (Moore expounds his ideas on 'truth to material' in his 1937 essay, "The Sculptor Speaks", The Listener 18: 449, 28 August 1937, pages 338-40, also reprinted in Wilkinson, Henry Moore: Critical Essays; Susan Hiller, " 'Truth' and 'truth to material': Reflecting on the sculptural legacy of Henry Moore", Henry Moore: Critical Essays, ed. by Jane Beckett and Fiona Russell, Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2003, pages 68-69
Earlier, in 1988, the professor of art history, Stella K Tillyard, draws another parallel between the Arts and Crafts movement and their doctrine, truth-to-materials: that like Arts and Crafts theorists -- against the prevailing trend of fine art -- British Modernist writers see themselves asserting the importance of fundamentals against inessentials, and structural coherence rather than surface detail.
(Note, for example, Quarter-Sawn Oak "Stripes" in Stickley sideboard above.)
Modernist writers concur with the Arts and Crafts belief that these fundamentals required 'truth-to-materials', purity and simplicity, and concentration on form rather than content.
In her book, Tillyard explains the change of taste in Britain between 1910 and 1914 that prompts the establishment of Post-Impressionism, and the early Modernism of which Post-Impressionism is a part. To achieve her end -- explaining a transformation in taste -- she explains how the London audience and press make sense of the paintings, drawings and sculpture with which they are confronted at the First Post-Impressionist Show in 1910,
"and how they construed the aesthetic which accompanied them".
(Understanding -- let alone explaining -- the tectonic shifts in art during this so-called "post-impressionist", or "modernist" era requires getting a larger command of a subject-matter. I cover modernism very briefly here. )
Part of the overall impact of the exhibit means that the French painting and sculpture which they see is "rendered significant by the application of British ideas".
That is, confronted with something "new" requires the London audience to attempt to make sense out of the art. London critics and artists help the understnding along by "explaining, educating, directing, and converting". Basically what happens is that, along with the paintings, drawings and sculpture, these critics and artists supply a "vocabulary" in which Post-Impressionist works can be described and provide "a set of criteria by which this strange new art could be judged". For our immediate purposes, Tillyard's next sentence is key:
"Much of the language and some of the criteria had already been used to describe and evaluate the products of the Arts and Crafts Movement."
Consider, of course, the the critics and artists themselves must understand any new art, and in their road to understanding, deploy terms already in their minds that are part of their day-today vocabulary. The use of this vocabulary produced at least two consequences.
First, many Londoners involved in or familiar with the Arts and Crafts Movement are attracted to Post-Impressionism because journalists and other critics describe and/or evaluated Post-Impressionist works in the exhibitions in terms with which they are already familar.
Second -- and this consequence may seem "funny", that is, have more than one meaning -- "because the audience evaluated Post-Impressionism using Arts and Crafts criteria, Post-Impressionism came to have for them some of the meanings and associations which informed Arts and Crafts practices".
In this context, then, "truth-to-materials" had very much the same implications for Modernist theorists as it did for craftsmen in the Arts and Crafts movement.
Day's call that potters should respect the laws and limitations of their medium was central to avant-garde sculptors both before and after the war. As will be seen, Gaudier, Gill and (briefly) Epstein championed direct carving into stone or metal against the prevailing sculptural method, which was to model in clay and then cast in metal or copy in stone. Like Arts and Crafts writers, early British Modernists used specificity of medium, along, with the attendant notions of purity and limitation, to distinguish their product from the various fine arts contaminated by rhetoric and anecdotalism. Thus, in 1911, Roger Fry said that to get at 'material beauty' it was 'necessary to respect the life and quality of the material itself') A year later he wrote of some Byzantine enamels that, 'more and more the general ideas of these type-characters of the Virgin and Apostles had to be condensed, intensified and purified of all that was superfluous and redundant, in order that they might admit of perfect execution within the hard limits of the material.
Overall, what this means is that the Arts and Crafts movement was synergistic, that is, rather than being something with a narrow interest level, the movement had a broad compass, a broad compass that today we would describe as a gestalt
Source: David Irwin, The Visual Arts: Taste and Criticism Glasgow: Blackie, 1969, chapter 5.
