Behind the Scenes…. The Arts and Crafts Movement Today

As I stood in my shop yesterday watching the propane heater slowly die as the gas ran out, I took a good look around my shop. Dust, shavings, leaves and small chunks of wood all over the floor, it reminded me of a quote from Elbert Hubbard, of Roycroft, who spoke about the working environment at his work facilities in 1913.

Elbert Hubbard

“At the Roycroft Shop, ” he explained, “we are reaching out for an all-round development through work and right living. And we have found it a good, expedient and wise business policy. Sweat-shop methods can never succeed in producing beautiful things. And so the management of the Roycroft Shop surrounds the workers with beauty, allows many liberties, encourages cheerfulness and tries to promote kind thoughts, simply because it has found that these things are transmuted into good, and come out again at the fingertips of the workers in beautiful results. So we have pictures, statuary, ferns, palms, birds and a piano in every room. We have the best sanitary appliances that money can buy; we have bathrooms, shower-baths, a library, and rest-rooms. Every week we have concerts, dances and lectures.1”  

This is the polar opposite of my shop. However, I do have one picture on the wall of me and David Marks at his shop in California, and my statuary consists of the turned objects on my “wall of shame.” (I proudly display these things so I will not make the same stupid mistakes twice) I do agree with his philosophy of work and right living. His idea of a workplace might be a bit extreme, but I agree with him about a pleasant work environment. David Marks has a great shop, and he has lots of photos of beautiful things here and there. Perhaps that might be one of the reasons I felt so inspired working him.  And does this nice environment help convey cheerfulness? Goodness knows, I could use some of that. Could my plain gray shop be the reason my muse is on hiatus?

Most people don’t know the real history behind the Arts & Crafts style. “The Arts & Crafts movement began as a social revolution, but this upheaval did not start on the streets of London, nor did it begin in the workshops of the craftsman Gustav Stickley or at the desk of the prolific Roycrofter, Elbert Hubbard. Instead, it began in the writings and lectures of the Englishman, John Ruskin (1819-1900), the controversial 19th century art and social critic whose ominous prediction that the impending Industrial Revolution would dehumanize the English working class inspired generations of reformers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.”

John Ruskin

 “John Ruskin called for a return to handcraftsmanship in the belief that no structure or object could be of value if it had not been created by hand with a sense of enjoyment and pride.” “The reformers who followed Ruskin established as one of their goals, the raising of the status of the artisan to that of the artist, hence the name Arts & Crafts.” “Ruskin attacked capitalistic industrialism, calling instead for a revival of the medieval guild system of the late Middle Ages, wherein each worker would have the opportunity to learn the skills of handcraftsmanship, would work in healthy, pleasant surroundings, would be given creative freedom of expression, and would share in the profits with his employer.” Where can I sign up for that!

Today, “the reason we treasure the Arts and Crafts style is not really because of a desire to be morally correct. It is because of the beauty found in its rooms and furnishings. They demonstrate more clearly than words the power of simplicity and the rich design possibilities of patterns abstracted from nature.2

Ruskin was correct to degree. The Industrial Revolution did dehumanize the workforce and still does to this day. Perhaps not so much in the U.S.A., but it is still evident in China and South East Asia. If you are a regular reader of “Artisan’s Call”, you know my stance on buying cheap foreign products, especially cheap furniture. America has shipped most of our manufacturing over seas, and this can only lead to continued economic decline. Buy local, buy homemade, buy handmade!

Do you have a beautiful shop or studio that inspires you?

1 “Grove Park Inn, Arts & Crafts Furniture” Bruce E. Johnson 2009. Page 14 and 36. 

2 “In the Arts & Crafts Style” Barbara Mayer 1993. Page 21

About yaakov

Husband, Abba, Furniture Maker, Turner, Bookseller, and all around working stiff.
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