"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.

Truth-to-Materials Is Exempflied With Quarter-Sawn Oak "Stripes" In This Stickley Sideboard

quarter-sawn oak sideboard

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.

Truth-To-Materials Doctrine a Consequence of Technological Development

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.


Utilitarian considerations

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.

Aesthetic considerations

label for source code

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

Differentiating "Art" and "Craft"

voysey oiled white oak arm chair

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.

Expressive potential

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".

sam maloof roocking chair

Truth to Materials

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.

Awareness of "Product"

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.

The "Art" and "Craft" of the Master

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.

Awareness of "Process"

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. ]

Considerations About "Materials"

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.

Impact of the Industrial Revolution: Christopher Dresser

[need brief bio material]

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.

No Medium Should Be Transformed Into Another

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.

Wood, according to Jonathon Woodham

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.

White Oak

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

Chronology: From Gothic to Arts and Crafts

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.'

Webb sought

'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


[need brief bio material]

" All art, working with given materials, must propose to itself the objects which, with those materials, are most perfectly attainable; and becomes illegitimate and debased if it propose to itself any other objects better attainable with other materials."

Thus, great slenderness, lightness, or intricacy of structure,-- as in ramifications of trees, detached folds of drapery, or wreaths of hair,-- is easily and perfectly expressible in metal-work or in painting, but only with great difficulty and imperfectly expressible in sculpture. All sculpture, therefore, which professes as its chief end the expression of such characters, is debased; and if the suggestion of them be accidentally required of it, that suggestion is only to be given to an extent compatible with perfect ease of execution in the given material,-- not to the utmost possible extent. For instance: some of the most delightful drawings of our own water-colour painter, Hunt, have been of birds' nests; of which, in painting, it is perfectly possible to represent the intricate fibrous or mossy structure; therefore, the effort is a legitimate one, and the art is well employed. But to carve a bird's nest out of marble would be physically impossible, and to reach any approximate expression of its structure would require prolonged and intolerable labour. Therefore, all sculpture which set itself to carving birds' nests as an end, or which, if a bird's nest were required of it, carved it to the utmost possible point of realisation, would be debased. Nothing but the general form, and as much of the fibrous structure as could be with perfect ease represented, ought to be attempted at all.

But more than this. The workman has not done his duty, and is not working on safe principles, unless he even so far honours the materials with which he is working as to set himself to bring out their beauty, and to recommend and exalt, as far as he can, their peculiar qualities. If he is working in marble, he should insist upon and exhibit its transparency and solidity; if in iron, its strength and tenacity ; if in gold, its ductility ; and he will invariably find the material grateful, and that his work is all the nobler for being eulogistic of the substance of which it is made. But of all the arts, tk working of glass is that in which we ought to keep these principles most vigorously in mind. For we owe it so much, and the possession of it is so great a blessing, that all our work in it should be completely and forcibly expressive of the peculiar characters which give it so vast a value.

Source: John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, 1851-1853, Volumes 1-2, page 393 This is the google link to this passage

For Morris, not yet have I found any "smoking gun" quote, that is to say, where he actually articulates the "truth-to-materials" doctrine; nonetheless, plenty of evidence exists that, in an implicit sense, Morris believed that truth-to-materials was a maxim that the Arts and Crafts movement followers needed to embrace.

[need brief bio material]

Graining of Wood

1873, Christopher Dresser's meditations in about the "appropriate use of materials"

All graining of wood is false, inasmuch as it attempts to deceive; the effort being made at causing one material to look like another, which it is not. All "marbling", too, is false: a floor-cloth made in imitation of carpet or matting is false; a Brussels carpet that imitates a Turkey carpet is false; so is a jug that imitates wicker-work, a printed fabric that imitates one which is woven, a gas-lamp that imitates an oil-lamp.

All these examples are "untruths in expression", and worse, "vulgar absurdities which are the more lamentable, as the imitation is always less beautiful than the thing imitated". In fact, "each material has the power of expressing beauty truthfully, thus the want of truth brings its own punishment". .... Let the expression of our art ever be truthful".


