English Arts & Crafts Furniture: Projects & Techniques for the Modern Maker

English Arts & Crafts Furniture: Projects & Techniques for the Modern Maker

by Nancy R. Hiller

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Overview

"Arts & Crafts" has come to be a name for a style of decorative arts, but just try to pin it down. It's a huge challenge, because it encompasses such a broad variety of work. Early pieces, such as some of those by William Morris, draw from more ornate Victorian artifacts. Contrast these with the simpler, medieval-inspired work of Morris, the austere elegance of chairs and built-in cabinetry by Voysey, or furniture produced by the Barnsleys—never mind the clear Art Nouveau influences in much of Mackintosh's work. It quickly becomes clear just how broad this period in design history really is.

English Arts & Crafts Furniture explores the Arts & Crafts movement with a unique perspective on furniture designs inspired by English Arts & Crafts designers. Through examination of details and techniques as well as projects, you'll learn what sets English Arts & Crafts apart and gain a deeper understanding of the overall Arts & Crafts movement and its influences. In this book you'll find:

  •Insight into the history and culture surrounding the Arts & Crafts movement
  •An examination of influences that set English Arts & Crafts designers including William Morris, Charles Francis Annesley Voysey, Ernest Gimson, Ernest and Sidney Barnsley, and Charles Robert Ashbee apart from their American counterparts
  •3 complete furniture projects that illustrate traits representative of English Arts & Crafts: a Voysey chair, a hayrake table designed by Ernest Gimson and a sideboard design from the Harris Lebus company, England’s largest furniture maker at the time
Equal parts design survey and project book, English Arts & Crafts Furniture is a must-read for any serious fan of Arts & Crafts furniture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781440350825
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/26/2018
Pages: 144
Sales rank: 748,883
Product dimensions: 8.30(w) x 10.90(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Is Arts & Crafts a Style?

Mention the name "Arts & Crafts," and most people's thoughts turn to objects: a craftsman bungalow, a table by Stickley, a Mackintosh chair.

But there are some problems with identifying the Arts & Crafts movement primarily in terms of objects. First, the buildings, furniture, and other artifacts we describe as Arts & Crafts vary widely in their appearance. So many classics of Arts & Crafts design have become beloved icons that we tend to gloss over just how wildly they differ from one another. The 1859 Red House designed by Philip Webb and William Morris, a playful agglomeration of red brick and roof tile with assorted windows, gables pointing steeply skyward, and clay pot chimneys, is considered a classic example of Arts & Crafts architecture. But so is Greene and Greene's 1908 Gamble House: long and low, coursed with cedar shingles, its roof pitched just enough to shed rain, with broad overhangs for shade. Sure, these structures are separated by half a century and thousands of miles, which accounts for their divergent looks. Yet each is considered an icon of Arts & Crafts style.

Consider a couple of well-known furniture pieces, Gustav Stickley's adjustable back chair Number 2342, first produced in 1902 – chunky, plain, and practical – and Mackintosh's 1898 Argyle – slender, elegant, dramatic. Designed within four years of each other, these two are contemporaries. Both are considered classics of Arts & Crafts design (though as with many Mackintosh designs, the Argyle chair leans strongly in the direction of Art Nouveau). But if you didn't know this, would you be inclined to cite these as examples of a single style? I doubt it.

"Unfair comparisons!" you may respond to all of the above. "In each case, one's American, the other British."

So let's look at a pair of English sideboards produced within less than two decades of each other, one by Charles Frances Annesley Voysey and one by Ernest Gimson. The latter is highly refined, the former extremely simple, almost crude by comparison. In what sense may these completely different takes on the sideboard form be said to belong to a singular style?

