Arts & Crafts Movement 29 March 2006Posted by Todd in Culture.
Yesterday I went to see a special exhibit at the newly completed and reopened De Young Museum of Fine art, in Golden Gate Park.
It was my first time to the museum since it was reopened last fall, and the architecture blew me away. The building has this incredible flow to it, with amazing amounts of sunlight coming through several terrariums on the inside. I wish I were better writing about art/architecture, because I just can't describe it. To be honest, I didn't pay much attention to most of the galleries because I was so awestruck by the space itself. I'll definitely be going back.
I have always been drawn to that period of architecture and design, but have never really studied it or looked into the movement or its production in depth. There's something earthy and folksy about their design, yet it's thoroughly modern. As many of you know, much of my historical training focuses on what is called "modernity", the period of time when Western societies made the dramatic shift from local, individual production to industrial mass production, and when society had to completely remake itself to support the new modes of production. (The A&C movement started in England (1860s) much earlier than in the U.S. (1890s), which makes sense, given that slavery and sectionalism put us about 50 years behind in industrializing.)
What struck me was the connection between the A&C movement and the incredible transformation capitalism had wrought. These men and women (there were many women designers in the movement, the first in world history to have a significant proportion) felt that mass production had stolen the "soul" of the production of goods, disconnected human beings from the objects in their lives by removing them from their production. They looked to the past (especially medieval, or at least what they thought of as medieval) to inform their rejection of mass produced objects and mass produced design, everything from books, to clothing, to furniture, to textiles. And they looked to nature for design inspiration, as a way to reconnect themselves to the land they lived on, feeling that the modes of capitalist production had wrenched the people away from who they were.
In some ways, this was a romantic fantasy. They created a past which hadn't really existed (which is always the case of cultural revivals); they created a cultural movement only accesible to the elite (because of mass production's economic effects, hand-crafted objects had become incredibly expensive), and they weren't dealing with the reality of the way things actually had become (with the exception of America, which was somewhat less ambivalent or troubled by modernity, and actually mass produced its object and even its homes (you could buy a bungalow in a kit for $400 and assemble it yourself)).
On the other hand, both their philosophy and their art and design continue to resonate, because we still live in the wake of modernity. Sure, we've become more accustomed to throw-away goods, and it is clear that people make meaning out of mass-produced objects as much as they did of artisanally produced objects 150 years ago. Yet even now, there's no denying that the quality of our relationships to objects and, for the American A&C Movement, especially to our very homes, that has been irrevocably altered. What I love is their normative aesthetic, that every aspect of a living space, a home, should be a work of art. [Left: A recreation of a Stickley interior from the 1910s.]