Inlaying is a very natural and beautiful means of enriching works of furniture, for it leaves the flatness of the surface undisturbed. A great deal may be done in this way by the employment of simple means. A mere row of circular dots of black wood inlaid in oak will often give a remarkably good effect ; and the dots can be " worked " with the utmost ease. Three dots form a trefoil, four dots a quatrefoil, six dots a hexafoil, and so on, and desirable effects can often be produced by such simple inlays.

"Another falsity in furniture", declares Dresser, "is veneering -- a practice which should be wholly abandoned".

Simple honesty is preferable to false show in all cases; truthfulness in utterance is always to be desired. It was customary at one time to veneer almost every work of furniture, and even to place the grain of the veneer in a manner totally at variance with the true structure of the framework which it covered. This was a method of making works, which might in their unfinished state be satisfactory, appear when finished as most unsatisfactory objects. Since this time much progress has been made in a knowledge of truthful structure and of truthful expression, yet this method of giving a false surface by means of veneer is not wholly abandoned as despicable and false.

Dresser's strong words are prompted by a widwpread hostility toward veneer reflects a response to practices in the 19th century, when veneering began to be used in order to conceal inferior material or shoddy workmanship in the body to which it was applied.

Source: Christopher Dresser, Principles of Decorative Designs. 3d edition London: Cassell, Petter, and Galpin, 1873, pages 16, 63, 68-69

Add voysey and Gimson. Lethaby


Architecture, Mysticism and Myth had both positive and negative effects on Lethaby's development as an architectural historian. The most positive result was his increasing reliance on contemporary accounts in addition to other kinds of historical documents to recreate the history of a building. Associated with this was his use of the knowledge of customary building practices to suggest how form and design had been shaped by experience and need. For example, when he wrote Westminster Abbey and the King's Craftsmen in 1906 he used documents in the Public Records Office to reconstruct the craftsman and builders, the order of purchase and expenditure and, by implication, the progress of the building. However, this also created the pitfall of his methodology: he began to describe building decisions as the result of a rational, functional, or economic intention, an interpretation not substantiated by the documents. Determined to free architecture from the historical styles, Lethaby tried to elevate rationalism -- i.e., adherence to function, economy of means, elimination of ornament, and truth-to-materials --to a universal principle. Historians have since used this aspect of Lethaby's work to discredit much of his thought.

Source: Charlotte Vestal Brown, "Architecture, Mysticism and Myth by William Richard Lethaby", Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 39, no 2 May 1980, pages 164-165

Photos that I shot May, 2005, at the Cheltenham Museum. In the boxed sections are quotes from authorities that show how both Voysey and Gimson were dedicated toward a "truth-to-materials" ethic in designing and over-seeing theconstruction their furniture. (Neither Voysey nor Gimson actually did their own woodworking.) In the Kelmscott Chaucer, perhaps Voysey's most famous piece, concern for truth to materiasl is somewhat obscured -- since this piece is dedicated to housing the William Morse production of Chaucer's famous poem, but be assured, numerous other works by Voysey demonstrate his convictions about "truth-to-materials" more vividly.

voyseys_kelmscott_chaucer photo that i took, may, 2005, in cheltenham museum

Voysey's mature work exhibits a remarkable degree of consistency. In a single-minded way he worked out the simplest solutions to individual functional and visual problems according to his principles of fitness for purpose and truth-to-materials. He then re-used these solutions over a period of years, albeit sometimes modified or elaborated, as he saw no reason for gratuitous innovation. The same consistency can be seen in the way that, having worked out his personal repertory of shapes and forms, Voysey was happy to re-use them even in different media. For example, the same corner buttresses appear on a chest of drawers as on buildings; a clock is given the same ogee cap as a stable block; the same flat pattern is used in a wooden stair balustrade as appears in the bronze fitting of a cabinet; and the heart appears everywhere from chairbacks to letter-boxes. (continued below)

Voysey's work cannot be satisfactorily squeezed into any one art-historical compartment. Voysey belonged to the Arts and Crafts Movement to the extent that he followed Ruskin in believing in the moral value of handwork, but he did not turn his back on the machine, nor did he always insist on the use of local materials. And although he was careful to ensure high standards of craftsmanship in the execution of his designs, unlike A. W. N. Pugin or C. R. Ashbee, he never set up his own workshops.

