Chicago and the arts and crafts movement

Editorial Staff Art

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.

  • Fig. 1. Fragment of the stenciled decoration designed by Louis H. Sullivan (1856-1924), executed by Healy and Millet, 1893-1894, from the Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room. Oil on canvas mounted on panel, 57 1/4 inches by 10 feet 1 inch. Art Institute of Chicago.

  • Fig. 2. Dining table and six chairs designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) for the Frederick C. Robie House, Chicago, 1907-1910. Oak, glass, and earthenware; height of table 55 5/8, length 96 1/4, width 53 1/2 inches; height of chairs 52 3/8 inches. David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago.

  • Fig. 3. “Design Class, 1894” in Circular of Instruction of the School of Drawing, Painting, Modelling, Decorative Designing and Architecture, 1895-6 with A Catalogue of Students for 1894-5 (Chicago, 1895), p. 28.

  • Fig. 4. Cream pitcher and sugar bowl made by the Kalo Shop, Chicago, c. 1908. Marked “sterling/kalo” on the bottom. Silver and jade; height of both 2 1/8, widths 4 (pitcher) and 4 5/8 (sugar bowl) inches. Chicago History Museum.

  • Fig. 5. Two-handled cup and spoon design attributed to Charles Robert Ashbee (1863-1942), made by the Guild of Handicraft, London, 1902 (spoon) and 1903 (cup). Both are marked “g of h ltd” (on the lower portion of the cup and the back of the spoon), and with the date letter “h” on the cup and “g” on the spoon. Silver, enamel, and mother-of-pearl; height of cup 4, length of spoon 5 1/2 inches. Collection of Crab Tree Farm, Lake Bluff, Illinois.

  • Fig. 6. Vase design attributed to George Prentiss Kendrick (1850-1919), decoration attributed to Eva Russell (active c. 1905), made by the Grueby Faience Company, Boston, 1903-1909. Incised “ER” and “5/25,” and impressed “grueby pottery/boston, usa” in circle around a lotus blossom on the bottom. Glazed earthenware, height 14 3/4, diameter 8 inches. Art Institute of Chicago.

  • Fig. 7. Vase designed by Fritz Albert (1865-1940), made by Gates Potteries, Terra Cotta, Illinois, c. 1905. Marked “teco” twice and “310” (model number) on the bottom. Glazed earthenware; height 18, width 6 1/4 inches. Art Institute of Chicago, promised gift of the Crab Tree Farm Foundation.

  • Fig. 9. Candelabrum designed by Preston, 1902-1905. Marked “JP [conjoined]reston/Chicago” in script on the bottom. Bronze; height 19 5/8, width 13 1/2 inches. Art Institute of Chicago.

  • Fig. 10. Title page designed by Wright for William C. Gannett, The House Beautiful (River Forest, Ill., 1896-1897). Art Institute of Chicago, Ryerson and Burnham Libraries.

  • Fig. 8. Necklace designed and made by Jessie M. Preston (1873-after 1942), 1904-1905. Gold-washed and stamped silver with opals, length 13 13/16 inches. Art Institute of Chicago.

  • Fig. 11. “Library of Mr. Wright’s Oak Park Office,” illustrated in Frank Lloyd Wright, “In the Cause of Architecture,” Architectural Record, vol. 23, no. 3 (March 1908), p. 210.

  • Fig. 12. Spindle Cube Chair designed by Wright, 1902-1906. Poplar and leather; height 29, width 29, depth 29 inches. 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.

At the same moment that members of Chicago’s craft community were exploring the movement’s English paradigms, they also began to adapt industrial standards to arts and crafts aesthetics. Unlike its British counterparts, the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society, founded at Hull House in 1897, promoted the machine as a way to assist the worker. In a further effort, Triggs formed the Industrial Art League in 1899 and wrote that the “art in democracy is naturally industrial.”8 Indeed, Ashbee, who advocated using the machine to alleviate (but not dominate) the worker, believed that he witnessed the utopian beginnings of artistic and social reform in Chicago. During his visit he addressed almost a dozen societies and formed a deep admiration for Frank Lloyd Wright, whose famous lecture, “Art and Craft of the Machine,” first given to the Arts and Crafts Society at Hull House in March 1901, promoted the machine as a means of enhancing design. As an example, the stark, linear, and repetitive design Wright devised for the title page of William C. Gannett’s book The House Beautiful (Fig. 10) was achieved by electrotype printing, in contrast to the laborious handcrafted wood engraving William Morris had revived at Kelmscott Press (see frontispiece).

