the other tastiest place in the world

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Arts & Crafts gallery, Victoria & Albert Museum

Back in 2010 we named the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna as the tastiest place in a very, very tasty city, but must report that its crown is challenged by one single room in London.  (Surely a topic of such weight merits the esteemed position of this post, which is our 100th, thank you very much & you are welcome!)

During our most recent jaunt through Dear Old Blighty, which was awash with Artsy-Craftsy wonderfulness, we swooned in the Arts and Crafts galleries of the Victoria and Albert.  The museum presents, as one might expect, a singular collection of this great movement that we’ve been increasingly obsessed about (and that we’ve talked with you about before, like here, here, here, and here).  Any reasonable gallery with a reasonable nineteenth-century design collection will have a bit of Morris, maybe some Voysey; perhaps something shiny by Archibald Knox if they’re really fancy.  Well howzabout all of that, and then some, gathered up in one place at one time.

That image at the top is a veritable family picture: Burne-Jones glass, Liberty & Co. washstand, Voysey owls & clock, Farnham pottery, Knox pewter, Webb candlesticks & chair, De Morgan pottery, Ashbee decanter, Townsend fabric, a Morris cabinet and carpet and, of course, the movement’s unofficial mascot, the Strawberry Thief.

Seriously, just look at this stuff:

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in the Medieval Gallery

And because it’s the V & A once you’re finished swooning here, you can walk yourself down to the medieval stuff and see their inspiration. Or over to an adjacent room for Pugin and the Crystal Palace.  It’s almost too much for nineteenth-century people to bear.

Just one downside to the V & A.  Unlike the KM in Vienna, the environment of its wonderfully-designed cafes trumps the nosh.  Such a pity.  Then again, and while there are probably scones to be had in Kensington, why not make your way two miles to Conduit Street, where you can have the cream tea at the Sketch cafe and commune with other tasty ghosts at this former home to the RIBA?

why not, indeed

why not, indeed

 

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freeman, swine or slave? another reason why William Morris matters

William Morris, photographed by Halliday Sparling (ca. 1890)

In his essay, “The Lesser Arts of Life” (available in its full form here), William Morris distinguished between the “Greater Arts” (those that appeal to a person’s spirit and emotion by the direct path of his senses) and the “Lesser Arts” (those that serve physical needs).  Articulating a fundamental idea of the Arts and Crafts movement, he explained that the Lesser could act like the Greater, if craftsmen were able to infuse the works of their hands with their emotions.  His argument calls for people to consume in a way that increases the opportunity for the Lesser Arts to be enhanced by the spiritual activity of imaginative work.  Morris’ challenge was for his listeners to do with less, and especially less of what was produced by machines: “see to it that these things are the work of freemen and not of slaves.”  At the time, this was a particularly hard sell to the expanding middle classes of the Victorian era, and today is likewise challenging even to those Occupants, denizens of the very upper part of the 99%.

Morris believed that all things in the material world–house, clothes, furniture–could be described either as works of art or “wretched makeshifts or, what is worse, degrading shams of better things.”  The artfulness of a chair, or teapot, or balustrade, was dependent on the degree to which it revealed the distinct trace of a hand guided by a brain, with only the bare minimum interposition of machines.  Tools, machines, equipment, technology were not the enemy in and of themselves–otherwise Morris’ beloved Medieval masons, with their chisels, mallets, borers, winches and pulleys, would be cast out.  His belief was that a man is dignified through the direct activity of brain and hand working together as closely as possible to achieve the desired and artful, end.  A growing problem in post-Industrial Revolution England, it’s only harder given the even greater globalism of the recent decades, resulting in unintended hypocrisy (maybe there is no other kind), even among the most tasty concerns (we have commented on the buzzkill of a social conscience prompted by the Liberty goods available at Target, for example).

