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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
We still find tonic in the hand-thrown pot, the hand-carved chair.
Wright, however, felt no contradiction. His furniture design, like his philosophical outpourings, combined respect for the natural and simple with respect for the machine’s “wonderful cutting, shaping, smoothing, and repetitive capacity.” When he attacked the craftsmen of Chicago, he prophesied wildly in their own language, preaching of Ruskin and Morris, praising machinery as the great ally of “nature” and “simplicity,” proclaiming it would bring beauty to “the poor as well as the rich.” He called on his listeners to try to imagine an artsand-crafts society that could see the machine not as “the destroyer of their present ideals” but as “their salvation in disguise.” And the herald of that salvation, he let them know, already could be heard among them in “the heavy breathing, the murmuring, the clangor, and the roar,” in the voice of the “greatest of machines, a great city.”
For the Arts and Crafts movement, Wright prophesied not just wildly but too well. As he anticipated, the main stream of arts-and-crafts philosophy could not survive. But its ideology, which had arisen in the tendriled and woodblocked preachings of Ruskin and Morris, did not so much subside into the earth as divide and flow on. Its main current fed into the streamlined aphorisms claimed (though not necessarily coined) by modernism: form follows function; less is more; a house is a machine for living in. Utterly transformed, arts-and-crafts ideology helped build the glass box and the Manhattan skyline.
But a secondary stream of arts and crafts made its escape. It went upcountry, Down East, back to the land—wherever the rural craftsman works today, making and selling wares at WoodsEdge Wool or Saltmarsh Pottery or TreeFinery Woodshop. And it went into the schools, where seventh-graders mix potters’ glazes and miter wooden boxes—"the part of all education,” said Stickley, arguing for craft training in public schools, “that seems most necessary to life.”
To the extent that the World Trade Center overshadows the grade school, the modernist has overwhelmed the craftsman. But turn-of-the-century arts and crafts remind us that we will still find tonic in the hand-thrown pot, the hand-carved chair. They may well represent, as one enthusiast put it, “the outcome of a free person’s pleasure in creation.” In any event, they stand today as impressive relics, shaped as much by moral philosophy as by aesthetic beauty. And they stand also—quixotic in the highest sense—as the creation of romantics who chose to tilt, in the guise of medieval gallants, against the windmills of modernity.
At the same time, though born of philosophy, these arts-and-crafts artifacts remain at heart antiphilosophical. Don’t, they seem to say, don’t sit there thinking! Make something! In my grade-school arts-and-crafts class, while students elsewhere sat reading, we absorbed a message spoken with Ruskinian spirit but with an American twang. I now recognize the voice, I think. It sounds like Charles I. Lummis, one of the early proselytizers of arts and crafts, who built his Pasadena house with stones lifted from its surrounding canyon and with twelvefoot beams that he adzed himself. “Any fool can write a book,” said Lummis, who must have had his fill of arts-andcrafts philosophizing. “But it takes a man to dovetail a door.” That’s what they taught in grade school—all but the dovetailing.
Some good books on the Arts and Crafts movement include “ The Art That Is Life”: The Arts & Crafts Movement in America, 1875-1920, by Wendy Kaplan and other scholars (A New York Graphic Society Book, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1987); The Arts and Crafts Movement, by Gillian Naylor (The MIT Press, 1971); Furniture of the American Arts and Crafts Movement, by David M. Gathers (New American Library, 1981); and No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 , by T. J. Jackson Lears (Pantheon, 1981).