Saturday, March 9, 2013

Arts and Crafts in the Pacific Northwest

Pendleton Woolen Mills ad with a homey interior, 1910 catalog.
The Daily Glean frowns on the old bait and switch, but the book guest poster Karen Mulder chose to write about today—The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Pacific Northwest by Lawrence Kreisman and Glenn Mason—was so popular it sold out before we could get her blog up! We do hope you enjoy her well-informed survey of the topic, and will take a look at similar titles suggested at the end.

Quick! Name a prominent Oregonian or Washingtonian artist in the Arts and Crafts style! Um … errrr. It’s so easy to forget, in our hyper-connected world, just how long West Coasters remained isolated from their Eastern counterparts. Until the Panama Canal opened in 1914, the options for crossing the States involved bumping along on transcontinental trains over several weeks’ time, or navigating the treacherous Straits of Magellan by ship off the coast of Argentina for several months. (Left: “Miss Spokane” window for Chamber of Commerce by Jones and Dillingham, 1912.) 
Well into the 1940s, many West Coast artists often gave up opportunities to send their work into the art markets of New York, Boston or Philadelphia because they couldn’t afford the ticket fare, or feared that their prized pieces might be damaged or even lost during the long journey east and back. California architects barely received a nod from the east until the 1970s, even though the M.I.T.-trained Greene brothers made quite an impact with magnificent cribs like Pasadena’s Gamble House, and Frank Lloyd Wright plus sons augmented the scene. But they were transplants, after all.
Pattern book for china painters, Keramic Studio, 1916.
Ideas traveled faster than things, of course, and were not likely to get as dinged up in the process. Still, don’t aesthetic innovations have to be experienced or demonstrated in three dimensions to be fully grasped, in reality? Westerners had to make do with sketchy print reviews or smudgy black-and-white reproductions. This is why, during the late 1800s and early 1900s, expositions in American cities featuring miles of display cases and halls of art and temporary architectural follies figured so importantly in the regional advancement of American art. All of which brings us to a classy 2007 review that epitomizes the dilemma: The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Pacific Northwest.
While there is always much to love about the entire Arts and Crafts ethos—hammered coppers, naturalistic but pleasantly flattened lines and forms, useful yet well-designed items, and homey spaces—history’s narrative tells us that William Morris’ idealistic, socialist dream for art of the ‘heart, head and hand’ that made society better for everyone through better design was a failure. Morris’ products, in the end, were deemed elitist rather than affordable, and did little to advance the lives of the lower or middle classes. Like Art Nouveau, which started a few decades after Morris’ design reform, the horrors of World War I put the kibosh on purely decorative art, with the final nails in the coffin supplied by the subsequent economic depression. Then, in this country, the Colonial Revival overtook the utopian, rusticatin’ notions of the Roycrofters and other communitarians by the mid-1920s, riding along on a swell of postwar patriotic fervor.
The Pacific Northwest experienced the same timeline, but cycled through the movement in relative obscurity—a gap that the authors, Kreisman and Mason, expose in their campaign to boost the region’s profile.
Postcard of forestry pavilion ‘made of Oregon logs,’ Lewis and Clark Centennary Expo, 1905.
The Pacific Northwest had, of course, tons of good wood stock to offer—we learn that the lumber potential of the area was a $400 billion business per year, amounting to some 300 billion feet of lumber. The area’s first millionaires, usually occupied in wood-related trades like shipbuilding or lumber, called upon the woodworking talents of its immigrant class, which included Scandinavians, Russians and Asians. It seems quite natural that the main architect of the Rustic movement, Robert Reamer, whose heavy hearthstone and tree trunk confections at Old Faithful Inn in Wyoming (1903) and elsewhere, ended up in the Northwest—all the better to hear the siren song of his timber muse. 

