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Pleasure In Creation
Born in response to the shoddy, machine-made goods available in the marketplace, the Arts and Crafts movement in America began in isolated workshops and spread to the public at large, preaching the virtues of the simple, the useful, and the handmade
July/August 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 5
Much as metalwork forged a link to the medieval, pottery showed its malleability to many purposes. In 1897, at the country’s first major exhibition of arts and crafts, held in Boston, the Grueby company introduced what may represent the archetypal arts-and-crafts pottery. In a brochure published soon after, the company pledged its allegiance to the Ruskinian creed: “With the advent of machinery the intimate relation of the potter to his ware disappeared,” Grueby declaimed. “Here it has been resumed.” A typical Grueby vase almost defines the arts-and-crafts ideal for ornament: that form interlock with function, that decoration not be applied to an object but emerge organically from it. One green and plantlike Grueby vase, for example, seems to grow from the edge-to-edge lapping of three broad leaves and three narrow flowers; removal of any of these six ornaments would drain the vase of water. Grueby pottery also seems designed to sit on a Stickley table (as it did often in the pages of The Craftsman), its cucumber-green glaze harmonizing with the rich tones of dark oak.
In fact, many craftsmen did open their shops to machinery, but often grudgingly.
Other potteries took arts and crafts in different directions. Some, including the Rookwood Pottery Company of Ohio and the Clifton Art Pottery of New Jersey, joined an emerging desire to seek, in American history, an equivalent of Ruskin’s noble medieval man; their search ended in the production of pottery with American Indian motifs and faces. Others saw the Arts and Crafts movement as a stimulus for the reform of education. Many of those educational ventures hoped to teach young women to support themselves honorably. Probably the most ambitious of such potteries fired its first kiln in 1910 at University City, near St. Louis (see “An Empire of Women,” August/September 1984). It brought together a businessman seeking to improve women’s lives, a great French ceramist, and the publisher of Keramic Studio, the leading pottery journal of American arts and crafts, Adelaide Robineau. The experiment quickly attracted more than three hundred students to its correspondence courses and another thirty or more to University City, but financial problems forced the pottery to close after only a few years of operation.
In addition, pottery lent itself to an emergent arts-and-crafts obsession: craft as therapy. The Marblehead Pottery of Massachusetts opened in 1904 with a plan to rehabilitate “nervously worn out patients” by allowing them to learn again how “to use their hand and brain in a normal, wholesome way.” The Arequipa Pottery of California won a gold medal at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition for a display that offered fairgoers a chance to admire its wares and watch pot-making by convalescing tuberculosis patients.
But while arts-and-crafts promoters labored to cure society’s ills, the movement itself was dying. Grueby, for example, went out of business in 1913. The company succumbed, apparently, to a general malaise: the arts-and-crafts premium on handwork made goods expensive. Its premium on simplicity made them easy to imitate, cheaply and per- haps shoddily, with machinery. Its restrained ornamentation made many works look similar. As early as 1900, in a review of Grueby ware, Keramic Studio both praised its originality ("no collection would be perfect without a piece") and foreshadowed its demise ("seeing so many pieces together gives a sense rather of monotony"). By 1912 the artsand-crafts societies in Chicago and Boston had stopped printing their journals, and the arts-and-crafts communities of Rose Valley and New Clairvaux had folded. By 1916 The Craftsman and The Philistine had ceased publication, Gustav Stickley’s enterprises had been forced into bankruptcy, and Elbert Hubbard had gone down with the Lusitania.
But the Arts and Crafts movement met its end, as it made its beginning, in the company of things newborn—not just things dying. By no great coincidence the genesis in 1887 of the term arts and crafts followed by only half a dozen years on the birth of another, far more potent phrase: the Industrial Revolution. And as the Arts and Crafts movement declined, it surrendered to new forces: wrought iron yielded to chrome, the craftsman to the corporation, the Middle Ages to the modern. New currents of design flowed from the machine-smooth Bauhaus in Europe (founded 1919) and, in America, from the creations of the machine-smitten Frank Lloyd Wright.
Wright’s challenge to Arts and Crafts arose from within the movement itself. In 1901, only four years after he had helped found the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society, Wright launched his attack on wrought-by-hand extremists: “In the Machine,” he proclaimed at a meeting of the society, “lies the only future of art and craft....” In fact, many craftsmen did open their shops to machinery, but often grudgingly. Stickley, for instance, embodied his movement’s contradictory impulses: he indicted the “introduction of machinery” because it hindered “enjoyment” and “growth” and, writing in the same year, defended the “well-nigh perfect machinery” of the modern age because it helped prepare materials “better and more economically.”