Craftsmen work with the structural properties of their material. That is, they must know where it is safe to drill, chisel or saw, how a thin workpiece can shaped be without breaking, where thickening or reinforcement is needed, where splits will occur, how shrinkage will affect the tightness of a joint, what can be done with end grain, and so on.
Craftsmen must also know where strength comes at the price of clumsiness, or where delicacy comes at the expense of weakness. Even in the most utilitarian object -- say a letter opener -- desired effects are often achieved by the craftsman's sensitive attention to the character, that is, how a particular piece of wood "works". In other words, the project's overall requirements, its physical function, its durability, governs the craftsman's thinking. And, of course, taking in all of these considerations has an impact on the viewer. The viewer's pleasure in the result comes in his ability to see how the shape and design of the material have contributed to the project's strength, safety, and convenience. Anything beyond that is likely to be a kind of aesthetic bonus.
Thus while craftsmen are not exempt from the obligations of craft, the craftsman's creative approach is changed by the necessity of producing an object that is, aesthetically, pleasing and/or, symbolically, significant. In the light of their meanings -- over and above their contribution to the strength and practical effectiveness of the finished product -- the color, the grain, and the overall image, of wood have to be considered.
In other words, craftsmen have to think about what a material "looks like", as well as its purpose. A project executed in wood "performs" not only when it "holds together" but also that, ideally, it designates an presence or impression beyond itself, generally a "sense" (or "sensation") labeled loosely, a Gestalt. In other words, the completed project, the "whole", becomes greater in impact than the mere "sum" of all the parts of which it is composed
With the "looks like" idea, that is, the idea of visual impact, we encounter the crucial difference between "art" and "craft" as well as a clue to the enjoyment of wood as a material turned into a useful attractive object.
For the craftsman, wood -- even in its raw state, i.e., a single piece of unplaned board or a stack of rough-sawn timbers -- suggests not only what can be done with it, but also presents an array of meanings -- opportunties -- that can be either extracted from it or imposed upon it.
Of course, the expressive potential of a wood depends greatly on what can be done with it in a physical sense. Ease of manipulability. Is its hardness a restriction? Or, is its "softness" a detriment for the proposed "product"?
Which is to say, the craftsman has to see "a meaning because of craft" as well "a meaning beyond craft".
Both kinds of meaning are significant, and both must be seen at the same time. In other words, fidelity to the material --"truth to materials" as it is sometimes called -- requires a sensitivity by the craftsman.
But that same "sensitivity" inevitably limits the imaginative reach or "vision" of the craftsman. That is, as an ethical position for the craftsman, truth-to-materials may stand as both an admirable doctrine and as a motivating drive; but it is incomplete as a philosophy of artistic creation. That is, craftsmen cannot overlook either the utilitarian nor the aesthetic character of their art; projects of wood, made of physical materials exist, in other words, for two purposes, to be used and and to be appreciated.
This same lesson applies to the viewer's experience. We cannot forget that wood objects inevitably refer to something beyond themselves: they look like something, they feel like something, they stand for or symbolize something. All of these "somethings" are not immediately present; they are inferred by the viewer with the guidance of the craftsman's design, that is -- through skill of craft and imagination powered by skill of craft -- how the craftsman transforms his materials.
In the context of a work of art, the "product", we come, then, to perhaps the principal pleasure in woodworking -- the aesthetic transformation of materials.
Aesthetic transformation requires that the inherent quality of the original material be honored in the process of making it the vehicle of a durable idea or emotion. The velvet smoothness of polished mahogany, the pumpkin color of aging pine, the grainy texture of oiled white oak have to be visualized even though the mahagony, pine, or white oak began in the process looking like something else.
In their work, the great masters of woodworking exploit these visual and structural properties of specific woods. With its graceful cabriole cyma curves, Daniel Marot's Queen Anne chair. With its honest "flakes and flecks", C F A Voysey's "untreated white oak" arm chair. With its rakish angles, Sam Maloof's rocking chair. Now, the newbie craftsman may see such qualities in a particular wood, but because of a want of skill, fails to manage this perception. Given these considerations, we can allow that the difference between a "craftsman" and a "creative artist" may be matter of courage, but more, the mastery of skill and wisdom in working with wood.