Source: J. Heseltine, "C F A Voysey", Oxford Art online

ernest gimson sideboard photo that i took, may, 2005, in cheltenham museum

Gimson's furniture is noted for its simplicity, its truth-to-materials and its functionalism. ... He used woods local to Sapperton, particularly ash, oak, elm, deal and fruitwoods, making much of their colour and natural markings. Methods of construction such as exposed pins, joints and dovetails were often utilized as a feature of the design. Ornamental details such as holly and ebony stringing, or inlay in bone or mother-of-pearl, were integrated into the total conception of each piece and taken beyond a mere decorative trimming.

Source: Barley Roscoe, "Ernest Gimson", Oxford Art online.

ernest gimson sideboard

These are some of the photos that I took, May, 2005, in the Cheltenham Museum. On the right is top, corner, detail, of sideboard on left.

After 1920


Eileen boris, Art and Labor: Ruskin, Morris, and the Craftsman Ideal in America, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986, pages 189-193

Boris echoes the sentiments she expresses below in her chapter, "Dreams of Brotherhood and Beauty: The Social Ideas of the Arts and Crafts Movement," in "'The Art that Is Life': The Social Ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement", , Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1987, 208-296, especially page 208. Boris's chapter is part of an exhibition catalog, with many photographs that illustrate the deeper meaning of the two maxims of the Arts and Crafts Movement, "truth-in-materials" and "revealed construction";

[Chapter 11] Conclusion: The Craftsman Ideal in the Twentieth Century

AFTER 1915, when Elbert Hubbard was lost with the Lusitania and Gustav Stickley went bankrupt, the arts and crafts movement came to a symbolic end. The original crusading impulse had been incorporated into the middle-class outlook and style; as a motif for home or office or leisure activity—rather than a new way of life or a more humane form of work—arts and crafts easily succumbed to the latest decorating fad or popular pastime. In the consumer economy of the 1920s, the handicraft revival lost its mass base, although the craftsman found a solid niche in both the art school and the studio, and the crafts concept of the architect-designed and -furnished home flourished. Arts and crafts still promised to relieve the body politic by providing an alternative to industrialization and its discontents, but the initial partnership of art and labor was nearly lost, buried under handicraft stands in national parks and a proliferation of do-it-yourself kits.


Kirkham notes that "the Eameses' respect for objects was rooted in the Arts and Crafts ideals of truth-to-materials, honesty of construction, joy in labor, and the dialectical relationship of beauty and utility"

Source: Pat Kirkham, CHARLES AND RAY EAMES: DESIGNERS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY Cambridge, Mass., and London: The MIT Press, 1995, page 143


As far as the crafts are concerned, it is difficult to find any other major US industrial designer of his generation as firmly embedded as Charles Eames in the Arts and Crafts traditions of 'right making', honesty of construction, truth-to-materials and joy in labour.

Source: Pat Kirkham, "Humanizing Modernism: the Crafts, 'Functioning Decoration' and the Eameses", Journal of Design History 11 No. 1 1998, page 17


Justin Wintle, Makers of nineteenth century culture: 1800-1914 2002, page 521 -- Haggard 3 -Books CT119 .M34 AVAILABLE

'truth-to-materials' in [Rodin's] work takes the form of a record of the procedure by which the goal was accomplished. On the surface is the whole story of the ...


Nigel Whiteley, Design for society993, page 91

Modernists also subscribed to what can be described as 'aesthetico-moral' principles, including 'truth-to-materials' and 'integrity of surface'. Such principles were not justified simply by reference to rationalism and the values of classical aesthetics, but by the supposedly morally superior approach taken by the designer in not, for example, 'cheating' spectators into thinking that the materials that met their gaze were other than they seemed. A building which appeared to he in stone, but was really steel-frame with stone cladding, was beyond redemption in aesthetico-moral terms; so too was plastic which simulated wood; or veneers. Most Green designers would find this sort of guiding principle irrelevant in the post-Modernist, post-Pop age; design must be responsible but certainly need not he earnest. Plastics, for example, need no longer express their 'truth to material' and can again simulate other materials. Given the shortages of hardwoods, veneers are more and more likely to be used. According to the Timber Trades federation of the United Kingdom, the use of veneers has been growing recently, facilitated by technological advances which have allowed the effective coupling of thin, decorative hardwood surfaces to modern timber compositions such as medium-density fibreboard. As well as being a better use of resources, the end product is also cheaper. Disguise and simulation, two of the most hated traits of the type of design despised by Modernists, look likely to become an acceptable part of several Green aesthetics.