Given the aesthetic diversity of objects that fall under the heading "Arts & Crafts style," it should come as no surprise that the broad range of pieces we identify this way are unified more by their expression of principles than by shared visual attributes. It's widely understood that the Arts & Crafts movement sprang from a critique of the dehumanizing effects on workers who labored in the urban factories that proliferated with the Industrial Revolution. The massive migration of working people from the countryside to cities in search of employment led to overcrowded households and the development of slums and poorhouses whose miserable, unsanitary conditions are best known to most of us thanks to the tales of Charles Dickens. Workers, many of them children, labored sometimes up to 16 hours a day, seven days a week, amid unguarded blades and gear-driving belts exposed like tentacles, ready to trap the unwary in a lethal embrace. Injuries, including amputations, were common. Little if any allowance was made for those afflicted by illness or exhaustion; contemporary accounts by workers and overseers alike describe how those in charge goaded the weary and punished those who fainted like abused farm animals forbidden a moment's rest. In the nineteenth-century factory, a worker existed merely to serve the machine, feeding it materials and allowing it to determine the quality of the finished product. The inhuman exploitation of working people eventually provoked riots, bringing to a head the need for change.

Beyond the often-brutal conditions endured by factory workers, the Arts & Crafts movement's founders decried the quality of the products these poor souls spent their lives making. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, England saw a massive expansion of its middle class, with a corresponding increase in the market for manufactured goods. The sheer quantity and variety of factory-made wares newly available by the late-nineteenth century would have been unimaginable to members of previous generations. Furniture was one of these commodities.

Today's photo-printed "maple" particleboard end table held together with hot-melt glue and staples has its equivalents (though arguably not so heinous) among examples of mid-nineteenth-century furniture, when "fancy" was synonymous with good taste. Manufacturers often used cheap materials and construction methods, concealing them behind showy veneers, elaborate pressed-metal hardware, and machine-carved mouldings. Add it all together – the poor construction, the profit-driven factory owners' lack of concern with what we, today, would call design, and then remind yourself of the quality of life experienced by those who made these wares, with no health and safety standards, inadequate medical care, and cold comfort at home. Never mind the merely unexamined life being not worth living; imagine pouring your life's blood into that black hole of misery. The stultifying work of today's "Dilbert" takes on a cheery glow when compared to nineteenth-century English industrial conditions; even if you spend your days devising inane names for paint colors (a quick search of 2017 offerings turned up "Casual Elegance" and "Whirlwind" in the Olympic grays; "Dinner Party" and "Paper Lantern" among the Benjamin Moore reds), there's a good chance you can go home after eight or nine hours and do something you find meaningful.

But as I mentioned earlier, the link between the Arts & Crafts movement's origins and these deplorable conditions, along with the pretentious products brought to market through this suffering, is widely appreciated. We seem to accept this connection as though it were sufficient unto itself: Exploiting workers and the witless customers who bought their wares + shlock design = the Arts & Crafts movement. Yet a logical question still persists: namely, what accounts for the movement's aesthetic expressions, which, even when you take into account their diversity, clearly have something in common?

Let's take a short tour through a couple of British interiors.

Contrast the kind of design popular during Victorian times with that of Scottish architect Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott, who, like most architects of his era, also designed furniture and interiors. The Victorian room is cluttered with furniture, ornaments, drapes, rugs, and lamps. Every surface is covered with something, whether functional or ornamental, and all of the objects are gaudy. In contrast, the Baillie Scott design seems downright minimalist. There are few pieces of furniture, all of them simple to the point of starkness. The materials are natural: primarily wood, stone, and plaster. The architecture of the room is exposed, not covered up by finishes. And there's an astonishing openness to the space.

When you think about it, the Baillie Scott interior bears a striking resemblance to a medieval hall. It's sparsely furnished, built of natural materials, and the structural timbers are plainly visible. One important difference is worth mentioning: Many of Baillie Scott's interiors were designed for middle class homes. Several of the drawings in his 1906 book Houses & Gardens: Arts & Crafts Interiors have titles such as "A House in Poland," "Interior of a Flat," "Terrace House" (i.e., a row house in the United States), and "Roadside House," all of them modest accommodations, whereas medieval rooms such as the banqueting hall at Haddon Hall in Derbyshire were enjoyed by the fortunate few who owned land at a time when the vast majority of the English population did not.

