The Noble Craftsmen We Promote:

The Arts and Crafts Movement in the American Midwest

 

Demise and Rebirth of Arts and Crafts


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The Demise - and Rebirth - of the Arts and Crafts Movement

The outbreak of World War I generally ended America's love affair with the Arts and Crafts Movement. Americans turned away from trivial concerns like furniture and gardens and focused on the serious business of waging war. Demand for consumer goods plummeted. Companies that had produced Arts and Crafts furnishings-including the Grand Rapids furniture manufacturers-switched to war production. War production meant fast production, and mechanized methods won out over the handcrafted look. After women won the right to vote in 1920, they had less interest in their role as homemaker. They also came to resent Arts and Crafts built-ins in their homes that could not changed to reflect more trendy styles.

Many of the leaders of the Arts and Crafts Movement fell on hard times. Elbert Hubbard and his wife perished in 1915 when the S.S. Lusitania sank. Ironically, Hubbard had survived his earlier Titanic voyage. Gustav Stickley declared bankruptcy in 1917, and was forced to sell Craftsman Farms, his home. His furniture company was taken over by his brothers Leopold, John George, and Albert, who were unable to maintain the popularity of the Arts and Crafts lines. The Stickley Company issued its last Arts and Crafts catalog in 1922. Charles Limbert died in 1923 while on a trip to Hawaii.

By1910, the Arts and Crafts style was no longer considered chic or avant-garde. Many came to see it as heavy, clumsy, and crude, and the ideals of the movement were tainted by the cheap commercialism of mass producers. Northern native oak forests that had been the mainstay of Arts and Crafts furniture were depleted, and different woods had to be used for furniture production, including cherry and walnut. Most of the wood had to be imported. The bungalow continued to be a popular home design well into the 1930s, especially for the working class, but among the upper class the Tudor Revival became the most popular style.

After the war, design became more highly stylized and lacked any social reform ideals. The Colonial Revival style dominated interior design. The sleek lines of Arts and Crafts continued somewhat, but were lightened. Art Deco, for example, utilized many geometric elements, but they were more rounded, mechanized, and "electric" in their appearance. Sleek designs were made of metal or glass, not wood. European "Moderne" furniture that debuted in the 1920s was streamlined and functional, but much lighter. It evolved into the International and Bauhaus styles so popular in the 1940s and 1950s.

But in the past decade, the Arts and Crafts Movement has seen a resurgence. The revival of the Arts and Crafts Movement began in 1966 with a book by John Crosby Freeman entitled The Forgotten Rebel: Gustav Stickley and his Craftsman Mission Furniture, one of the first historical studies of the movement. Freeman recognized Arts and Crafts furniture as a distinctively American style. The collectors' interest in Arts and Crafts items began in 1972 when Princeton University staged "American Arts and Crafts, 1876-1916," the first major exhibition on the movement.

Collectors began buying high-end Arts and Crafts works, particularly those of Stickley, Roycroft, and Wright. Today, quality pieces by these individuals are found in the collections of museums, corporations, and Hollywood stars. The works were so popular that in the 1989, the new owners of what was once Gustav Stickley's company in upstate New York reintroduced a line of furniture based upon original Stickley designs and made it available through furniture retailers. Even lower-end Arts and Crafts furniture has become collectible. In 1987, the Grand Rapids Art Museum featured an exhibit on the contributions of "Furniture City" to the Arts and Crafts Movement, spurring an interest in the products of these manufacturers. Because of the quality of materials and joinery techniques used to construct even the cheaper versions of Arts and Crafts furniture, much of it has survived. Ironically, this simple, functional furniture once marketed to the working classes has become pricey collectibles on the antiques market. Large manufacturers have recently introduced Arts and Crafts reproductions of items such as lamps and wallpaper. Numerous books, magazines, conferences, and even web sites are now devoted to celebrating the Arts and Crafts Movement.

The question remains why, in the age of technology, has the Arts and Crafts Movement revived? It may be that what made the Arts and Crafts Movement popular in the age of the industrial revolution at the turn of the twentieth century is once again appealing to the public in the age of the technological revolution at the turn of the twenty-first century. As the world has become more complex, Americans seem to be drawn to a movement that celebrated simple functionality, honest workmanship, individual craftsmanship, and utilitarian forms. Perhaps it is that in a technologically-driven world we feel it is time once again to promote the noble craftsman.


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An Exhibit at the Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections, Carlson Library, The University of Toledo.

March 26th-June 30th, 1999.

Last Updated: 1/3/12