Celebrating the Art of Crafts

The 100-year-old Arts and Crafts Movement aimed to further social reform by promoting objects both beautiful and useful

At the turn of the century, a group of arts-minded individuals were feeling a bit uneasy. The Industrial Revolution was promoting mass production of cheap goods, causing a decline in fine craftsmanship and a dehumanization of labor.

So visionaries led by William Morris and John Ruskin in England reacted by introducing their own promotion of sorts, elevating the art of craft and calling attention to its benefits. The Arts and Crafts Movement was born.

While preservation of fine craftsmanship, trade, and tradition was important to them, their reasoning went beyond tangible objects: They believed that the production of handmade goods that were beautiful and functional would honor the maker and harmonize the home.

In the United States, the Arts and Crafts Movement started in Boston, a city destined to earn the reputation as an epicenter of high-minded arts and crafts taste to which other parts of the country would look.

Much of the credit goes to the Society of Arts and Crafts (SAC) in Boston, which is celebrating its centennial this year. As the first and oldest arts and crafts society in the country, SAC has been living out its mission to promote work in all the craft disciplines, including ceramics, metals, jewelry, ironwork, glass, furniture, wood, and fibers. It serves as a gallery, retail shop, and a forum that fosters public education on the techniques, history, and variety of fine crafts. Crafts come from all over the United States.

In celebration of the centennial, SAC is hosting a series of exhibitions running through March 1998, each featuring a different medium.

During May and June, for example, the focus is on metals, including jewelry, holloware, and ironwork. The final centennial exhibition will be fiber (Jan. 1-March 2, 1998). About 75 percent of the exhibit will be contemporary work, and 25 percent will be historical. Mid-career artists will be featured at one of SAC's galleries (Newbury Street), and emerging artists will be represented at the other (Arch Street).

Today fine crafts are finding more outlets than ever, says SAC executive director Beth Ann Gerstein. These outlets include not only galleries and craft fairs, but also upscale boutiques and even department stores. Handmade jewelry and pottery are especially popular.

The definition of "craft" has broadened, Ms. Gerstein says, because functionality isn't requisite anymore. Narrative, figurative, and cultural concerns are as important as formal concerns such as line, color, and function, she adds. Prices for works vary - ranging from $35 for some jewelry to many thousands for furniture.

Some people who may appreciate good workmanship and handmade items still associate the term "arts and crafts" with Popsicle sticks and potholders. They may not realize the significance of the Arts and Crafts Movement. "Arts and crafts wasn't just a style, it was a way of life," explains Gerstein.

In the early 1900s, arts and crafts supporters believed that design reform could propel social reform - that the arts could be used as a vehicle for civic improvement. Training recent immigrants, setting up workshops to elevate the status of women, and educating children all brought about positive reform in the eyes of craftspeople. The movement would play out to be extremely powerful, influencing the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Tiffany and contemporary craftspeople such as glass artist Dale Chihuly and ceramic artist Karen Karnes.

SO instrumental was SAC in defining the American Arts and Crafts Movement that scholars have springboarded off their centennial with a historical exhibit at the Davis Museum and Cultural Center on the campus of Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass.

"Inspiring Reform: Boston's Arts and Crafts Movement" is billed as the first comprehensive exhibition of the Arts and Crafts Movement as it developed in Boston between 1890 and 1930.

More than 150 works are on view, ranging from jewelry, textiles, and books to toys, photos, and silver. The exhibit is organized by themes important to the movement, such as "Responses to Nature" and "The Immigrant Experience."

In "Childhood and Innocence" we learn that at the turn of the century, people began to see childhood as a unique phase in human development, that "play time was not wasted time, but an important part of a child's growth." This promoted the role of toys as tools for development.

The children's book cover for "Arabella & Araminta Stories," by Gertrude Smith (pictures by Ethel Reid) from 1895, stands for design excellence at a time when book design emerged as a profession.

A "Woman's Ensemble" by Margaret Green is an embroidered skirt, vest, and blouse with a wheat motif. Its simple design illustrates how clothing reflected the arts and crafts ideal. Subtle in its off-white color, the 1907 outfit speaks of a return to nature and the importance of comfortable clothing for progressive and active women.

Landscape photography of the period hints at nostalgia for simpler times - pre-Industrial Revolution. Emma Coleman's "The Gleaner: Woman Harvesting, York" is particularly effective.

Seeing arts and crafts exhibits - present-day to historical - makes one long for bygone days, when most objects were one-of-a-kind. The yearning to preserve old ways hasn't changed from the beginning of the century, and thanks to arts supporters and institutions like arts and crafts societies, we can still appreciate fine craftsmanship today.

* The Society of Arts and Crafts will celebrate its centennial through February 1998.

'Inspiring Reform: Boston's Arts & Crafts Movement' remains at the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Mass., through July 14. Next year the exhibition will travel to the Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution in Washington, where it will be displayed from March 6 through July 6, 1998.

Milestones

1897 The Society of Arts and Crafts (SAC) is incorporated; sponsors first American arts and crafts exhibition at Copley Hall, Boston.

1900 The Handicraft Shop opens, SAC's first salesroom for the promotion of work by craftsmakers.

1902 SAC publishes first issue of Handicraft magazine, a monthly with articles, reviews, and criticism.

1907 The National League of Handicraft Societies is organized and includes 33 craft societies from 20 states.

1939 SAC founds American Handcraft Council, later to become the American Craft Council, as a national organization for crafts.

1972 Smithsonian opens Renwick Gallery, establishing crafts as official curatorial department of the National Museum of American Art.

Statement of Purpose of the Society of Arts and Crafts, Boston, June 28, 1897

"This Society was incorporated for the purpose of promoting artistic work in all branches of handicraft. It hopes to bring Designers and Workmen into mutually helpful relations, and to encourage Workmen to execute designs of their own. It endeavors to stimulate in Workmen an appreciation of the dignity and value of good design; to counteract the popular impatience of Law and Form, and the desire for over-ornamentation and specious originality. It will insist upon the necessity of sobriety and restraint, of ordered arrangement, of due regard for the relation between the form of an object and its use, and of harmony and fitness in the decoration put upon it."

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