Wright applied the same principles to his architectural and interior designs. In his 1908 manifesto, “In the Cause of Architecture,” he sought to reinforce the marriage of industry and nature. “Nature,” he wrote “furnished the materials for architectural motifs out of which the architectural forms as we know them to-day have been developed,” adding, “the machine is the normal tool of our civilization, give it work that it can do well.”9 In the article he included a photograph of the library in his Oak Park house and studio (see Fig. 11), which shows a Spindle Cube Chair (Fig. 12) in front of a similarly designed print stand. When Wright first experimented with cube chairs in the late 1890s, a writer for House Beautiful described them as “simple, strong, modern.”10 Later he perfected the design, adding a framework of spindles, a tapered crest rail, and curved leg ends; the chair’s new quiet elegance served as a visual testament to his belief in machinery’s value to quality craftsmanship. Employing the artistic influence of British designers such as C. F. A. Voysey, M. H. Baillie Scott, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, as well as tenets of Japanese interior design, Wright continued to incorporate the lessons of simplicity and linearity offered by the machine in his furniture, perhaps most notably in the dining room table and chairs he de­signed for the Frederick C. Robie House (Fig. 2).

Design schools in Chicago, including the School of the Art Institute, also promoted the importance of creating harmony between handcraftsmanship and the machine. Students were instructed in a studio setting and in a variety of mediums, including metal, paper, stained glass, textiles, and wood, for careers as professional designers in Chicago’s manufacturing industries (see Fig. 3). Louis J. Millet, who taught at the Art Institute’s school from 1886 until 1918 and directed its department of decorative design until his retirement in 1918, was nationally known for his work in the firm of Healy and Millet, which decorated, frescoed, designed, and manufactured art glass for domestic interiors and public buildings (see Fig. 1).11

Some graduates chose to set up individual studios, among them Jessie M. Preston, who was devoted to handcraftsmanship, but pragmatically embraced mechanical assistance for some of her designs. In her handwrought silver jewelry she incorporated natural pebbles and semiprecious stones, including opals and baroque pearls, into geometrical and stylized settings. On the necklace in Figure 8, she employed stamped and pierced gold-washed silver plaques, setting them with four cabochon opals (very fashionable at this date) in a design that is reminiscent of Millet’s work.12 For household objects Preston often utilized bronze, which she had cast at local foundries specializing in commercial production. On the candelabrum in Figure 9, blossoms suggestive of sharp-pod morning glories are playfully arranged on varying planes, their stems terminating in a base of whiplash curves. A reviewer praised such pieces as “very attractive… [showing] both delicacy and force,” clearly recognizing the artist’s expert navigation between visual refinement and material strength.13

Chicago ceramists also began to combine artistry with industry to achieve beautiful results. As an alternative to more expensive handcrafted pottery, for example, William Day Gates (1852-1935) embraced casting and sprayed glazing in his Teco ware, launched in 1899.14 Teco stood in stark contrast to the production methods of Boston’s Grueby Faience Company (see Fig. 6), where the “touch of the artist’s hand” was emphasized.15 Teco’s fame rested not on its surface decoration but on crystalline glazes and innovative shapes. To create these unique forms, Gates called on notable artists and Prairie school architects, including Wright. A sinuous vase by the sculptor Fritz Albert (Fig. 7) not only reveals his expertise in sculpting the gracefully spiraling leaves and complex mixture of closed and open spaces, but also confirms that such intricate forms could be produced by casting.16

Arts and crafts communities and designers in the United States addressed the aesthetic and social propositions forwarded by the British founders of the movement in different ways. While some eschewed mechanization in their creation of artistic decorative objects, others embraced industrial advances as an adjunct to the worker’s hand. In Chicago supporters of the arts and crafts movement clearly found value in accommodating the machine to the pursuit of beauty.

