Chicago and the arts and crafts movement

October 2009 | "Chicago is the only American city I have seen where something absolutely distinctive in aesthetic handling of material has been evolved out of the industrial system" - C. R. Ashbee

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Chicago stood at the crossroads of the handcrafted and the machine-made, aspects that came to define the American arts and crafts movement. Chicago was a city of humble beginnings and expansive ambitions that concurrently embraced the movement's ideological roots and developed its modern technological possibilities. The city's artists and reformers admired and eagerly adopted the movement's British model, yet forged a new path, adapting machine technology to arts and crafts aesthetics and principles, creating, in the words of Charles Robert Ashbee, "something absolutely distinctive in aesthetic handling."1 The city's role as a leader in uniting hand and machine came to the fore in the research conducted for the exhibition "Apostles of Beauty": Arts and Crafts from Britain to Chicago, which opens on November 7 at the Art Institute of Chicago.


Chicagoans sympathized with the British movement from early on. England's call for social reform through education for the poor and immigrants as well as moral and spiritual uplift through art debuted in Chicago at Hull House, founded in 1889 by Jane Addams (1860-1935) and Ellen Gates Starr (1859-1940) and modeled on London's Toynbee Hall. In addition, the influential magazine House Beautiful, which was published in Chicago by Herbert S. Stone (1871-1915), featured articles about the British movement's elite-Ashbee and William Morris, among others. The English interior decorator and furniture designer Joseph Twyman (1842-1904) created a William Morris Room for Chicago's Tobey Furniture Company, which produced reinterpretations of English arts and crafts furniture. And artists and intellectuals further reinforced Chicagoans interest in the British movement through such organizations as the William Morris Society, established by Twyman and the University of Chicago professor Oscar Lovell Triggs (1865-1930) in 1903.

Perhaps the city's first exposure to the movement's key practitioners and theories was through Walter Crane (1845-1915), the painter, book illustrator, designer, and founder and first president of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in London, who arrived in Chicago in mid-December 1891, on an American tour accompanying an exhibition of his designs.2 An unrelenting socialist, Crane disparaged Chicago's labor inequalities, skyscrapers, and industrial conditions.3 In a modern era that was brimming with "ugliness," he advocated that artist-designers, or "apostles of beauty," strive to produce well-designed and aesthetically appealing objects for personal use and, increasingly, for public consumption. During his stay in Chicago, Crane toured the site of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, for which he would later design wallpaper and two panels.4

Ashbee, another Englishman contemptuous of industrialization and urbanization, arrived in Chicago in December 1900. Even before his visit, however, his work was known there: two brooches, a napkin ring, a covered dish, and a card re­ceiver had been exhibited at the first Chicago Arts and Crafts Society show in 1898.5 The two-handled cup illustrated here demonstrates many characteristics of the work produced by his Guild of Handicraft, including the simple hand-hammered shape, elegant loop-handled arms, striking enamel work, and sensitive placement of stones, or as in Fig. 5, mother-of-pearl, which highlights the cup and the spoon. Triggs promoted Ashbee's Guild of Handicraft—formed in 1888 as a cooperative workshop that offered practical training—as the model for labor organization, and, indeed, it seems to have had a direct impact on the city's handicraft firms.6 In 1900, for example, Clara Barck Welles (1868-1965), a graduate of the School of the Art Institute, founded the Kalo Shop, which, like Ashbee's Guild, was a community that combined educational training and workshop methods. The hand-hammered surfaces and delicate use of cabochons on the cream pitcher and sugar bowl in Figure 4 demonstrate that Kalo's aesthetic was also inspired by the guild.7 In addition, both organizations participated in the trend to move from unhealthy cities to the fresh air and sunlight of the country, the guild to Chipping Campden in the Cotswold countryside, and, after 1905, the Kalo Shop to Park Ridge outside Chicago.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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