The medieval resonance in Baillie Scott's interiors is no coincidence, and its significance goes well beyond the renewal of a fashion in home decor. The medieval revival of the late nineteenth century expressed underlying values central to the Arts & Crafts movement. More commonly known as Gothic Revival, it embodied select qualities of character believed to have been displayed by the original Goths, a hardy lot who populated areas of modern-day Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, and France. Two branches of these historical Goths, the Visigoths and Ostrogoths, played pivotal roles in the fall of the Roman Empire (cue booing hordes; the significance of this will be clear before long), thereby helping to usher in the Middle Ages (bring on the cheers).

Victorian interest in medieval art and design began with the architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. In 1836, at the age of 24, Pugin published his book Contrasts, following it seven years later with another, An Apology for the Present Revival of Christian Architecture in England. In these works, Pugin suggested looking to Gothic architecture, which extended beyond buildings themselves to stained glass, metalwork, textiles, wallpapers, and jewelry, as an antidote to what he called "the present decay of taste." But for Pugin, Gothic style was not an end in itself; its greater significance lay in its expression of Catholic values by devoted craftsmen. He called for a return to the faith and social structures of the Middle Ages, arguing that the paternalism of medieval Catholicism was more honest and honorable than the calculating efficiencies of Victorian times, when charity was actively discouraged as a result of Malthusian population theory and the 1834 New Poor Law. At least the fortunate Christian during medieval times had a duty to perform charitable deeds.

You need only have the dimmest knowledge of actual medieval history to appreciate that Pugin idealized the often-harsh realities of the Middle Ages. The nostalgia for medieval life stemmed from a view of the Middle Ages as a time when nature and the products of human labor were still unsullied by the rapacious industry Thomas Carlyle decried: still, in a sense, wild. More than mute material, they were understood as part of God's design, a design in which members of our own species played a key part. The connections between growing food and eating, making things and using them, were clear, direct, and regulated within a familiar social hierarchy. There was a sense, at least among those nineteenth-century social critics who urged the revival of medieval culture, that everyone – the horse, the ox, the tool-wielding woman and man – worked together for the sake of the greater good.

This harmonious realm had given way to a mechanistic conception of the universe and the rise of humanism: From then on, the world increasingly became a sort of Wild West of existential contingency with no manorial lord or guild master in charge.

In viewing design as an expression of the society that created it and arguing that Gothic culture offered better alternatives to the wasteful and exploitative ethos of his own day, Pugin provided a philosophical groundwork for the Arts & Crafts movement; Morris certainly recognized his contributions. But it was another social critic, John Ruskin, who argued that the best elements of Gothic culture could improve society and design without Catholicism as part of the picture.

Like Pugin, Ruskin characterized the supposedly wholesome culture of medieval England as Gothic. In his essay "The Nature of Gothic," he explained that in so doing, he did not mean to imply that he was using the word to denote people or buildings of literal Gothic descent, but was recommending certain virtues as an alternative to the slickness and luxury he attributed to southern European cultures – specifically Roman culture, which had played a central part in the development of modern science, thereby making way for the factory system and other ills of his own day. Ruskin's elaboration of these characteristics, which he calls moral elements, provides a cohesive and rich foundation for the wide-ranging Arts & Crafts aesthetic.

Ruskin's Moral Elements of Gothic

Ruskin ranked the elements of Gothic design in order of their importance:

1. Savageness

2. Changefulness

3. Naturalism

4. Grotesqueness

5. Rigidity

6. Redundance

Each had an equivalent quality in human character, specifically the character of those who made things:

1. Rudeness

2. Love of Change

3. Love of Nature

4. Disturbed Imagination

5. Obstinacy

6. Generosity

Savageness/Rudeness

It may strike some readers as bizarre that Ruskin placed topmost among his six moral elements of Gothic that of "savageness" or "rudeness." After all, most of us were not brought up to think that rudeness is desirable. If you speak Italian, you're probably familiar with the less violent connotation of the word selvaggio, to which our word "savage" is related. It simply means untamed. Picture a wild horse on the North American plains: well-muscled and full of vitality. Fending for himself. Free to run and graze, to mate, to tangle with his equine adversaries – or be attacked by a pack of wolves – and die a noble death. Because wild.

