… to substitute the luxury of taste for the luxury of costliness; to teach that beauty does not imply elaboration or ornament; to employ only those forms and materials which make for simplicity, individuality and dignity of effect.
Gustav Stickley, 1901 
Simplicity, and not the amount of money spent, is the foundation of all really effective decoration. In fact, money is frequently an absolute bar to good taste, for it leads to show and overelaboration.
Louis C. Tiffany, 1910 
The Centennial Exposition had promised that machines were capable of providing convenience and manufactured luxury for the citizens of the democracy. However, now that duplicated splendor was readily available, it was no longer good enough for everyone. Americans began to drift away from their egalitarian vision of society.
A new lower class was emerging, composed largely of those who had been liberated by the Civil War and the many new immigrants. For them the simplest forms of housing and domestic amenities were sufficient, at least for the moment, and in many cases vastly superior to what had been left behind.
There still remained the larger middle class, whose domestic felicities and cultural needs were being defined and directed by tastemakers and manufacturers. The influence of Eastlake, his American advocate Perkins, and others was evident in the displacement of the “honest” Gothic style by a capricious eclecticism of Gothic, rococo, Eastern, and Near Eastern details that were readily adapted to the band saw and the lathe. And where historical models were absent, inventive builders made up their own ornamental designs or purchased them from stock. This potpourri resulted in the so-called Queen Anne style in houses. (Queen Anne houses still survive in many American communities.)
The long-established upper class of Americans took its cultural course from the rediscovered heirlooms and the reawakened pride of its colonial inheritance. The Centennial Exposition had revived an interest in colonial architecture and furnishings and helped to launch most of the major collections of early American artifacts. The Exposition contained three exhibits directly related to the colonial era: one of George Washington’s clothing and equipment and a set of china that had belonged to Martha Washington, one of a hunter’s camp, and (most important) a replica of a New England cabin built and furnished by the fair’s Women’s Commission. The cabin had a chair borrowed from the descendants of Massachusetts’ first governor, John Endicott; John Alden’s writing desk; and a teapot used by Lafayette. Of particular interest was a small spinning wheel that was presumed to have been brought over on the Mayflower—”Years ago it was thrown aside as useless,” declared a contemporary review, “but when the Centennial movement began to extend its influence over the country, a Miss Tower took hold of it, burnished it up, and put it in condition to be operated on by her, much to the amusement of the visitors.” (, 87) The acquisition of such historic treasures not only preserved them for the nation but also provided for their owners a convenient retreat from the tasteless imposition of volatile foreign fashions. From the vantage point of a century, the colonial period came to be viewed as one of genteel elegance.
The several distinct styles of the time were blended into a generalized colonial style that continues in favor. American designers and manufacturers must take the colonial style into account when they are creating products for the national market, particularly domestic furnishings such as furniture, fabrics, silver, china, and glassware. Every manufacturer quickly learns that he must include a line of products in the colonial idiom in his catalog in order to attract and hold a sizable segment of consumers. Even the makers of modern products such as television sets, kitchen cabinets, clocks, and telephones are obliged to include at least one model in the cherished style. This affection for the comfortably stable historical style permeates the American design ethic and surfaces in preferences for certain colors, for homespun patterns in fabrics, and for the natural textures of wood, stone, and brick in a wide variety of manufactured products.
Alongside the wealthy descendants of the colonial establishment (though not quite as secure in status) there appeared a nouveau riche upper class that, in an era of unrestricted competition, managed to capture the fortunes to be had from the harvest of America’s animals, minerals, and timber, from the control of its transportation and communication systems, and from the management of its growing industrial and merchandising empires. Since they did not have a colonial heritage, the new rich looked to the aristocracies of Europe for social and cultural justification. They went abroad to acquire a touch of class, and they enrolled their children in the finishing schools of England and the continent. The wealthy American family trading daughter and dowry for a foreign title is a familiar theme, and theater and music abound with tales of the rich young American who marries the beautiful princess of an impoverished European dynasty.
