A Disaster for the Crafts


Objects: USA was an exhibition at the Smithsonian that opened in the fall of 1969.  It was a  comprehensive collection of  "Works by Artist-Craftsmen in Ceramic, Enamel, Glass, Metal, Plastic, Mosaic, Wood and Fiber"

Art Critic Barbara Rose in New Yorker Magazine (June 1972) reviewed the show characterizing  it "a disaster for the crafts".  She writes: 

"The individual, divorced from the community of artisans, taking from fine art the license of self expression, amusement and occasional formal interest, is not capable of participating in a genuine craft tradition.  Objects:  USA, consequently, is a collection of absurdist fantasies produced by individual egos striving for self-expression as unwilling to assume any role of social responsibility as the fine artist."

I couldn't agree with her more and the same is true over 40 years later.  This followed the twentieth-century trend of craft being almost entirely consumed by the industrial revolution and what little craft that remained lost its identity as it struggled to enter the more prestigious art world.  Curators and collectors and craftspersons themselves, with the best of intentions and reverence for the work of craftspersons, attempted to "elevate" the objects and their makers to the level of fine artists and their works.  There were many attempts, some more successful than others, to promote craft so that they could command the prices and recognition that artists received.  Objects: USA  was one of the most well produced efforts to this end.  The problem here is that craft and art are not nuanced shades of each other as often described but entirely different things.   Craft objects have utility.  Art objects do not.  Craft is affordable and accessible to the many.  Art is or aspires to be for the consumption of the aristocratic class.  Craft is not self-consciously made and is usually unsigned.  Art is a conscious act of individual expression and often loses value if unsigned or unattributed.  

"As long as craft objects are useless, they are categorized more closely related to contemporary painting and sculpture than to the craft movements of the past."

-Barbara Rose

In many cases the craft world was surrendering the defining values of craft in order to position their products in the much more lucrative art world.  While this practice proved commercially successful for a few who made the transition from craftsman to artist, they left their values behind and the movement dramatically changed the meaning of the word craft in America where individual expression is so highly valued.  Craft museums and schools now offer exhibitions and classes in what is unmistakably art, lacking in most or all of the qualities of craft.  The traditional materials and tools of craft are present but we are at a loss to differentiate them from art.  Don't get me wrong, art is great but I like craft too...wherever it is.







Chesterton & The Rise of the Salesman

“Thrift is poetic because it is creative; waste is unpoetic because it is waste.”

― G.K. ChestertonWhat's Wrong with the World

Chesterton (29 May 1874 – 14 June 1936), was called "a man of colossal genius" by George Bernard Shaw.  Much of his work challenged strongly entrenched social conventions.   I would normally try to summarize his ideas with words of my own but I think Dale Ahlquist says it perfectly in this short essay for the the American Chesterton Society.



Part of the idea of what people refer to as “The American Way of Life,” is wrapped up in the whole notion of our “Standard of Living.” The “Living Standard” is a measure of consumer spending. It is concerned with how many things we can buy, how expensively we are able to live, what luxuries we might afford. For many (perhaps most) Americans, the purpose of work is to earn a wage or salary in order to support the level of consuming that we believe is right for us and will make us happy.

Americans will say they reject these materialistic ideals. Yet they might find it difficult to explain how their vision of work and leisure differs from the “getting and spending” syndrome that plagues our society.

Chesterton’s writings offer a ready cure for this disease. He will remind us that work is or should be a vocation and that it is really more fun to produce than to consume. He will remind us that the end purpose of work is a product, not a wage, and that all the exchanges in which people exploit one another, both socially and financially, are also opportunities for people to dignify one another.

Chesterton lamented that “the spotlight of social importance” had passed from workmanship to salesmanship and from thrift to indebtedness. He regretted that “the tricks of every trade are tricks of selling things rather than tricks of making them.” He knew that the getting and spending lifestyle is no road to any kind of happiness. Chesterton called his alternative “Distributism,” and those who dismiss it as “impractical” have nothing to offer us but materialistic dreams of avarice and clutter.

And for further reading in Chesterton’s works, see “The Enemies of Property” and “The Modern Slave” in What’s Wrong with the World and “A Workman’s History of England” in Utopia of Usurers.


German: [gəˈzamtˌkʊnstvɛʁk], translated as total work of art or total work of craft

Ernst Ludwig House

Ernst Ludwig House

The philosopher K. F. E. Trahndorff was the first known to use the term and  Richard Wagner used Gesammtkunstwerk in 1849 to describe the combination of different arts that all contributed to a greater whole.  In his case it was music, drama, theatrical effects and dance that contributed to a whole performance.  This is a great thing about the German language.  The Grammar allows words to be combined into larger words that have more specific meaning.