Teacups, lampshades, buildings: then and now, they all had to be made, all human artifacts, all the product of work: work that can dignify or degrade the worker.  In any economy, every person depends on another to make things.  To a great degree, the consumer dictates the condition under which those things will be made.  Morris believed that work was a noble, essential part of life; like the Lesser Arts, capable of being elevated to a spiritually fulfilling role, or degraded to the meanest of enterprise.  He hoped for all people to find worthy work, and to balance it by periods of wholesome rest; this simple goal was the end of three basic social structures:

Such rest, and such work, I earnestly wish for myself and for you, and for all men: to have space and freedom to gain such rest and such work is the end of politics; to learn how best to gain it is the end of education; to learn its inmost meaning is the end of religion.

Although Morris found his early audience for his lectures among craftspeople, his real message was for consumers, for every dollar or pound spent propels an economy of dignity or degradation.  Making those choices for the former was not always easy; as Morris pointedly said, it could be “troublous:”

Consider after all that the life of a man is more troublous than that of a swine, and the life of a freeman than the life of a slave; and take your choice accordingly.

This single sentence must have sounded, and felt, like a piercing blow through the optimism of ballooning nineteenth-century consumerism; its sting still bites today.

Photograph from the National Portrait Gallery

Our friend Clio, the History Muse, addresses this essay in this posting

architecture’s sweetheart

C.F.A. Voysey

Judging by his portraits alone, Charles Francis Annesley Voysey (1857–1941) appears to have been an awfully grouchy person, someone with whom you’d not want to quibble over the last crumpet on the tea service let alone venture into whatever severe, strict, minimal architectural setting that such a grump would design.  Yet Voysey’s work represents a completely different character and personality than that which is suggested by this unfortunate photograph (which must have been the result of a dawdling photographer keeping a perturbed Voysey from getting some cookies out of the oven, or perhaps finishing some sweaters he was knitting for puppies).  Quite simply put, Voysey has left us the most charming and engaging architecture; this is especially true considering how seldom architects have regarded these small human values through the centuries.

Moor Crag (1899)

Some may argue that Voysey was one of the world’s greatest architects, and they might be right.  Surely in the sphere of domestic architecture at the turn of the century he was far ahead of the rest of the field (even eclipsing MoT‘s closer-to-hometown hero from nearby Oak Park).  Much has been written about Voysey’s special, un-niche-ifiable place in the history of architecture, with something in common with the woozy use of history and industry among Art Nouveau masters, on the outskirts of the medieval craftiness of the Arts and Crafts tradition, and claimed by many to be adjacent to the more abstract thinkers formulating the Neues Bauen.

"Let Us Prey" (1909)

Once in a while it looks like Voysey visited one of these neighborhoods, but he never completely settled in. Although there’s still much to be said to try to either shackle him to one or more of these movements, or to free him altogether as a uniquely creative person, our interest in Voysey is focused on an attribute of his work which is sorely lacking in architecture today, yesterday, and almost all periods in history.  It’s a simple notion and one that’s very human: affection.  Style issues aside, most of the great architects have in common a tendency toward expressing much greater ideals through the use of carefully studied symbols drawn explicitly from architecture’s history or building technology.  To understand those buildings, a person needs to have a certain education in architecture.  Voysey, on the other hand, celebrates common experiences and that taps into core qualities of young and old at a very innocent and effortless place.  In architecture and design, he celebrates and elevates the vernacular in a familiar yet extraordinary way.

Oftentimes work like Voysey’s is described as being “lovingly crafted,” leaving one to wonder: just what is loved here?  And who has done the loving: the architect, or the workers on the site who actually smoothed the stones and sanded the wood?  (Note: we use the word work with some discomfort since there is little sense of toil about what Voysey did, but his production does spread far beyond the realm of architecture to virtually all furnishings welcome in a house.)  In Voysey’s case it’s clear the architect cared for people. From the big formal decisions of his houses (big and little) which drew from a longstanding tradition of comfortable residential design in Britain, to the small notes of decorative objects, Voysey designed in a way that was at once as delightful as it is engaging: a sign of respect for the original dwellers in these places and a pleasure for us later visitors to these well-scaled, simply-rendered  forms sheltered with strong roofs.  Interiors are fitted with decorative arts similarly designed to serve and shelter a cozy life.