Unlike the wealthy of the colonies, who were for the most part educated to culture, the new rich found it more convenient to employ collectors, architects, decorators, and other professional tastemakers to construct their copies of the palaces, mansions, chateaus, villas, and baronial estates of Europe, to manage their collections, and to adorn them with such examples of the fine and industrial arts as could be pried loose with American dollars. “For better or for worse,” Wayne Andrews has written, “the millionaire was the American hero in the decades between Lincoln’s assassination and Wilson’s inauguration.” (, 152) Thorstein Veblen diagnosed the passion of the nouveau riche as “conspicuous consumption”—the notion that wealth must be masqueraded as beauty in order to gratify those who have it.
These were the decades, between the Civil War and the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution, that established the idea of an income tax to make all Americans share equitably in the costs of operating their government. These were the years before the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act and the breakup of monopolies, when runaway fortunes could not be spent grandly enough and when extravagance at the top was presumed to be a socially appropriate means of ensuring a stable economy at the bottom. These were the Beaux-Arts years, when the wealthy Eastern establishment and its hired curators of eclectic taste imposed the fashionable French Renaissance, Italian Romanesque, and Graeco-Roman classical styles on the United States. The architects Richard Morris Hunt (1827–1895), Henry Hobson Richardson (1838–1886), and Charles Follen McKim (1847–1909) all had studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and their works represent the influence of the above three styles (respectively) on the American continent. In the eighteenth century, European architects had come to the United States to practice their professions. Now, in the nineteenth century, the flow ran the other way as Americans went abroad to study. (In the twentieth century, the flow would be reversed again as once again European architects would bring their talents to America.)
Richard Morris Hunt was the first American to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. After some practical experience in Paris, he returned home with a comprehensive library of architecture books and hundreds of photographs of architectural details that undoubtedly served as a lode of ideas for the urban palaces and rural “cottages” he was to design for wealthy American clients. His first major commission, in 1879, was for a chateau built in the French Renaissance style on New York’s Fifth Avenue for William K. Vanderbilt. Some 10 years later he built his first country residence, “Ochre Court” at Newport, for Robert Goelet. That was followed by “Belcourt” for the Belmonts and “Breakers” for Cornelius Vanderbilt II, also at Newport, and by “Biltmore,” at Ashville, North Carolina, for William H. Vanderbilt. By the time Hunt was commissioned to design the administration building for the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, he was president of the American Institute of Architects and dean of the profession that, some 35 years earlier, his successful lawsuit to be paid for professional services as an architect had helped to establish.
Eastern architects who followed Hunt found a gold mine in Beaux-Arts. Their curious justification for the style in America is summed up in a quote from an album of the Vanderbilt town house: “The work will be the vision and image of a typical American residence, seized at the moment when the nation begins to have a taste of its own.…” (, 157)
Henry Hobson Richardson’s first important achievement after his return from Paris was to win a competition in 1872 for Trinity Church in Boston. His church, conceived in the strong Romanesque style for which he became famous, was later to be awarded first place in a poll taken in 1885 to select the ten best buildings in the United States. Four other buildings by Richardson were also among the first ten: the city hall at Albany, New York, the New York State Capitol at Albany, Sever Hall at Harvard University, and the town hall at North Easton, Massachusetts. His future work included the wholesale warehouse for Marshall Field in Chicago and the Allegheny County courthouse and jail in Pittsburgh, which was completed in 1886, the year of his untimely death. Whereas Hunt was proud of the authenticity of his designs, Richardson added to his work a personal rustic flavor and a feeling for inventive decoration that anticipated the Reformist designers who were to follow him. Louis Sullivan, an outspoken critic of Beaux-Arts, praised Richardson for his expression of the power and progress of the times. Richardson had been undoubtedly influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement and, in particular, by its strongest proponent, William Morris, whom he had met on a trip to England in 1882. As a result, he took an active part in the creation of the furnishings of his buildings, directing the craftsmen and designing some of the furniture himself.