Nevertheless, one strand of Green design is decidedly craft-oriented, and its proponents champion aesthetico-moral principles that derive from the design reformers of the nineteenth century: Pugin, Ruskin, Owen Jones and William Morris ... clearly influenced the Modernists in terms of rationalist aesthetico-moral principles....


Roger Holmes, "Color and Wood: Dyeing for a Change", Fine Woodworking No 41 July/August, 1983, page 72

painted table fw 1983

Another Modernist dictum, truth-to-materials, is under fire from Post-Modernists. Ed Zucca's table, for example, stands truth-to-materials on its head—the paint not only hides the wood, but, along with the form, suggests another material altogether.


Paul Greenhalgh, The persistence of craft: the applied arts today 2003 , page 74

It is no accident that 'truth-to-materials' has become a 20th century mantra. It is possible to disagree profoundly with the notion that some forming ...


Encyclopedia of aesthetics

Michael Kelly, Encyclopedia of aesthetics, Volume 2 Page 19

These subsequently became slogans in the modern period such as form follows function and truth-to-materials, slogans through which ...


Alvin Toffler, The futurists page 55

... as the promise of function," "truth-to-materials," "form follows function," etc. The loose amalgam of such ideas is often called the "machine aesthetic. ... The persistence of craft: the applied arts today


Henry Moore's conception of "truth-to-materials" demands that the sculptural material be determinant of sculptural form. truth-to-materials is respect for the material as a thing. This respect is usually interpreted to mean that sculpture should not be painted, for paint hides and thus is dishonest to the material.

The opposition to Moore and Greenberg has been succinctly expressed by Sidney Geist: "Materials have sensuous qualities and structural properties, but no intrinsic artistic content, and a mystique of materials is limiting, delu- sive, and finally a concern of craftsman. 'Love of material' is a psycho- logical, not a sculptural, affair; 'truth to material' is a truth which changes from style to style, and artisan to artisan.'12 [ 12. Sidney Geist, Brancusi: A Study of the Sculpture (New York: Grossman, 1968), p. 158.]

Moreover, truth-to-materials makes three-dimensional objects, say pieces of furniture or individual sculptures, better adapted to the erosions of time. Unpainted wood and stone, for exam- ple, usually take on a more charming patina, a Gestalt, whereas painted wood and stone usually become more blemished.

Because of more demanding structural necessities, truth-to-materials is more likely to be present in works of architecture or pieces of furniture than in other works of arts, like say sculpture. The accretions of time on either buildings or furniture have helped redeem many dated buildings or furniture, which originally had mini- mal worth, (?as witness also the charm of so many Victorian buildings that only a generation ago were dismissed as monstrosities?)

Gabo writes: "Our attachment to materials is grounded in our organic similarity to them. On this akinness is based our whole connection with Nature.... We love materials because we love our- selves."18

Source: David Irwin, The Visual Arts: Taste and Criticism Glasgow: Blackie, 1969, chapter 5.

Design and Aesthetics in Wood. Eric A. Anderson and George F. Earle,eds. State Univ. of New York Press,Albany,N.Y., 1972. 223 pp., illus. Reviewed by Mike Nevelson? see article by Reyner Banham, like the first Britishman to arrive in North America, is awed by the abundance of available wood there. His paper entitled "Is There a Substitute for Wood Grain Plastic?" is a discussion of the doctrine of the 'truth to materials' and a defense of the use of wood products such as plywood and flakeboard. He describes the effect of wood use on the language, government,law and architecture of the U.S.A


Roger Dixon and Stefan Muthesius, Victorian architecture 1978, page 202

... construction and truth-to-materials. But he is in many ways less doctrinaire than Pugin, for he allows the covering of walls with paint, whitewash or ...