"Whoot" fabric (1898)

These may be Arts and Crafts goals generally speaking, but Voysey succeeds here more so than the other acknowledged masters of the movement.  Voysey’s two-dimensional designs reveal obvious similarities to, say, William Morris; but where Morris’ designs tend toward the high contrasts and vivid color combinations, Voysey is softer and gentler.  Morris’ birds flit among thorny flowers and prickly leaves; Voysey’s critters nestle into yielding petals and curvaceous plants. Morris’ designs represent a taxonomy of whatever sprouted or chirped in his yard.  Voysey selects those elements of nature that are most fun.  Morris’ famous “Strawberry Thief” is cheeky only in title; Voysey’s owl is a whoot even before we know the name of the pattern.

"Hey Diddle Diddle" wallpaper

Others of his designs even more clearly reveal Voysey’s intent to make us smile.  Up close, sophisticated patterns remind us of childhood rhymes and nursery tales.  Like the poem from which it is drawn, the “Hey Diddle Diddle” paper neither hides nor reveals satire or critique; it’s simply delightful.  (Our only complaint is the dominance of the cat and fiddle at the expense of the little dog.)  Several other such patterns appear in Voysey’s collection, including a rambunctious “Alice in Wonderland” as dizzying as Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole must have been.  In “Let us Prey,” the line of a grey cat’s tail echoes that of a worm burrowing into a flower, being eyed by a bird who is being stalked by a cat.

Norney Grange (1897)

Plenty of other obvious narratives and identifiable emblems appear throughout his houses and gardens, from laughing faces in a sundial, to ships sailing smooth waters on the face of a clock, to the Tree of Life–home to kissing birds–appearing on everything from mantlepieces to brooches.  All of these speak of whimsy, delight, hope and other good things.  But none represents these positive ideals so clearly as one of the simplest shapes, the heart.

Voysey’s hearts are all over his houses (and even in the grumpy portrait above, where the “hand and heart” idea is seen in the sculpture next to Voysey).  The heart is the simplest sign of love and affection, a form every school child learns to make with their first Valentine in art class.  It shows up in religious art also, and Voysey’s affection for mankind appears to have been a response to his personal faith in a benevolent God.

front door, The Orchard (1899)

The Voysey heart appears everywhere: from coat hooks, mantlepieces and wall paper, to hinges and letter slots.  Overuse of this simple shape, in the hands of a lesser designer, could easily veer into the cloying realm of Hello Kitty; Voysey reins in the potential saccharine in part because his heart is unique.  It is broader  than most and less bulbous on top.  Voysey’s heart swells.  More importantly, he means it; the heart is not an afterthought but a symbol of a driving motive and greater ideals in Voysey’s designs, especially the houses.  It is appropriate that they cluster around doors, in letter box details, hinges, latches.  Like the rest of Voysey’s design work, the doors to his houses are proportioned in a slightly different, but always right-feeling way.  Voysey rejected standard doors which to him resembled coffins.  Instead, he said, the door to a house should be wide enough to accommodate  two people to walk in together: husband and wife, a pair of friends or siblings, parent and child, or–we imagine–dog and dog-person.

it's a coat hook!

This detail speaks to the consistency and sincerity of Voysey’s sentiment.  His legible symbolism is not born of the smirking, clever architect’s play at theory that appears to draw in the uninitiated with recognizable cues but really distances them all the more for their unsophisticated misreading of multi-valent emblems.  Neither is it the ponderous essay of the erudite academician whose dignified ornament is appealing but demands we sit up straight.  Voysey does not mind if we slouch.