Charles F. McKim and Stanford White (1853–1906) had both worked with Richardson before they formed an architectural partnership in 1877 after a sketching tour of pre-Revolution buildings along the New England coast. Their early commissions, for informal shingled country villas, employed natural materials in order to achieve a bucolic elegance. Then, in 1887, after the completion of a compound of houses in the Italian Renaissance style in New York for Henry Villard and his friends, they won the competition for the Boston Public Library, which became a showcase for the Beaux-Arts style in America and led to other commissions calling for architectural classicism, such as Pennsylvania Station in New York. The firm of McKim, Mead and White is primarily credited with stimulating the revival of the colonial style in residences in the United States. One of their first residences in the reborn style was the home of H. Taylor in Newport. This was followed by others in the calm but impressive dignity of Georgian and Palladian classicism. Other assignments included renovations of the Jefferson Rotunda at the University of Virginia and of the White House (under President Theodore Roosevelt).
It is difficult to understand why the eastern architects did not try to take advantage of the new building technologies that were being pioneered in Chicago. They preferred to leave the structure of the building to the contractor, while they busied themselves with selecting and detailing a historical style for the exterior. In this sense they were not unlike the contemporary stylists of some manufactured products, interiors, and buildings who provide elegant and dramatic drawings of the effect they wish to achieve but leave the execution to craftsmen and mechanics, with the result that the illustration may often be more honored than its embodiment.
In the midwest, Major William le Baron Jenney (1832–1907), who had studied engineering at the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in Paris rather than the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, became the early focus of the Chicago school of technology-based architecture by designing and constructing the first high-rise building on an internal metal structure. Among his first employees were Daniel Burnham (1846–1912) and his partner-to-be John Wellborn Root (1850–1890), who had an engineering degree. Louis Sullivan (1856–1924) had studied for a time at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and served a year as a junior draftsman in the office of Furness and Hewitt in Philadelphia before completing his apprenticeship in Jenney’s office in 1874. From there he went to Paris to complete his formal education in architecture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Shortly after his return to Chicago he was hired by Dankmar Adler (1844–1900) to take charge of the office prior to being made a partner in 1881. And Frank Lloyd Wright had himself studied engineering for a year at the University of Wisconsin before refusing an offer to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in order to apprentice in the office of Adler and Sullivan. These men are representative of the many Chicago-school architects who became immersed in Jenney’s commitment to structural innovation and to a new aesthetic, based on revolutionary materials, that introduced industrial technology to building and promised to put form based upon method (and later upon function) ahead of form based upon predigested expression.
Most of the commissions for the Beaux-Arts architects came from wealthy easterners who were either erecting palaces for themselves or directing the building of churches, libraries, government buildings, and academic buildings along the East Coast. For such structures only the great styles of the past would suffice, whereas it seemed appropriate enough that the new factories, warehouses, merchandising centers, and office buildings of the American heartland could more properly be left to the more mechanical structures of midwestern architects. The professional difference between the eastern stylists and the midwestern mechanics lies, perhaps, in the fact that the eastern architects had less technical training and may, as a consequence, have been unable to understand, let alone share in, the structural innovations of their midwestern colleagues (who, some thought, lacked empathy for the historicism of their eastern colleagues). Lewis Mumford concludes that “the only contemporary style that manifested vitality, that of the mechanical age itself, was carefully kept out of the architect’s training,” and that “even the engineer, seeking confirmation from the esthete, bashfully hid his clean forms under melancholy iron foliage.” (, 201)