Gesamtkunstwerk is more meaningful for me as it relates to architecture where it is a term used to describe a project where nearly every element of a building and its contents are considered a single work or part of a whole.  Some more well known examples are:  Centre Le Corbusier, anything by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Bauhaus, the Darmstadt Artists’ Colony and a personal favorite, the studio/home of Wharton Esherick.  In these projects the furniture, hardware fittings and architecture are all part of the work.  There are obviously many other examples that could have been executed without the creator ever having knowledge of the term Gesamtkunstwerk.

The home of Wharton Esherick

The home of Wharton Esherick


"The ultimate aim of all artistic activity is building! ... Architects, sculptors, painters, we must all get back to craft! ... The artist is a heightened manifestation of the craftsman. ... Let us form ... a new guild of craftsmen without the class divisions that set out to raise an arrogant barrier between craftsmen and artists! ... Let us together create the new building of the future which will be all in one: architecture and sculpture and painting."

Walter Gropius-

Walter Gropius did not envision that such a work would be executed by a single craftsman but it could be....what would your Gesamtkunstwerk look like?

Joy in Labor

On a small but honest plaque in the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan:

On a small but honest plaque in the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan:

Henry Ford's decision in 1914 could be seen as generous and positive.  The workers were joining a growing middle class after all.  By doubling their pay, many of his workers were able to afford a car and also become customers.  

But it is just as easy to frame it in a negative light.  Even with the higher pay, the repetitive tasks were still boring and relentless.  The high turnover decreased but the workers still disliked their jobs and how they spent the majority of their waking hours.  This seems a very inhumane decision made by both the management and the workers.    

I first learned of the term 'joy in labor' reading Unto This Last by art critic and writer John Ruskin where he famously challenges industrialization and the economic theories of his day that failed to account for the presence or lack of joy in labor among other things.  

Nearly a century later there were echoes of Ruskin's ideas coming from the JFK.

“The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

John F. Kennedy

It is difficult to rationalize or justify decisions based on subjective qualities like enjoying work. The value of learning, connection, joy and meaning in the production of goods and services for others is still difficult to quantify although there does seem to be agreement that these are desirable traits.  And there is a large body of modern research establishing the relationship between happiness and productivity.  Happy workers are more productive.  Productive workers are more happy.  

Despite the research, many of the people I know today eagerly look forward to weekends and vacations from their work. They are presumably looking for some of that joy and meaning so conspicuously absent in their daily work routine.   The concept of enjoying labor seems so foreign in the U.S. today that many aspire to a life where they can stop working all together. Happiness will be theirs when they stumble on that clever product that can be manufactured for pennies in China and sold on QVC by the millions.   My guess is they will be about as happy as lottery winners.   



The Law of All Things: Form Ever Follows Function

American Louis Sullivan, mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright, has been called "the father of Modernism" and "the father of the skyscraper".   He is credited for the well known modernist design credo:  "Form follows function".   Taken out of context and revised, this idea is often misunderstood.  Here is the whole statement:

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human, and all things super-human, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.'[8]

Sullivan, in turn, attributes the idea to a Roman architect and engineer named Marcus Vitruvius Pollio.  Around 20 B.C. Vitruvius wrote De architectura, the oldest surviving treatise on architecture.  In it he declares (in Latin) that structures must be solid, useful and beautiful.  There seems to be plenty of room for argument in favor of ornamentation in the interpretation of beautiful.  

How did Vitruvius interpret this credo?  Looking at his comprehensive work, De architectura, by beautiful, he means well proportioned, after the human body, using the rules of the classic temples of Rome and Greece.  The decorations at the top and bottoms of columns and elsewhere are described as elements imitating nature, earlier building techniques or attempts to cover features that were considered unattractive.

from De architectura

from De architectura


Like William Morris who once wrote “Nothing useless can be truly beautiful”  and then went on to design decorative wallpaper, stained glass, and textiles for most of his life, Sullivan decorated his buildings with complex ornate motifs that became his signature but certainly went well beyond simple utility.


Frank Lloyd Wright modified Sullivan's statement for his own use by stating that "Form and function are one".  Wright loved to embellish too though.  Most of his work is rooted in pragmatism but when we think of his contribution to architecture, we can't avoid the images of his famous motifs rendered in stained-glass or textile block.