One of the legacies of twentieth century is a judgement of architecture that favors exposure of industrial materials and structure and treating “rational” utility as the sole end of building.  This is a skewed way to judge architecture that diverges from the manner common for millenia during which architects recognized three criteria of judgement, famously paraphrased from Vitruvius by Henry Wotton (Elements of Architecture, 1624) in his dictum “Well building hath three conditions, firmness, commodity and delight.”  Voysey reminds us of the importance of that final goal: delight.  Wit without irony, humor with no bite.  An engaging architecture of strong forms protecting lovely, harmonious, warm, personable, affectionate interiors in which the human spirit can thrive.  Houses where heart is king.

"Union of Hearts" (1898)

give me Liberty

floral fabrics at Liberty & Co., London

Depending on one’s point of view, on March 14, 2010 the British Arts and Crafts Movement either reached an all-time height in its ongoing apotheosis or felt its final death rattles.  On that date Target stores across the US unveiled the company’s most recent effort to team out-of-house, top-notch designers with the mass-production and massive marketing that accounts for the big box’s big success.  Recent design collaborations with the rarefied likes of Jean Paul Gaultier and Rodarte have successfully brought haute fashion within reach of the likes of you and me, but those partnerships have not raised the same kind of philosophical and moral issues that the collaboration with Liberty of London does.

idealistic: Morris chair (handmade everything, 1870; V & A collection)

This story takes a little time.  Taste suggests you prepare yourself a cuppa, settle in, and bear with us as we travel back to mid-nineteenth century England, where a sense of unease (if not outright revulsion) about the industrialization that had swept the country and dissatisfaction with the level of design quality in manufactured goods prompted the movement that would later be termed Arts and Crafts.  At its center was a group of Oxford divinity students (make that soon-to-be-former divinity students), who were also concerned by the human cost of making those goods. In addition to the obvious abuse of the scores of people (children among them) who were dehumanized by the manufacture process, the burgeoning Arts and Crafts philosophers noted the toll taken on the consumers of these sub-standard products as well.  Their most profound expositor, William Morris, argued in an essay of 1877 (“The Lesser Arts of Life,” which you can–and should–read by clicking here) for the abolishment of the traditional distinction between high art and low.  Morris believed that the Lesser Arts, whose “first intention was to satisfy [men’s] bodily wants” (furniture, table service, clothing, and so on) should be made as beautiful as they were useful by appropriating the ability to “satisfy men’s spiritual wants,” which had long been the realm of the Greater Arts (monumental sculpture, oil paintings, etc.).  Morris’ famous dictum, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,” exemplified the scores of wallpaper, furniture, book, and textile designs that rolled out of Morris and Company workshops, manifest in useful/decorative arts through traditional methods of handcraft, and that were destined to fill English domiciles from Cornwall to Cumbria.  Great idea, and great products, if one could get them—rather, if one could afford them.  All that ennobling hand-craftwork is luscious and marvelous but it does not come cheap.  For all his utopian aims, Morris’ Lesser Arts remained out of the reach of the classes he most hoped to serve and, with no small irony, were affordable instead to those families made rich through the Industrial Revolution.

realistic: Liberty & Co. washstand (some industrial process, 1894: V & A collection)

Enter Arthur Lasenby Liberty, who saw the necessity of compromising the purity of Arts and Crafts ideals on the production side to achieve their wide diffusion on the consumer side.  Liberty was a London draper’s apprentice, warehouse manager, and finally owner of his own shop, Liberty & Co., which opened in 1875.  The store specialized in fabrics and well-designed decorative arts (wallpaper, clocks, jewelry, pewter), much of it with patterns inspired by nature and artistic traditions of the Far East and manufactured with industrial means that made them more affordable.  Through his efforts Liberty achieved his aim “to combine utility and good taste with modest cost,” and did much more to achieve Morris’ aim to brighten English homes with well-designed and crafted goods, although the production did indeed involve machines and even those “dark Satanic mills” that William Blake warned us about a half-century earlier.