The climax of the Beaux-Arts movement in the United States was achieved in 1893 when the Columbian Exposition was staged in Chicago to commemorate the quatercentenary of Columbus’s landing in the New World. Although some claimed that Daniel Burnham of Chicago, chief architect for the fair, sold out to the eastern establishment by accepting Beaux-Arts as the principal style for the fair buildings, it is more reasonable to assume that he was acutely conscious of his obligation to make the fair a truly national exposition and, therefore, in a gesture of good will decided that Beaux-Arts architects should be asked to design the exhibition buildings around the Court of Honor. Richard Morris Hunt was commissioned to set the aesthetic pace by designing the Administration Building that was to stand at the head of the Court in an exposition plan developed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Declared one of Hunt’s assistants:
We have said that this edifice was intended to introduce the visitors to the Exposition into a new world. As they emerge from its east archway and enter the Court, they must, if possible, receive a memorable impression of architectural harmony on a vast scale. To this end the forums, basilicas, and baths of the Roman empire, the villas and gardens of the princes of the Italian Renaissance, the royal courtyards of the palaces of France and Spain, must yield to the architects, “in that new world which is the old,” their rich inheritance of ordered beauty, to make possible the creation of a bright picture of civic splendor such as this great function of modern civilization would seem to require. (, I, 131)
Most of the exhibition buildings were designed by midwestern architects who felt obliged to follow the Beaux-Arts theme set by the Court of Honor. Only Louis Sullivan refused to surrender to eastern eclecticism in his design for the Transportation Building. Though he was scored by a colleague for his experiment with impure vernacular architecture, Sullivan managed to conceive a structure that, while it carried overtones of the past, managed to stand apart from the others with its inventive ornament and polychromatic colors. Sullivan’s was the only building at the Exposition to be honored by a European agency (the Comité Général des Arts Décoratifs de Paris), and that honor was for its ornament rather than its form. (In 1896, Sullivan would proclaim that “form follows function.”) A few years later Sullivan carried his unique sense of ornament even farther in his designs for the Schlesinger Meyer department store (now Carson, Pirie and Scott) that was built in Chicago between 1899 and 1904.
Sullivan’s Transportation Building was the only one at the fair to escape being painted white. It had originally been intended that all of the main buildings would be painted in the then-fashionable somber colors. However, when it became evident that the painting could not be finished in time, Frank D. Millet, the Chief of Decoration, decided to paint everything white. In desperation, he contrived a machine to spray buildings and statuary with a white lead and oil paint drawn from a barrel with a rubber hose connected to an air pump driven by an electric motor. To make certain that the purity of the white structures would be preserved, the burning of coal was banned around the main buildings.
The impact of the White City, as it was promptly christened by the public, was miraculous. Even though the structures were simply sheets of iron and timber coated with “staff” (a mixture of cement and plaster with jute fibers that had been invented by the French to be used for such purposes), the pristine classical facades and heroic sculptures glowed magically under the first major application of Edison’s incandescent lamps and the sweeping beams of American and German searchlights. It was evident that the Americans of the midwest were more than ready for the Beaux-Arts style, which they had learned to associate with the affluence and the cultivated taste of the new millionaires. Moreover, the style was symbolic of the tides of imperialism that were sweeping the world at the time, including American interests in the Canal Zone, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines. Chicago’s White City stimulated a preference for white houses. To this day, most houses built in the colonial English or Spanish style are painted white. (Of late, however, there seems to be a tendency toward the more somber colors that Downing advocated over a century ago in order that they might blend more harmoniously with the environment. This is also evident in the use of Cor-ten steel, bronze-anodized aluminum, and tinted or mirrored glass panels to reduce the stark presence of some large buildings.)
