The Arts and Crafts Movement is no secret in Bay Area architecture and furnishings. The Berkeley hills are dotted with homes designed by Bernard Maybeck, Julia Morgan and others while the California bungalow dots neighborhoods from north to south.
Imagine dwelling within one of these simple yet aesthetically beautiful homes: upswept gable peak with window flanked by ventilation louvers, pergola-style entry porch of massive timbers set in river rock, all redwood interiors, beamed ceiling hung with hammered copper light fixtures, tile-faced fireplace, Stickley chairs, Weller Coppertone vase, wallpaper friezes and tailored canvas Roman shades. Sound appealing? Much more is on hand across the bay.
At the de Young Museum is “International Arts and Crafts: William Morris to Frank Lloyd Wright,” organized by England’s Victoria and Albert Museum, where the movement began.
If you think you already know a lot, think again. The unique feature of the 300 multi-media pieces in this exhibit is their international scope. While admiring the exquisitely preserved museum-quality works I came to understand the diffusion of this movement, from England to America, continental Europe and as distant as Japan. Far beyond architecture and design, the social implications of Arts and Crafts remain strong today. Revolutionary changes were made to both aesthetics and lifestyle with new mind-sets toward ornamentation, simplicity and craftsmanship.
The mere collection of a vast array of artifacts is a Herculean task. Arranging such artifacts into pleasing combinations requires another set of skills. Teaching the viewer to observe artifacts within their historical context sets the icing on a fantastic cake. International Arts and Crafts overachieves in all respects.
I left with a true sense of the artisans involved and the philosophies behind their work. Not only architects and designers lead this movement. Craftsmen working in textiles, books, stained glass, ceramics, metalwork, jewelry, photography, furniture and fine arts all contributed to the total picture.
In 1887, reaction against Victorian mass-production and overt ornamentation resulted in England’s first Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, whose goal was to raise the status of decorative arts. George Watson’s gracefully curved iron and copper candlesticks and William Benson’s simple, yet striking, pansy-shaped copper and brass fire screen exemplify this goal.
Furniture with clean lines, subtly enhanced with marquetry in contrasting hues, allows the quality of the woods to speak for themselves. Simplicity carried over to textiles as well. Charles Voysey’s bedcover in block print silk with intertwined orange and blue tulip-like blooms the perfect compliment to a chestnut dresser adorned with hooks.
William Morris designed to protest “soulless goods” amid the decline of craftsmen and society; John Ruskin provided the words. Their ideas reached the populace through design firms and print. The proof sheet from a 1920s edition of Don Quixote displays distinctive lettering and illustration.
Many believed that the proper place for Arts and Crafts was in the country, where man was closest to nature. This nostalgia for local traditions is evident in Stanhope Forbes almost photographic painting, “A Fish on a Cornish Coast,” and George Sumner’s “Four Seasons,” panels that clearly display reverence for a changing landscape. These ideals made their way into English gardens where harmony and a looser design by color revolutionized horticultural schemes.
The movement and exhibit next move to Europe where the need for national identity within an industrialized society was just as strong. In Germany, artisans from the Darmstadt Artists’ Colony created furniture using exotic wood inlays like the handsome cabinet by Joseph Olbrich. In Vienna, Joseph Hoffman used classic fluted silver fitted with ebony and braid to create a Tea and Coffee Service fit for a Queen. Historic Viking traditions are evident in Scandinavian Arts and Crafts work, in both a drinking vessel and an armchair designed by Lars Kinsaruik in painted wood.
In America, the Movement turned to the native landscape, climate and a romanticized Native American heritage for inspiration. I saw vases painted with the image of a Navaho chief and designs taken from Indian basketry.
Unique to this exhibit are four domestic settings, each illustrating the importance of the home. One room, appearing to have been pulled from a California bungalow, features the work of Gustav Stickley, who labeled the living room the heart of a home, the perfect sanctuary for the workingman. My long contemplation lovingly took in the sturdy hexagonal table fronting a fireplace fitted with simple wood mantle and green tiles. I could easily picture the family at the end of the day, lit from above by ceiling lanterns of copper with hammered glass. A handsome, uncluttered room in greens and browns reflecting nature’s colors.
Instant name recognition came with the Prairie School of Frank Lloyd Wright, who viewed both the inside and outside of a home as a complete work of art. He opened interior spaces, eliminated excess ornamentation and brought in nature with wood and rocks. The exhibit’s dining room attests to Wright’s beliefs. Simple, yet imposing dining table and high backed chairs require a great space. Motifs from native plants appear in his Tree of Life window and carpet.
Bernard Maybeck and the Greene brothers provide name recognition to those familiar with Berkeley architecture. I admired rough-hewn redwood gates, appearing Gothic, from Maybeck’s masterwork, the First Church of Christ Scientist. Designers and craftsmen, Charles and Henry Greene created specific furniture, room by room. Exotic koa wood, along with mahogany, ebony and oak blend into a handsome Library Table while rich amber glass panels used in four-meter wide Entry Doors subtly shift patterns of light.
My biggest surprise came in the final exhibit rooms displaying the movement’s influence in Japan. Here too, Westernization and industrialization alarmed artisans concerned with retaining Japanese national identity. Again, craftsmen returned to traditions and the simple beauty of folk crafts as their muses. A utilitarian woven Back Protector worn by a farmer carrying heavy loads is anything but. Intricate straw work in patterns of black and white elevate this to the category of art. The powerful stoneware bowls of Bernard Leach, who studied in Japan, and Hamada Shoji, resonate with power and traditional line designs. Leach’s Tree of Life bowl represents his ties to the nature themes of Wright’s Prairie School.
Reaching the end of this masterful exhibit, I was ready to give it a second round. I’ve always loved this style and felt affirmed to realize that the philosophy mirrored my own. Belief in a simpler way of life, allowing the beauty of natural materials to shine, nature’s inclusion in everyday life, the value of tradition and fine craftsmanship—all ideals close to my own. In truth, I’m just an Arts and Crafts groupie. Spend time in this exhibit and you may be one too.
De Young Museum
Arts and Crafts exhibit runs through June 18. Adults $15; seniors, $12; youths 13-17 years old, $11. Audio and docent tours available. Open 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday.
Golden Gate Park, 50 Higawara Tea Garden Drive. (415) 863-3330. www.deyoungmuseum.org.
Photograph by Christine Smith
A re-creation of rooms from the Mikuniso, a Pavilion built for a Tokyo exhibition in 1928.