the Liberty store in Regent Street: inside

Flash forward to the later twentieth century.  Liberty & Co. maintains its presence in one of London’s great shopping districts, but is no longer such a leader in progressive design and style. The store’s Tudor architecture, which once symbolized Liberty’s association with wholesome, high-quality pre-Industrial Revolution crafts, now embodies a fusty Olde England that no one much misses.  Before the whole enterprise vanished in the dim nostalgic haze emanating from the receding glory days of pewter tankards and floral tea cozies, Liberty & Co. was rejuvenated by the 2005 launch of Liberty of London, an in-house label headed up by creative director Tamalra Salman.  Salman has done much to update standard Liberty wares and goods, in part by inviting unexpected collaborators to design clothes and accessories for the label (a Ronnie Wood makeup bag, anyone?).  An extension of these in-house collaborations, the recent deal struck with the across-the-pond retailer Target was a lower-brow effort at the same kind of partnership that had been a mainstay with Liberty.

pretty dress by Liberty of London for Target, available 3.13 miles from MoT HQ ($30)

In service to you, dear reader, Matters of Taste Correspondent for Consumer Affairs doorbusted her way into Target on that fateful Sunday to get a firsthand look at the line, as well as to stock the MoT archives with key pieces from the collection.  She reports from her exhaustive study that the goods really are delightful: nice materials with bright sunny patterns and solid construction; some of the dresses are even lined. The combination of quality products, superior design and reasonable cost has clearly struck a chord not only with our correspondent but with Yankee consumers from coast to coast; this stuff has flown off the shelves at such a rate one would think that some kind of Denim Curtain had just fallen, allowing comrades to ditch the capri jeans, breathe the air of aesthetic freedom and indulge in head-to-toe paisleys for the first time ever.

pretty dress by Liberty & Co., available 3,963 miles from MoT HQ (& quite a bit more than $30)

In many ways the Liberty of London for Target collaboration exemplifies what the Arts and Crafts were all about: the uniformly good, and occasionally great, designs are realized through the marriage of functional objects with beautiful patterns on durable materials for virtually every “bodily want” from bedding to bikes.  The only thing that’s missing from the collection is a collar for Taste’s resident pooch, which is regrettable, since she will not be perfectly accessorized on walks when we go out in our Liberty of London for Target dress, Liberty of London for Target trench coat, Liberty of London for Target hat, Liberty of London for Target rain boots and Liberty of London for Target umbrella.  Nor will she be a perfect aesthetic fit when she naps on her Liberty of London for Target pillow, near the Liberty of London for Target planter, which we tilled with our Liberty of London for Target gardening tools, and eating biscuits from our Liberty of London for Target dishes.  Beyond this oversight, Taste is thrilled by the collection, which stands up pretty well against the real Liberty goods purchased by MoT‘s Resident Sconologist in London.  Who wouldn’t be thrilled to scoop up a brightly patterned dress with a perfect fit and offered up for $30 rather than the $360 of the original Liberty garment on which it is based (assuming one could find one’s way to London in the first place, which is getting harder and harder with MoT‘s strict CFO limiting our passport usage)?

pewter milk jug; Archibald Knox for Liberty & Co. (1904; V & A  collection)

But we wonder: what accounts for that drop in price?  Quantity? Probably–we’re just guessing that Target is pushing a few more zillion gross products than Liberty’s flagship store.  Use of more common materials?  No doubt–there is a drop in quality from the very-high quality wares from London, and we would be hard pressed to find any melamine for sale on Regent Street.  Cheaper labor?  Bingo. How our Correspondent wishes she had neither bothered to read the “made in” label in the garments (nor the stickers on all the other things), nor all those essays by Morris.  All this stuff was mass-produced in China and then shipped via a variety of petroleum-eating vehicles to the States.  That’s a lot of machines, a lot of industry, but especially a huge separation between the designer and the maker, which was one of the primary objectives of the Arts and Crafts Movement.  This collaboration has basically shifted the burden of mechanical enslavement from British factories to Chinese ones, as is the case for so much contemporary garment fabrication.  Never has such lovely, lovely florals and paisleys and peacock feathers been such a buzz kill, but that’s what you get when you’re on a budget and you go and develop a social conscience along with a liking for pretty things.