The industrial-arts exhibits at the Columbian Exposition were not particularly distinguished, despite their extravagance. Most of the masterpieces that were displayed represented a confusion of late Victorian presumption and overwrought eclecticism. The Magnolia vase in enameled silver, by the Tiffany Company, went even farther than most, with Toltec handles on a naturalistic body carried on a foot with overtones of Art Nouveau. Only the exhibit of the Rookwood Art Pottery Company showed signs that the saner Arts and Crafts movement had invaded the United States. (Women potters of Cincinnati had turned to thrown and slip-cast pottery before 1880 as background for their experiments in decoration in hope of developing an honorable occupation for their sex in industry. One of them, Maria Long-worth Nichols, had founded Rookwood Pottery with this goal in mind. In time other art potteries were established, such as that at the Sophie Newcomb College for women at Tulane University in New Orleans, the Van Briggle pottery in Colorado Springs, and the Greuby pottery in Boston.) However, the exciting promises of the application of electricity to every area of life more than made up for the misguided extravagance of the industrial-arts exhibits and the spurious drama of the retrogressive architecture. Exhibits in the Machinery and Electricity buildings underscored the importance of electricity to the manufacturing and mining industries as well as its indispensible value to transportation and communication systems. Fairgoers were even more impressed by the possibility of entirely new appliances devoted to their comfort and convenience. They were intrigued by the use of electricity for cooling or heating and by the thought that cooking could now be done more “scientifically.” Housekeepers were shown griddles, kettles, coffeepots, teapots, and other vessels with enameled bottoms in which copper wires were embedded to carry heating current. New, electric flatirons, with their upper portions composed of nonconducting substances, weighed only eight pounds—a far cry from the cast-iron sadirons. One company even showed an electric haircurler as a novelty. To look at the electrical exhibits, it was said, was like seeing a new world in which electricity would be adapted to serve a vast consumer market. (In passing, it is interesting to note that in a field near the South Pond of the fair was exhibited an array of windmills that would have fascinated the energy-conscious American of today as much as it did the fairgoer of 1893.)
The developing preoccupation with transportation was evident in the combination of old and new forms that served the Columbian Exposition. Visitors came to the fairgrounds by steam train, electric streetcar, or steamboat. A moving sidewalk on Casino Pier took the steamboat passengers to land. The fair’s canals and lagoon were plied by Italian gondolas and battery-operated launches. A Viking ship had sailed over from Norway, and replicas of Christopher Columbus’s three ships had been towed from Cadiz. One could travel the length of the Midway Plaisance at relatively high speed on an elevated railway. A great Ferris wheel dominated the fairgrounds. Experimental automobiles had already appeared, but it was still a year before the first American patent for a gasoline-powered vehicle would be issued and a decade before the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk.
The Beaux-Arts movement, despite its late fling in the Columbian Exposition, was on its way out. Few new American “palaces” were built after the fair. Although the Beaux-Arts style persisted through the early years of the twentieth century until it was laid to rest in Mellon’s National Gallery in Washington, its decline was sounded publicly by Louis Sullivan’s discordant Transportation Building at the Chicago fair. Years later, Sullivan was still contemptuous of the “naked exhibition of charlatanry in the higher feudal and domineering culture” of the fair, claiming that it would take 50 years to be eradicated—as indeed it was when the rationalist movement in architecture was reimported to the United States. (, 322)
The Columbian Exposition provided, unwittingly perhaps, the first dramatic exposure of the work of that small band of American reformists who were advocating rejection of slavish dependence on historical styles. The ornamental work of Louis Sullivan and the art wares of the Rookwood Art Pottery of Cincinnati were indications that at least some Americans were in tune with the Arts and Crafts movement in England.
Although a wave of cultural uneasiness had been building since Thomas Carlyle had warned that the machine age had sacrificed means to ends and human to mechanical values, and despite John Ruskin’s call for morality in the arts and William Morris’s search for social justification for his craftwork, it was not until the 1880s that T. J. Cobden-Sanderson of England coined the title Arts and Crafts as a banner for the movement. To the more perceptive Americans, including Henry Hobson Richardson (who visited William Morris in 1882), the movement appeared to expand the asceticism of the Shakers with a sincere effort to give fresh expression to utilitarian products. There is, however, a unique contrast between the religious fervor of the Shakers and the secular devotion of Morris and his disciples. Both glorified work, one by saving it and the other by spending it lavishly. Whereas the Shakers abhorred ornament, relying on form alone as expression, the English aspired to make enrichment of the vernacular worthy of the creative attention of artists. Both rejected eclectic enslavement in favor of expression that was of their own time and place.