And then there was Adolf Loos, an architect who born in Austria in 1870 just three years after Frank Lloyd Wright was born in the United States.  Loos delivered a lecture titled Ornament and Crime in 1910 directly attacking the use of ornament in the arts using moral and evolutionary arguments.  "The evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects"

 Loos practiced what he preached.   The radically innovative Loos House below was not consistent with the fashions of the period and was criticised by some. Planters were added to the window sills as a result a disagreement with the client.  His simple pragmatic work was a true reflection of his values against the opposition of traditional opinion.  With or without acknowledging it, all Modernists are indebted to his uncompromised genius. 

Loos House, 1910 (aka the house without eyebrows)

Loos House, 1910 (aka the house without eyebrows)

Vilem and Gertruda Kraus Family by Adolf Loos, 1931  from www.pilsen.eu

Vilem and Gertruda Kraus Family by Adolf Loos, 1931  from www.pilsen.eu





This above all.   To Thine own self be true;

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

-W. Shakespeare,  Hamlet

Be authentically yourself and it will all work itself out.  This reads like wise advice from a loving parent and familiar principles from the worlds of craft and Modernism. From our past, authenticity in purpose, material, place and process are values of both Modernists like Neutra and the British Arts & Crafts movement.

So where does America stand on these ideas as a community today? 

In the book titled Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want (Harvard Business School Press, 2007) the authors give loads of advice on what to do to take full advantage of the newly discovered enthusiasm consumers have for authenticity.  The book does not counsel the reader on how to be more authentic but instead advises on how to render the consumers perception of your company more authentic.

"If Fake..then you should mask your inauthenticity and create a self-contained offering that obscures the inconsistency between what is said and what is done"

 -James H. Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine II

In another best selling business book Rework, we see sharply contrasting advice:

"Standing for something isn't just about writing it down. It's about believing it and living it." 

"That's the path we all should take. Get the chisel out and start making something real. Anything else is just a distraction."

-Jason Fried 

Hmmm,..one of these things is not like the other. Who do you trust? These Harvard business school guys or Mr. Fried and Shakespeare.

Mask your inauthenticity?  Create an offering that obscures? That sounds like this fake news business that we have all been hearing so much about.  It's a nice way describing the act of lying and I wonder if their mothers know they are encouraging others to do it.  

The relatively young American brand Shinola has used some of the techniques suggested in the book to artfully place itself into the perceived-authentic-Made-in-America-space despite the fact that the vast majority of their product manufacture occurs in factories in China, Thailand and elsewhere. 

last year the Federal Trade Commission  insisted that Shinola re-label their watches and leather goods to more accurately reflect their true origins. Having already established the brand, I don't think consumers even noticed the change (or wanted to see their beloved "local" brand in a different light).  

There is the argument that we can't manufacture competitively in the U.S. because of our higher labor costs.  Yes, a lot has changed in the last half century.  So much that maybe we are not supposed to be making complex obsolete status-symbol time pieces in America in 2017.  I'm just saying that there is probably a more capable, reliable and accurate time piece on your mobile phone already.

Becoming more real may have other unintended positive effects too. Like, maybe you'll make some friends. So remember, it is best as Oscar Wilde said it:

Be Yourself.  Everyone else is already taken.







Artist or Craftsperson

Architects, sculptors, painters, we all must return to the crafts! For art is not a 'profession.' There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman. The artist is an exalted craftsman.  

                                                                              - Walter Gropius.

The Second Bauhaus Campus

The Second Bauhaus Campus

I guess if you are the founder of Bauhaus you can say things like this without angering the crowd.

Walter Gropius

Walter Gropius

The elevation of the individual artist in society is a relatively recent Western invention.  During the middle ages in Europe, the term artisan simply described workers that achieved a level of mastery in their trade.  The wealthy commissioned works and they were less likely to be signed.

Today the words artist, artisan and craftsperson have unique meanings for all of us.  We sometimes use the term "fine art or fine artist" to differentiate the craftsperson and the artist.  For many the term Artisan and Craftsperson are synonyms.  For Walter Gropius, they are all synonyms. How we value beauty, creativity, individuality, and utility alters the meaning of these words for each of us.

The Japanese philosopher and art critic Soetsu Yanagi challenges the "Fine Art" works or what he calls "Bourgeois art" to stand on their own merit without the attachment of a famous name and often finds them wanting or inferior to their more modest counterparts. 