For the greatest aesthetic enjoyment of a particular wood, observers need to be aware of "process" -- the process through which it declares itself, and the process through which it becomes something else. The idea of "looks like", above, implies that the "woodiness" of wood -- its resistance to destruction or collapse -- must assert itself even when it has been carved to look like folds of fabric, in the manner of "linenfold panels", or veneered "bird's eyes", or like quadralineal posts, with "flakes and flecks" on all sides. When we consider these things, it becomes obvious that it is a "tension" between the original rough-sawn material and what it finally represents that we experience a peculiar pleasure; we oscillate between perceptions of rough silvery, boards, and smooth, warm surfaces. In the end, what it comes down to is a tension between unfinished and finished, between rough and smooth, between ineptness and "art and craft". [our delight consists in keeping the two poles of that tension in a more or less dynamic balance. ]
In my search for discussions on the background of the doctrine, truth-to-materials, the most useful came from David Irwin, The Visual Arts: Taste and Criticism Glasgow: Blackie, 1969, chapter 5, "Materials". Under "materials", Irwin considers five substances: 1) wood; 2) glass; 3) iron; 4) ceramics; and 5) new materials.
Under "Materials", Irwin claims such matters as,
"Before the advent of the Industrial Revolution, truth-to-materials was not regarded as a relevant criterion",
and as evidence poitns to the fact that,
"The ancient Egyptians used veneers with the result that a piece of furniture appeared to be made of solid expensive wood when in fact it was not".
However, when Irwin asks, "Can or should one material look like another, or create a visual deception? Should glass and pottery attempt to appear to be marble, or plastic appear to be wood?", he raises a matter of significance to those who address issues of aesthetic principles.
This matter -- truth-to-materials -- reared as conundrum in design in a particular thorny way in the 20th century, where a large range of synthetic materials have been discovered and produced relatively inexpensively, and are often used either as substitutes for natural materials or, on surfaces, to imitate a material's natural color, texture, or structural patterns.
The substitution of one material for another only became an issue within the framework of the Industrial Revolution. Only then -- when designing for machine manufacture, when mass-produced copies could masquerade as handmade products -- was it alleged that machine production of, say, a piece of furniture, degenerated claims of originality.
Bad shams include obviously machine-pressed glass simulating handcut crystal, and embossed pewter trying to look like handbeaten metal. To these examples have been added such downright shams as electric fires that glow with artificial coals.
According to Jonathon M Woodham, Professor of the History of Design at Britain's Brighton University,
Manufacturers relied upon the assumption that mass-consumers actually wanted to surround themselves with products which respected concepts such as 'truth-to-materials' and 'honesty of construction' and rejected the stylistic encyclopaedism which was the hallmark of most contemporary mass-produced goods.
The arguments that find dissatisfaction with visual deceptions are partially founded on one already discussed, namely fitness for purpose. Applied strictly as a theory, no medium should be transformed into another. Obviously this would be an over-rigid criterion.
Ruskin argued that only a few deceits have been perpetrated for so long that "they have lost the nature of deceit", and he cited the good case of gilding in architecture, which no one would mistake for solid gold, but which would be deception if used in jewelry.
All substitute or transposed materials should not be condemned outright, especially as some of the new synthetic materials are better than traditional ones in that they are less subject to decay and wear-and-tear, and less expensive. Furthermore, some of these new materials do not have worthwhile textures and colours of their own, so that the latter have to be added anyway.
If the substitute is not readily detectable, does it matter that it is a substitute from the point of view of aesthetics? Conversely, if the substitution is so obvious as to be immediately recognizable, cannot one medium come to the aid of another to help extend the range of pattern and colour?
19th and 20th-century substitutes may be ruled out when they fail on account of their brashness like the electric fire, or their trashiness like the pseudo-crystal. Substitutes fail in an aesthetic sense when the deception is convincing until the spectator's physical contact tells him that the object's surface is a lie. A hand placed on a wooden surface does not expect to encounter cold sheet steel photographically printed to look like wood; a marble floor is physically cool, but its plastic-tile imitation is not.
The variety and adaptability of wood have contributed to the countless styles of furniture design. That different woods became available at different periods of history profoundly influenced how furniture was made to appear. This fact becomes dramatically apparent as one compares oak, walnut and mahogany furniture.