The work of these and other arts and crafts designers will be on view in the exhibition “Apostles of Beauty”: Arts and Crafts from Britain to Chicago organized by Judith A. Barter at the Art Institute of Chicago from November 7 to January 31, 2010. All objects in the exhibition have been selected from Chicago collections. A catalogue of the same title accompanies the exhibition.

1 Quoted in Alan Crawford, C.R. Ashbee: Architect, Designer and Romantic Socialist (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1985), p. 96. 
2 Catalogue of a Collection of Designs by Walter Crane… (Chicago, 1892).  3 Walter Crane, An Artist’s Reminiscences (Methuen and Company, London, 1907), p. 378.  4 Ibid., p. 405, records the panels, Justice and Mercy and Purity and Temperance, but nothing further is known about them.  5 See Catalogue of the Eleventh Annual Exhibition by the Chicago Architectural Club (Chicago, 1898), p. 133.  6 For more on Ashbee’s influence, see Oscar Lovell Triggs, Chapters in the History of the Arts and Crafts Movement (Bohemia Guild of the Industrial Art League, Chicago, 1902), pp. 152-162; and W. Scott Braznell, “The Influence of C. R. Ashbee and His Guild of Handicraft on American Silver, Other Metalwork, and Jewelry,” in The Substance of Style: Perspectives on the American Arts and Crafts Movement, ed. Bert Denker (Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, Del., 1996), pp. 25-46.  7 For more on the Kalo Shop, see Sharon S. Darling with Gail Farr Casterline, Chicago Metalsmiths: An Illustrated History (Chicago Historical Society, Chicago, 1977); and Carolyn Kelly, “The Kalo Shop: A Case Study of Handwrought Silver in the Twentieth Century,” master’s thesis, Cooper- Hewitt, National Design Museum and Parsons School of Design, 2006.  8 Triggs, Chapters in the History of the Arts and Crafts Movement, p. 195.  9 Frank Lloyd Wright, “In the Cause of Architecture,” Architectural Record, vol. 23, no. 3 (March 1908), pp. 155, 157.  10 Alfred H. Granger, “An Architect’s Studio,” House Beautiful, vol. 7 (December 1899), p. 41.  11 We are grateful to Bart Ryckbosch, Glasser-Rosenthal Family Archivist at the Art Institute of Chicago, for generously sharing his research on Millet.  For more on him, see David Hanks, “Louis J. Millet and the Art Institute of Chicago,” Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, vol. 67 (1973), pp. 13-19.  12 “I made this dog collar approx. in 1904-05 in Fine Arts Bldg” is written, presumably in Preston’s hand, on the envelope in which the necklace was found, providing an approximate date for it; see Jessie M. Preston scrapbook, c. 1911-1943, Ryerson and Burnham Archives, Art Institute of Chicago.  13 See Mary Adams, “The Chicago Arts and Crafts Society,” House Beautiful, vol. 9 (January 1901), p. 99.  14 For a detailed analysis of Teco’s methods, see Susan Stuart Frackelton, “Our American Potteries: Teco Ware,” Sketch Book, vol. 5, no. 1 (September 1905), pp. 13-19; and Sharon S. Darling, Teco: Art Pottery of the Prairie School (Erie Art Museum, Erie, Pa., 1989).  15 C. Howard Walker, The Grueby Pottery (Grueby Faience Company, Boston, c. 1900), n. p.  16 For more on Fritz Albert, see Susan Stuart Frackelton, “Our American Potteries: Maratta’s and Albert’s Work at the Gates Potteries,” Sketchbook, vol. 5, no. 2 (October 1905), pp. 78-80; and Darling, Teco, pp. 42-43.

MONICA OBNISKI is a research assistant and exhibition coordinator in the Department of American Art at the Art Institute of Chicago.

BRANDON K. RUUD is an assistant research curator in the Department of American Art at the Art Institute of Chicago.