This weekend we checked out the Stickley exhibition at the Museum of Art in Balboa Park. The exhibit features the standard ratio of artifacts to (superficially) stultifying placards talking about Gustav’s life, influences, and philosophy. Most of the pieces on display dated from the early period of his design care, when he was fresh and eager from the influence of William Morris. Morris was primarily an artist and writer, rather than a designer of furniture. Although he did start a company that made pretty trinkets for the home. Digging deeper into exactly what “Arts and Crafts” means is an interesting endeavor. One rife with anti-industrial sentiments and a longing for simple, economical craftsmanship. The root influence could be seen as John Ruskin. Consider this quote from his collected works (and yes, featured prominently on Wikipedia):
We want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense. As it is, we make both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising, his brother; and the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers and miserable workers. Now it is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.
Ruskin promoted the touch of the worker, the thorough incorporation of one’s self, creativity, thoughts and feelings into the product. It seems both odd and natural that political sentiments and philosophies in general would evolve into an artistic style that left an indelible mark on typefaces, architecture, and pottery, among others. As an art movement, it almost seems like a performance piece, a demonstration in three dimensions of concepts and “isms”.
“Arts and Crafts” was promoted in the US through lectures and advertisements. At its heart is the celebration of simplicity. The natural textures, hues and heft of building materials were celebrated and elevated through design principles. There is also a notion of transparency in the exposed joinery. This extended beyond the building materials. Wallpapers, for example, were designed based on vegetables (artichokes) and other manner of flora and fauna. It is a rejection of artificiality, of shoddy materials, and poor durability.
Stickley’s fascination with the Arts and Crafts movement inspired nearly two decades of furniture design, and a number of imitators (including his own family) Als ik kan “As I can” became the motto of his furniture company. The letters are prominent in the center of the joiner’s compass, which is the symbol seared onto all the furniture from his factory, on the Craftsman Magazine, and host of other Stickley bobbles. While the sentiment “As best I can” has a ring of universality to it, Stickley borrowed it from 15th century painter Jan van Eyck. There is another part to the quote, according to the placard. Something along the lines of “As I can, so I would”. It is the intention, and the act.