Those who studied Latin will understand Ruskin's appeal to the virtue of rudeness, a word derived from the Latin rus, which simply refers to the countryside. Ruskin, the renowned Victorian art critic who was also a literary and social critic, was not recommending the country bumpkin as exemplar, but calling for an injection of the honesty and passion he associated with country folk into the smug, well-mannered blandness and low spiritual expectations of his day. The city, as a concept, had come to be associated with pollution, corruption, and ill-health, all by-products of the industrial excesses Carlyle lamented. The countryside was nature's realm; it retained an innocence and sturdiness that held powerful appeal for many writers and artists at the turn of the century. Among these were Ernest Gimson, who, with the brothers Sidney and Ernest Barnsley, moved in 1893 to an area west of London known as the Cotswolds; one of Gimson's designs for a hayrake table is among the projects in this book. Charles Robert Ashbee also left London for the Cotswolds, taking his Guild of Handicraft to the village of Chipping Campden in 1902. Ashbee's workshop still survives, though instead of the various crafts it housed in his day, it's now home to a company of silversmiths.

Ruskin illustrated this most crucial element of Gothic by means of a contrast between southern climes, which he believed allow men to "gather redundant fruitage from the earth" and "bask in dreamy benignity of sunshine" and the admirable ruggedness of the north, where he saw a "look of mountain brotherhood between the cathedral and the Alp; this magnificence of sturdy power, put forth all the more energetically because the fine finger-touch was chilled away by the frosty wind, and the eye dimmed by the moor-mist, or blinded by the hail." No redundant fruitage of the earth for people of northern/Gothic climes. Instead, their fate was good old-fashioned work: to "break the rock for bread, and cleave the forest for fire...."

All drama and cultural bias aside, one chief rural characteristic Ruskin admired and thought lacking in Victorian England was vitality: a kind of struggle, or striving. Not just any struggle – he understood that factory workers struggled mightily – but the kind that allows for creative development and the honing of skill, with some worthy achievement as its end. He objected to the commercial practice of basing designs for buildings and manufactured products on uniform parts that could be easily fabricated, arguing that as human beings, we need to have our capacities challenged; otherwise, are we really alive? He thought it better to aim high – to wrestle with technical problems or complex joinery, to practice doggedly until we master an unfamiliar style of carving – even if the resulting work should end up less than perfect; only by embracing such challenge is it possible to experience the joy of our God-given capacities. "Do what you can," he wrote. But don't stint on the effort because you're afraid you may fail: "the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art." The Gothic schools of architecture were notable, he insisted, for their indulgent embrace of imperfection, provided that real effort was made in the exercise.

If you're hearing a distant echo of Stickley's motto "als ik kan" or David Pye's "workmanship of risk," you're on the right track. Ruskin appreciated that imperfection is ultimately a sign of life: "a sign of a state of progress and change." It wasn't that Ruskin was urging his fellows not to aim for perfection; rather, it was that the idea of perfection, of uniformity and smoothness, was so closely identified with the capabilities of machines – and also with the machine, figuratively speaking: the prevailing mechanistic view of the world that reduced everything, people included, to mere instrumental value.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "English Arts & Crafts Furniture"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Nancy R. Hiller.
Excerpted by permission of Popular Woodworking Books.
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Table of Contents

Introduction, xi,
Is Arts & Crafts a Style?, 1,
Ruskin's Moral Elements of Gothic, 6,
William Morris, 21,
The Projects in this Book, 25,
Voysey Two Heart Chair, 31,
An Intimate Assignation with a Chair, 32,
C.F.A. Voysey: Raising the Standard of British Design, 33,
"Keeping Voysey's Legacy Alive", 36,
The Chair, 41,
Building the Chair, 52,
"Cathryn Peters, the Wicker Woman©", 61,
Harris Lebus: Furniture for Everyman, 65,
Harris Lebus, 65,
"Defining Details", 70,
Harris Lebus Sideboard, 73,
Gimson & the Barnsleys: Craft for the Maker, 93,
Going Up the Country, 94,
Hayrake Table, 103,
"Decorative Gouging", 123,
"Butterfly Keys", 127,
Afterword, 129,
Image Credits/Permissions, 131,
Bibliography, 134,
Index, 136,
Acknowledgements, 141,

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