The heavy, sometimes clumsy forms and carving of furniture up to the 18th century was partially determined by the nature of oak, which cannot be carved into elegant shapes. Oak is essentially a sturdy material responding well to rough, bold carving. After the mid-17th century oak was largely out of fashion in upper-class furniture, but remained in use in cottages and farmhouses. As we see above, with the Gestalt about organic architecture, oak was revived in the 1870s and remained fashionable again until the 1920s, as part of the Arts and Crafts movement. With the revival of the Arts and Crafts movement in the 1970s, oak came back into fashion. Oak is an ideal wood in which to render square, upright, hard-edged shapes and it also has a simple, not elaborately decorative, graining which is appreciated by the same designers.
Elegance in furniture in the second half of the 17th century was made possible by the availability of walnut, as a result of recently matured British trees. Walnut can be cut into far finer shapes than oak; it has a more beautiful colouring; it can be used as a veneer, and because of its handsome markings it creates richly patterned surfaces; and it will take a higher polish than oak. Furniture design was therefore radically changed as a result of walnut's introduction. In 1664 John Evelyn commented that "were this timber in greater plenty amongst us, we should have far better utensils for all our houses". The criterion of ruggedness, in oak, therefore gave way to a new criterion of elegance, in walnut.
Furniture was able to become even lighter in structure with the use of mahogany, imported widely from the West Indies from the mid-18th century onwards. Mahogany remained in favour for the rest of the century, and right through the 19th century. The majority of furniture one sees from this period of about a hundred and fifty years is in this wood. Much of the delicacy and charm of 18th-century furniture would be inconceivable without mahogany, which can be shaped thinly, and carved and pierced intricately. The solid and weighty appearance of oak, and even the elegance of walnut, were supplanted by a new delicacy, which could reach such extremes of virtuosity as the chair in Fig. 64. Delicate extravagances of this kind were rarely executed, but this engraving represents an 18th-century ideal which was attainable. The splats have been intricately carved into thin twists of ribbon, but as such elaborations do not follow the wood's graining, the chair's structural strength was weakened. In the cause of elegance, the nature of the material has in fact been abused. Even ordinary 18th-century carving was a skilled and expensive hand process, which was to be replaced by a greater use of machinery in the 19th century and a consequent thickening of structural members and coarsening of carved detail.
The elaborate carving of the Chippendale chair in Fig. 64 raises the general problem of virtuosity in a furniture designer's use of wood. Critics have interpreted virtuosity as found, for example, in the elaborate furniture of 17th and early 18th-century France in two entirely different ways. Those in favour praise the complex inlaid patterns in the wood and, above all, the curves. Drawers and doors are made with a single or double curve, which may be not only a curve across the surface of the front from left to right, but also another curve running from top to bottom of a commode, for example. These double-curved doors open to reveal equally curvaceously fitted interiors. The carving and joining together of wood in these complex shapes transcends the natural, straight quality of wood, which permits of some curving and carving, but not to the extent as seen in such furniture. This conquering of limitations resulted in furniture quite unlike the more rigidly conceived shapes of earlier periods, or indeed, as a result of reaction against such curves, of later in the 18th century. The curves of such furniture are certainly explicable in general stylistic terms, being related to the equally tortuous forms favoured in architecture, painting, sculpture and decoration at the time (in the Baroque and Rococo periods). In their original settings such French furniture as we are discussing was very appropriate.
Conversely it is more arguable from the point of view of good design as conceived by the 'truth-to-materials' school that the uses to which the wood has been put, being contrary to the material's natural characteristics, result in bad design of a kind comparable to the worst excesses of the High Victorian era when, significantly, such furniture was widely copied in reproductions. Many descriptions of Victorian objects contained at the time such phrases as 'richness of effect', automatically meaning an effect to be praised, in connection with both complex patterns and colours within one object and combinations of different materials. This point concerning virtuosity is not one on which there can be universal agreement.
Source: Adapted from David Irwin, The Visual Arts: Taste and Criticism Glasgow: Blackie, 1969; Jonathan M.Woodham, Twentieth Century Design NewYork: Oxford University Press, 1997 pages 14-15
Being immersed in the large research literature on the Arts and Crafts movement makes you sensitive to how, predictably, historical events on this matter sort out. The timeline for the neo-Gothic doctrine, "truth-to-materials", follows this path:
The first main spokesman is Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1802-1852), the second John Ruskin (1819-1900), the third William Morris (1834-1896).