melamine salad plate; Liberty of London for Target  (2010; MoT archives)

Had the designers behind Liberty of London for Target done a little soul searching, and thought back through the heritage that is so proudly and beautifully celebrated in the aesthetics of this collaboration, to the heart of the movement that lives on (in some form) in their products, the collaboration could have been something really special. Of course altering the means by which most of the garments and other goods consumed in the West are fabricated would have affected their price, but how much?  Based on a quick survey of the Liberty of London site and the Target catalogue it’s not difficult to find similar goods that are widely divergent in their price points.  Would a slightly more expensive Target collection have allowed the US retailer to take an astonishing social stand in favor of workers’ rights while making these pretty things availing to a hungering mass of consumers who would still clear the shelves in record time?  And ultimately, would improving the lot of factory workers not be in fantastically good taste?

At the same time, consumers are responsible for this soul-searching as well, and we don’t need to couch this argument in “present economic circumstances” to understand the timeless advice of distinguishing between need and want: Morris told us as much back in 1882:

There is a vast deal of labour spent in supplying civilised man with things which he has come to consider needful, and which, as a rule, he will not do without. Much of that labour is grievous and oppressive . . .

These, I think, are the principles on which the citizen’s resistance to Philistine oppression must be founded; to do with as few things as we can, and, as far as we can, to see to it that these things are the work of freemen and not of slaves; these two seem to me to be the main duties to be fulfilled by those who wish to live a life at once free and refined, serviceable to others, and pleasant to themselves.  (Morris, “The Lesser Arts of Life”)

While Morris is eminently and appropriately quotable for this piece, Taste could not help but adopt Patrick Henry’s words for our title (along with only a few hundred other bloggers and fashion writers who did exactly the same brilliantly creative thing).  But we find it also appropriate to conclude with the words of another revolutionary, Marie-Jeanne Roland de la Platière:

O Liberty!  O Liberty!  How many crimes are committed in thy name!

Unlike Henry, whose defiant slogan was reportedly met with cheers, Madame Roland faced trumped-up charges that lead her to the guillotine.  So we conclude, while surveying our Liberty of London for Target desk accessories and drinking from our Liberty of London for Target cup, and wishing that Liberty of London for Target had designed a coordinating laptop sleeve–perhaps with an interlace pattern of arabesques and guilt.

“apostles of beauty” (arts and crafts exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago)

crop morris cray 1885

"Cray" panel (William Morris, ca. 1885)

The new exhibition at the Art Institute (click here for the website) certainly delivers the beauty. Only a biased Modernist or partisan Classicist would fail to find something to love in this show, which is stuffed with furniture, textiles, lithographs, ceramics, metalwork and a dozen other kinds of art, most of it dating from the 1870s to the 1910s, and all of it related one way or another to the Arts and Crafts movement that began in mid-nineteenth-century Britain.

But that vastness of enterprise is part of this imperfect exhibition’s undoing. Its broad sweep goes far beyond the content that appears to be announced in the exhibition’s advertisement as Arts and Crafts from Britain to Chicago. By reading the advertised subtitle, one might expect to see and learn about art and design in those two places and the transmission of ideas between them, and not a collection of Arts and Crafts goods that somehow found their way to area collections. The curators have used the preposition “to” rather broadly; the journey of Arts and Crafts ideals is actually from Britain to a dozen other places in America, and finally to Chicago—but then beyond: the show concludes with Scottish furniture and German criticism. And, although the approach to the Arts and Crafts as a philosophical point of view more than a stylistic movement is valid, the exhibit uses this as an excuse to bring unexpected disciplines into the tent while leaving some we’d expect to find there at the periphery, if not abandoning them out in the cold.