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


Edward Lucie-Smith, The story of craft: the craftsman's role in society 1981, page 273

- Art - - 288 pages

Restraint in design, truth-to-materials, and a preference for what was natural (e.g., wood), as opposed to what was synthetic (e.g., plastic), were all rejected


Peter Davey, Architecture of the arts and crafts movement 1980, page 37 [davey is on "revealed construction" list too]

truth-to-materials and respect for locality could not go much further. To get the effects of traditional craftsmanship that he wanted, Webb could be as Architecture of the arts and crafts movement


Roger Lipsey, An art of our own: the spiritual in twentieth-century art, 1988, page 24

They explain, through such concepts as "truth-to-materials," that the raw materials themselves are a reality worthy of exploration and capable of guiding


George Marcus and Fred R Myers, The traffic in culture : refiguring art and anthropology Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1995, page 236

The Arts and Crafts Movement in late nineteenth-century Europe and the United States turned for its antimodernist critique of the excesses of civilization and ills of industrialization to the European peasantry, rural and urban America, and to earlier periods of European art history, notably to the Gothic and Renaissance. Using these sources, and others farther afield, the Movement, led by William Morris, affirmed joy in labor, organic community, and the collapse of distinctions between art and craft. Repercussions of this Movement can be seen in the Bauhaus, architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, and other proponents of form following function and truth-to-materials, as well as in folk festivals (see Becker and Franco 1988). In their search for a preindustrial past that might save European and American society from itself, followers of the Movement found the "folk" at two social margins: the countryside and immigrants in inner-city neighborhoods. By the end of World War I, as the gates to immigration were dosing, Settlement Houses and sister organizations were staging exhibitions and folk festivals of the "homelands," an urban counterpart to their celebrations of rural life in such areas as Appalachia (see Eaton 1932; Whisnant 1983).


The notion of authenticity or sincerity, which in fine arts criticism usually refers to the origin of the work or the attitude of the artist, here means truth to material. Craft objects may be mere things, but their substance—wood, clay, glass—gives them dignity and value.

Source: SALLY J. MARKOWITZ, The Distinction between Art and Craft Journal of Aesthetic Education 28, No. 1, Spring 1994, page 64


Jonathan M Woodham, Twentieth century design New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

During the nineteenth century manufacturers' relentless exploitation of new techniques and materials increasingly made accessible to middle-class consumers a wide range of objects with rich and elaborate decorative detailing in an encyclopaedic variety of historicizing styles.

Superficially exuding a resonance of education and taste, such products had previously been the preserve of a cultural elite who often purchased furniture, furnishings:, and domestic equipment which embodied the skills and virtuosity of individual craftsmen. This new class of widely available mass-produced goods was made possible through such processes as electroplating, stamping and moulding, and the exploration of materials such as gutta-percha, papier-mache, or cast-iron which possessed rich possibilities for the imitation of more expensive and individually-produced artefacts and the lavish fabrication of decorative detailing.

Such designs were heavily criticized by many nineteenth-century critics, particularly in Britain by John Ruskin, William Morris, and Arts and Crafts followers, who not only viewed them as 'dishonest' through their 'inappropriate' use of materials and modes of construction, but also deplored what they felt were the dehumanizing consequences of industrialization for those involved in their manufacture.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@ Ideals and Implementation Decorative arts scholar Wendy Kaplan has observed that the Arts and Crafts philosophy incorporated in its reaction to modernization the following tenets: the joy in labor, the simple life, truth to materials, unity in design, honesty in construction, democratic design, and fidelity to place (Wendy Kaplan, et al. . The Arts and Crafts Movement in Europe and America: Design for the Modern World. New York: Thames & Hudson in association with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2004, page 11). @@@@@@@@@@@@@@


Gordon Campbell, The Grove Encyclopedia of Decorative Arts New York: Oxford University Press, 2006, page 425.

... furniture is noted for its simplicity, its truth-to-materials and its functionalism

Sources: Edmund Burke Feldman, Thinking About Art Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985, pages 309-310; Jonathan M Woodham, Twentieth Century Design New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.; M. Anna Fariello, "Regarding the History of Objects", in M. Anna Fariello, ed., Objects and Meaning: New Perspectives on Arts and Crafts Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2004, pages 2-22; Gordon Campbell, The Grove encyclopedia of decorative arts 2006, page 425 .