I find myself both attracted to and repelled by the struggle for liberty and individualism that are defining American values.  I respect the wisdom of our founding fathers.  If we can just keep the "all men are created equal" part in mind long enough to push back the rising tide of egos, maybe we'll have a chance at producing good work, flourishing as a nation and surviving as a species. 



Jean Prouvé (1901-1984)

Jean Prouvé apprenticed as a blacksmith before opening his own workshop/studio in France where his designs were produced. Most of his products show his amazing intuition and experience with the properties of wood and metal. Practical efficiency and accessibility without compromising aesthetics was of primary interest in his work. These are values also shared by Eames, McCobb and Frankl, some of his mid-century American contemporaries. He collaborated with many great architects and other designers throughout his prolific career and the results are even more impressive a generation later.   Prouvé has claimed his place in history as a brilliant Modernist as collectors around the world compete for authentic examples of his work.  His commitment to pragmatic modern values combined with intimate hands-on experience with materials and processes make him one of my all-time top-five design inspirations.

"Never design anything that cannot be made,"

-Jean Prouvé

Good advice.   All experienced designers know that how something is made can't be separated from the design.  If the making is not considered, the design isn't done.  To be unconcerned with the resources required to make something is to exit the world of design and enter the world of fashion.      


The Good Borrow, The Great Steal

This aphorism or some version of it looks to be one of the more common misattributions in modern history. Whether you credit Tennyson, Picasso, T.S. Elliot or Stravinsky, it clearly has powerful meaning across the creative spectrum. Looking specifically at the design of some great Modern chairs by great designers, we find plenty of evidence that the great designers steal.

Modern master Hans Wegner called this famous chair (below left) the "Chinese Chair" after the Ming Dynasty chair from centuries earlier (below right).


Kaare Klint referred explicitly to the works and values of the American Shaker movement when he created his classic church chair (below left) derived from the form of the classic and pragmatic Shaker chair (below right).  

The architect and Domus editor Gio Ponti worked closely with the craftsmen of Chiavari, to create his own very austere version of the popular Italian chair.  (Gio Ponti 699 Chair, below left, Chiavari chair below right).

Referring fondly to the Thonet bentwood chair (below right), Poul Henningsen declared in the Danish Design Publication Kritisk Revy "It does not try to be false or mendacious in any way". By using steel, Henningsen was able to remove and combine features to achieve his own design (below left).  In my opinion, this example is the only one of these four where the virtues of the changes are in question.  It is just difficult to improve on Thonet..

So, stealing ideas is apparently just fine.  There is a humility in acknowledging that those who came before us came up with some great solutions.  So lets get to it...just steal the good bits and make it better..

A Systematic Disobedience

John Ruskin, 1819-1900

John Ruskin, 1819-1900

I've heard it said that people who write clearly think clearly.  John Ruskin wrote clearly...and he wrote plenty on plenty of subjects.  He published books, essays and poems on economics, labor, justice, nature, art, politics, architecture, travel and even a lovely fairy tale.   It's difficult to get beyond the surface of an exploration into craft without the contributions of John Ruskin. His writings are widely credited with William Morris  and others for inspiring the Arts & Crafts Movements in Europe, North America and Japan.

He was an uncompromising social critic in a way that is barely recognizable today.  For example, I have always been confused by the contradictions between the modern Western Christian lifestyle and the bible.  John Ruskin sums it up like this:

"I know of no previous instance in history of of a nation's establishing a systematic disobedience to its professed religion.  The writing which we (verbally) esteem as divine, not only denounce the love of money as the source of all evil, and as an idolatry abhorred of the Deity, but declare mammons service to be the accurate and irreconcilable opposite of God's service:  and, whenever they speak of riches absolute, and poverty absolute, declare woe to the rich, and blessings to the poor."    -John Ruskin, Unto This Last

Plenty of people were offended by this but Gandhi was so strongly influenced by Unto This Last that he went to live in a commune and translated it into his native Gujarati.

Ruskin argued that the "science" of political economy espoused by John Stuart Mill and others failed to consider the social affections that bind communities together.   Here he offers a few words on the brilliant innovation of division of labor in our new industrial economy:

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.     — John Ruskin, Cook and Wedderburn

So here we are left questioning the teachings of our elders.  Questioning the assumption that it is desirable and virtuous to rise above labor and become a professional thinker, wondering if our modern ideas about profit and commerce are morally sound.  I'm nearly certain they are not so I'm going to go make a chair...