D. G. Rossetti Beata Beatrix 1871

Beata Beatrix (D. G. Rossetti, 1871)

The exhibition begins promisingly enough, with a brief acknowledgement of the movement’s founding fathers: A. W. N. Pugin, John Ruskin, William Morris, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Beatrix, at left, represents all of the Pre-Raphaelites). It’s a brief overview, but reasonably solid, although the suggestion that Pugin’s Catholicism was an excuse for his medievalism is stated in terms that are a little strong. (But more of him later.)

The immediate impact of these progenitors as portrayed in the following room provides the strongest display in the five-part exhibit. Fans of the Arts and Crafts will thrill at the very walls shouting out the glories of the movement with well-known quotes from Morris and C. F. A. Voysey, with some of their famous works close at hand. It’s a wonderful collection, chockfull of things you expect to see in a big Arts and Crafts show: Philip Webb’s iconic Morris chair (see one by clicking here), a range of Voysey and Morris textiles, the Kelmscott Chaucer (see another copy by clicking here), metalwork by M. H. Baillie Scott. And there are some unexpected delights (which is what a big exhibition is supposed to have, right?), like two big Edward Burne-Jones cartoons for stained glass windows (click here). Better yet, the kinds of things I was hoping to see in a Chicago-centric show: Marion Mahony Griffin’s lush renderings (on satin!) of Wright designs and Chicago illustrator Will H. Bradley’s zincographs for the locally-published Chap-Book are delightful and on-point. Also interesting is the small section on Ukiyo-e prints as part of the concurrent “Japanism” in the later nineteenth century, which touches on the influence of Japanese prints in America, specifically among Chicago collectors and the impact of Japanese goods at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 that was followed by a Ukiyo-e exhibition at the Art Institute designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1908. There were enough compelling ideas in that one corner to mount a separate exhibition.

bradley chapbook

Chap-Book (Will Bradley, 1895)

The intellectual clarity and visual thematic purpose so clear in that display fell apart upon crossing the threshold; the rest of the show gave me the distinct impression that the curators had filled out the rest of the exhibition with whatever was lying around upstairs, and/or got tired and forgot what it was they set out to accomplish in the first place. Ostensibly this part of the exhibition was intended to portray the general sweep of Arts and Crafts influence in America, but it was not comprehensive enough to really do that job, nor did it enhance the “Chicago” angle of the exhibit. With the exception of two small pieces by Midwestern jewelers Marie Zimmerman and Mildred Watkins (whose pendant necklace is one of the loveliest objects in the exhibition), the exhibition takes an artistic and intellectual freefall into a realm that includes admittedly nice things (Greene and Greene furniture, Arthur Wesley Dow paintings, more than enough of the Gustav Stickley catalogue), but they do not enhance the Britain/Chicago angle. At all. And their selection seems incredibly hit-or-miss. This is especially true of the display of some two dozen Pictorialist photographs which apparently have some philosophical underpinning in common with the Arts and Crafts movement, but their inclusion was really a stretch. Mind you, there are worse things you can do with your time than look at Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, but this part of the exhibition in particular reveals significant mission drift—especially on the heels of what felt like a really good start.

The exhibition increasingly suffers just from plain old bad design: wall text without clear connection to displays, elements strewn far and wide through the room. Even in the one corner set up like a little sitting-room, the objects were treated so individually that it became painfully obvious just how challenging it is to show the Arts and Crafts—a movement tied to the “total work of art” environment, and the intimate domestic scale if ever there was one—in a museum setting (although, for the record, it’s not impossible: the Delaware Art Museum displays a fine collection of Arts and Crafts decorative arts and Pre-Raphaelite painting in a colorful gallery complete with Morris Wall paper and period-appropriate furniture that visitors are allowed to use). The irony of this movement, dedicated to beautifying ordinary objects and obliterating the notion of “fine” art, sequestered in a museum that has the gall to charge $60 for a family of four to visit, suddenly dawned on me as a sad legacy of this exhibit.

teco

Vase (Teco Potteries, ca. 1910)