It is generally assumed that the Arts and Crafts Movement was, in large measure, a protest against the reliance of industry upon machines for manufacture. This is not entirely true. The Shakers and Thonet welcomed manufacturing methods and, in fact, invented production machinery and processes that improved the quality of their work as well as increasing production. And England’s William Morris (1834–1896), the sensitive poet, the versatile designer of environmental arts, and the consummate craftsman — often presumed to have been the archenemy of the machine—was to be credited later by Walter Gropius as the indispensible link between the world of art and the world of work. Morris considered Arts and Crafts to mean more than the making of products that were beautiful and utilitarian. He saw the maker in industry as a dehumanized part of the manufacturing process, robbed of initiative and trapped in the production of increasingly inferior products. Furthermore, he was convinced that industry’s only goal was profit, and he resented the fact that it did not use machines at their highest potential but rather at the lowest level to manufacture the cheapest and meanest products that the public would tolerate. According to Watkinson it was not, contrary to what is usually said of Morris, the machine itself that he abhorred—”It was its use and abuse which moved his hatred: it was the spectacle of the machine (meaning irresponsible industry as a whole) destroying men while it made things, regardless of use or beauty.” (, 77) Morris made it clear that in his utopia the machine and the factory had a role to play if man could avoid being their slave. “Our epoch,” Morris wrote, “has invented machines which would have appeared wild dreams to men of past ages, and of these machines we have as yet made no use.” (, 169)
Despite Morris’s socialist leanings, the net effect of his work was to make the industrial arts even more exclusive. His products, as a form of highly personal expression, became even more removed from the public. It seems typical of the most sensitive designers that their products, while uncompromising in their perfection, are often denied for one reason or another to the masses they had originally presumed to serve. Often they take on a kind of cathartic humility that embraces moral and social values that salve the conscience of a select few rather than solve the needs of the many.
In the United States, however, the Arts and Crafts movement took a distinctly democratic turn as the middle class embraced its principles as a means of improving the cultural quality of the domestic environment. Americans organized Arts and Crafts societies in many communities to provide themselves with aesthetic guidance and workshops in which they could make their own domestic treasures. The prosperous business climate at the turn of the century encouraged a boom in home-building along the expanding lines of improved rail transportation. Furthermore, social changes had brought more educational opportunities to women, which stimulated their desire to pay more attention to the artistic quality of their homes. Educated women were emerging as a distinct class of consumers who demanded not only improved domestic appliances and services but also professional information about homemaking.
The Ladies’ Home Journal, founded in 1883 by Cyrus H. K. Curtis, was one of the first magazines to address itself directly to the homes and furnishings of the average American. In 1889 the editorship of the magazine was assigned to Edward Bok (1863–1930), who accepted the philosophical goal of the Arts and Crafts movement to make the world a better and more beautiful place in which to live. Bok transformed the Journal into a very successful periodical dedicated to domestic elegance. He campaigned vigorously against bad taste by comparing in print good and bad taste in furniture and other domestic furnishings. Bok recognized that people shared a curiosity to look into others’ homes—particularly the homes of those who were on a higher social and economic level, from whom they might learn about a more elegant way of living. Therefore he began to feature photographs of rooms in such homes for his readers. Bok also knew that most Americans could not afford to hire their own architects but had to rely on the self-serving taste of builders and contractors. As a result, he sought out the services of architects (including Ralph Adams Cram and Frank Lloyd Wright) who dared to risk the scorn of the architectural establishment by designing for Journal publications homes that could be built at a modest cost. The magazine sold such plans by mail for $5.00 a set, and it is said that hundreds of homes may have been built with their guidance.