Mining the region’s distinctions, the authors suggest that the coast’s geographical orientation naturally faces the Pacific Rim, which in essence makes the cultural assimilation of Asian design more likely, even though that trend had widely affected the Western arts ever since Japan opened its port to Commodore Perry. On top of this, examples of the region’s Native American and particularly Alaskan indigenous arts abounded, nicely dovetailing with the movement’s tendency to update or refine traditional design motifs.
In “Bungalows for Everyone,” the authors helpfully detail the rise of the modestly-sized, shingled, wooden-trimmed house, first noted as a ‘new’ style out west in the 1902 Seattle Daily Bulletin. (Plus, it’s a great jingle for a housing confab, no?) The trend climaxes in a proposal to top a high rise in Seattle with a furnished bungalow, in 1915! Who knew? (Move me in, now!) Their text essentially illustrates the works of little known architects with prominent regional profiles, like Ellsworth Story or Kirtland Cutter (uh, who?). Imagine carpenters framing and fitting your new house for $3.50 a day (!), throwing together a lovely Four-Square or Sears & Roebuck bungalow for about $5,000. (No garage, though. Because…no cars!). Mirroring the Adirondack craze back east for rustic yet comfy ‘camps’ on numerous islands in Puget Sound.
Will Ransom’s 1901 bookplate for Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott.”
While the text goes into the kind of detail that might work better for readers with a vested interest in the Northwest, or at least in-laws, the book’s beautiful array of images also entertains the visual cortex. We see Northwest architecture inside and out, examples from the applied arts, painting, print, and photography, and a few tips of the hat to womens’ contributions. One of the most fascinating angles that the authors provide, however, relates to their appreciation for the impact of exhibitions, curiosity shops, and expositions in the west during the opening decade of the 20th century. As German designer/architect Peter Behrens proudly reported to his colleagues in the Jugendstil, Vienna Werkst├Ątte and Secession movements, wealthy Americans snapped up every shred of the Arts and Crafts–tinged goods presented in the German pavilion during the 1904 St. Louis Expo.
Assemblage of locally available items in early 20th century, mostly from author Glenn Mason’s collection.

Kreisman and Mason correctly frame the importance of publications as transmitters of design, referring constantly to Ladies Home Journal and House Beautiful as essential visual promoters for the Arts and Crafts wave. Of course, the time-honored practice of extracting floor plans and facades out of plan books often leads to very ‘flat’ reiterations of the original projects illustrated, and the authors don’t try to gloss over this. On the other hand, they stress that the temporary architectural follies at fairs and expos allowed budding designers not just to see, but to experience spatial constructions and details. For example, the plaster-and-straw stage set of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago galvanized the City Beautiful movement, ultimately reformulating showpiece cities like Washington, D.C. in the Beaux Arts style. San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific expo, on the heels of the city’s devastating earthquake, showcased neoclassicism, while San Diego’s Panama-Californian expo that same year, in Balboa Park, made Spanish Colonial or Mission style the ‘go-to’ fashion to represent California’s distinctive identity. Oregon and Washington’s pavilions on these fairgrounds often evinced a kind of cultural confusion about state identities, showing off the wood trade with Swiss chalet-styled buildings, overblown shingle bungalows, and even classical temple facades flawlessly built out of good Oregon fir or Washington cedar, with Alaskan totem poles thrown in here and there for good measure. But to their credit, Kreisman and Mason augment the typical timeline of important expositions with the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centenary, in Portland, and the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific expo, describing in detail two regionally significant events that get short shrift elsewhere.
Watercolor of tile and fresco design, Kirtland Cutter, c. 1910.
Marcel Duchamp touted New York and good plumbing as America’s finest exports. C.R. Ashbee, the main English apologist for the Arts and Crafts in the States, who toured the Pacific Northwest in 1909 and 1916, said he was struck most by the region’s gob-smackingly beautiful mountains…and its libraries. While libraries in the United Kingdom seemed to be busy guarding books as property, he theorized, western libraries were virtually propagandistic about sharing the knowledge that books and journals supplied. Likewise, this labor of love will add a completely new dimension to the huge and numinous sphere that we think of as the Arts and Crafts.

Art and architectural historian Karen L. Mulder’s favorite self-designed seminar for the Corcoran College of Art + Design (Washington, D.C.) traces various offshoots of the British Arts and Crafts movement to reveal how marketing strategies impact design in the 19th and 20th centuries, eventually culminating in … IKEA.

Related Reading: The Art of Craft: Contemporary Works from the Saxe Collection; Decorative Arts and Architecture of the 1920s; Bringing Modernism Home: Ohio Decorative Arts, 1890–1960.

1 comment:

  1. Saw an exhibit at the Washington State History Museum that I believe was inspired by this book. It was captivating.