The final room is the most disappointing for anyone who came for a celebration of Chicago design in the context of the British Arts and Crafts movement. Such parallel movements as department store development (earlier we read a note about Liberty of London and see a tiny sampling of Liberty goods; how interesting it would have been to compare Mr. Liberty with Marshall Field), social reform and education are all alluded to, but not really taken up. Text and a photo reference Hull House, but I could only find a single example of its craft production on display. Instead of looking more deeply into these lesser-known subjects—which have a very strong philosophical connection with the roots of the movement in Britain—, we get another load of Wright furniture and Sullivan ornament which is, you know, fine and all, but we’ve seen these things before. There’s a little (actually, too little) from local craft firms Teco, Gates Potteries and the Kalo Shop; their pottery and silver are both Chicago-specific and Arts and Crafts-inspired. More of this—which would have emphasized the role of Chicago like the exhibition title suggests—and fewer pieces of crummy Mackintosh furniture—allegedly part of the proof of the international quality of the movement, which again seems off-point—would have been very welcome. A few local goods that are rarely seen, and maybe for good reason, includes some incredibly clunky pieces by George Maher, and an orange velvet curtain with a thorn design that is really pretty great—but, it hung in a house that Maher designed for some very wealthy folks in Evanston: not exactly an example of the reformist story that is suggested (but not illustrated very well) on the other side of the room.

By the time I was at the end of the room and ready to exit—nearly blinded by one more far-too-brightly-lit stained glass by you-know-who (which reminds me: honestly, do we need another exhibition poster featuring another Wright window?)—I had the same feeling as I do when I am grading an essay by a student with a really good thesis, but who feels compelled to include every scrap of research he’s completed. That is understandable for a college student learning to self-edit; it’s not OK for the curatorial team for a big fat exhibition.

Lastly, my disappointment bordered on distraction by a final bit of wall text featuring a quotation by Hermann Muthesius (from his publication The English House—although the exhibition doesn’t tell us that), who, it turns out, is the source of the reference to “apostles” in the exhibition title. In 1901 he wrote of the Arts and Crafts:

Once the movement had gathered momentum, another way out emerged: the way of modern art. The essential means towards it had been the ethical values practiced by those apostles on the basis of medieval art, the sincerity, faithfulness, and pleasure taken by the workmen in their work, in general: the good workmanship, genuine materials and sound construction, in particular. The medieval forms that the apostles had advocated as indispensable concomitants of these values disappeared at last and out of the ashes rose the phoenix of modern art.

Muthesius is a provocative and significant choice to physically cap off the exhibition space that was opened with Pugin, the most medieval of the “apostles.” The means by which Pugin’s moralizing design theory eventually was hammered and bent into the ideas which spawned the Modernist movement of the 1920s is a fascinating road: you can draw a line (maybe not a straight one, but a line nonetheless) from the Red House to the Bauhaus. But that little intellectual thrill is only available if (1) you have read a whole bunch of books about this period and (2) if you go looking really hard for some sort of (intellectual) saving grace in this show.  But more importantly, interesting as the Pugin-Muthesius connection is, it too is off-message.

Because of the curators’ inconsistent treatment of their subject and scattered design of the galleries they don’t really accomplish the aim of making the exhibit more about Arts and Crafts philosophy than turn-of-the-century style; nor does it follow through on the promise of celebrating its host city.  In spite of the exhibition’s uneven quality and shifting points of view, it does accomplish the task of bringing together a variety of aesthetically delightful objects, from chairs to jewelry and from books to textiles.   The ultimate message of the “apostles” may be obscured in its translation from mid-nineteenth-century Britain to twenty-first-century Chicago, but the beauty of the objects transcends even a clunky exhibition.

crop voysey purple bird 1899

"Purple bird" (C. F. A. Voysey, 1899)

“Apostles of Beauty: Arts and Crafts from Britain to Chicago”runs from November 7, 2009 to January 31, 2010