In his Cabinetmakers and Furniture Designers, British cultural historian, Hugh Honour, says that it is in 1841 that the concept behind "truth-to-materials" is first articulated by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture: Set Forth in Two ... :
Continues Honour,this theme is picked up by later followers in the Arts and Crafts movement. In matters of household taste, the principal critic of the Industrial Revolution's devastating impact on British society, architect-designer and social critic, William Morris, architect-designer Philip Webb, and their like-minded friends, see themselves as "revolutionaries".
Famously, now, in 1861, Morris declares,
All the minor arts were in a state of complete degradation ... and accordingly in 1861 with the conceited courage of a young man I set myself to reforming all that and started a sort of firm for producing decorative articles.
That they did effect a "revolution" is now a given. In effecting this revolution, though, Honour asks, rhetorically,
"Were they late Romantics, or pioneers of modern design?
Morris, Webb, and their associates are not the first British artists to view with contempt the furniture then commercially available and, to show that they are serious, to design furniture to their liking; this role, writes Honour, is first assumed by Pugin.
Earlier, in 1847, to improve industrial standards, Sir Henry Cole founds 'Summerly's Art Manufactures'. This firm employs painters and sculptors to design a variety of useful articles in porcelain, glass and metal. Another example, the Red House (on left) that Webb designs for Morris does not vary much from parsonages built earlier, according to the designs of George Edmund Street and William Butterfield (1814-1900). Where the Red House incident differs is the furniture Webb designs. While the furniture is not very different from Pugin's simpler pieces from the 1840s, this is the first instance of where the architect also designs the furniture, or in effect, the first instance of a practice of "organic architecture". So far as theory went, the doctrine of truth-to-materials and function had a long history.
And Webb's belief that
'all art . . . meant folk expression embodied and expanding in the several mediums of different materials'
is merely an application of a commonplace of Romantic aesthetics to the decorative arts.
And yet, the products of the Morris firm — Webb's furniture or Morris's own wallpapers and textiles — are distinct in more than quality from the majority of similar products of the same period. And the difference derives as much from attitudes of mind as from artistic personality.
A comparison with Pugin is revealing. Like him they looked back nostalgically to the Middle Ages — not as to an age of faith but (like Viollet Le Duc in France) to one of social harmony. Like him they rejected post-Renaissance art, but not because they found it anti-Catholic.
Webb saw the introduction of the Renaissance style into England as:
'a "taste" imposed on the top as part of a subtle scheme for dividing off gentility from servility ... an Architecture of Aristocracy provided by trained middlemen of "taste", who now wedged themselves in between the work and the workers, who were consequently beaten down to the status of mere executioners of patterns provided by an hierarchy of architectural priests.'
'a customary art growing up from the bottom and out of the hearts of the people'.
And this he found not only in medieval art but also in the simple country furniture — as in 'vernacular' architecture — which had been produced ever since the Middle Ages independently of men of taste in London. (These ideas were, of course, to survive marginally in the theory of the modern movement.)
As a result, Morris and Webb veered away from, without rejecting, historical revivalism. They had never intended (as had Pugin) to revive the form of medieval furniture: rather they tried to create a new astylar style, to make, as Lethaby wrote,
'the buildings of our own day pleasant without pretences of style'.
They steered a middle course between the opulence of lavish upholstery, richly carved mouldings and intricately wrought metalwork applied to furniture, on the one hand, and, on the other, an austerity which would have seemed just as pretentious in another way. Lack of pretentiousness may seem no more than a negative virtue — but it is a quality rarely to be found in the decorative arts.
Source: Hugh Honour Cabinet Makers and Furniture Designers New York: G P Putnam's. 1969, page 246 (Honour's entry on Philip Webb.)Ten years later, in a footnote for his monograph on Romanticism 1979, Honour states,
I know of no statement of the moral superiority of Gothic to Greek architecture on the basis of truth-to-materials before that made by Pugin in 1841.
Sources: Hugh Honour, Cabinet makers and furniture designers - 1969, page 248;Hugh Honour, Romanticism - 1979 Page 348.
Under Godwin, the Builder promoted the view that truth-to-materials and the avoidance of non-functional elements or 'redundancies' were the major criteria
Source: Mark Swenarton, Artisans and architects: the Ruskinian tradition in architectural thought 1989, page 68; book is not online, but may have something on "truth-to-materials" on page 68 -- at WWU