In 1900 Bok commissioned William H. Bradley (1869–1962), who was already well known for his posters in the Art Nouveau style and as the owner of the successful Wayside Press, to assist him in developing the magazine’s editorial policy. As part of their arrangement Bradley agreed to develop a series of illustrations for the Journal of interiors and furnishings in the latest style. His designs showed that he was familiar with the work of the most influential Arts and Crafts leaders of England and Scotland. The series was presented in the magazine over a period of ten months, illustrating a cozy suburban home called the Bradley House. The Journal made this promise: “Mr. Bradley will design practically everything shown in the picture. It is not his hope that anyone will build a house completely as he designs it: he hopes rather to influence through individual suggestions—through pieces of furniture, draperies, fireplace accessories, wall-paper designs, all of which can be independently followed and detached from his entire scheme.”
William Bradley’s work for the Ladies’ Home Journal signals the emergence of an American designer type—not from the profession of architecture, but rather from the field of illustration—as the source of product concepts that could be used to attract readers to a magazine at the same time as they would stimulate progress with promises of a better environment to come. The principle of incentive by illustration persists in the American design ethic as a means of generating interest in the potential of a new product and attracting the public’s attention. Such “blue-sky thinking,” as it is sometimes called, has fallen into question in recent years because the promotion played often drowned out the design. However, magazine illustration continues to have an important role in the introduction and acceptance of advances in technology.
Edward Bok’s sensitivity to the desires and needs of the Journal’s readers doubled the monthly circulation to over a million copies in a short time. By 1896 House Beautiful had been founded to compete with the Journal, and within five years House and Garden had joined competition for a growing market. That all three magazines are still in business is evidence that the interest of middle-class Americans in the quality of their domestic environment continues unabated.
Over the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth these three magazines, with the help of other more specialized publications, managed to stir up and sustain a strong interest in the American Arts and Crafts movement. Exhibitions of English products were held at prominent museums in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Newark, and Chicago, and some museums inaugurated permanent collections. Chicago was particularly attracted to the Arts and Crafts movement as a new wave in architecture and furnishings. Two English followers of William Morris, Charles R. Ashbee (1862–1942) and Walter Crane (1845–1915), were invited to lecture in Chicago, and in 1892 an exhibition of the work of Walter Crane was installed at the Art Institute. During the 1880s and 1890s fabrics, wallpapers, and furniture from Morris’s workshops were shown and sold at Marshall Field’s department store. After Morris died, a memorial room in his honor was dedicated at the Tobey Furniture Company in Chicago. (The Tobey Furniture Company had, incidentally, been formed by the brothers, Charles and Frank, in 1875 to manufacture ordinary commercial furniture. However, in 1888 they formed a subsidiary company, Tobey and Christiansen, to produce the more expensive furniture of the Chicago school’s version of the Arts and Crafts movement. By 1890, after Charles Tobey’s death, the Tobey and Christiansen Company, with William F. Christiansen, a Norwegian immigrant, as president, became the leading manufacturer of high-quality furniture in the United States. The company’s products conveyed a characteristic Scandinavian flavor that anticipated the interest in Scandinavian furniture.)
Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959), who established his own architectural practice in 1893 after a five-year stint as chief draftsman for Adler and Sullivan in Chicago, had been deeply affected by the new spirit that was emerging in the products that people built for themselves. Like his former employers, Wright was determined to be free of the stultifying Beaux-Arts influence, and with other young architects [among them George W. Maher (1864–1926) and George Grant Elmslie (1871–1952)] he found a professional niche in the challenge of Arts and Crafts to the aesthetic establishment and its commitment to original and even radical ideas. Wright and his colleagues founded the Prairie school of architecture, which took its horizontal sweep from the flat midwestern landscape. They believed that a building should be “organic”—that it should grow easily from its site and that its materials should be those most natural to the area. Moreover, they proposed that a building, with its interiors and furnishings, should be conceived as an integral unit. Although the organic principle was not entirely new, it was admirably suited to the Arts and Crafts philosophy, and it promised once again to bring moral and aesthetic standards into balance. The young midwestern architects were convinced that a national style in architecture and products depended upon the ability of designers to meet and satisfy the daily needs and cultural desires of the Americans.
At first, Wright expressed a preference for the handmade products of Arts and Crafts enthusiasts, and he commissioned George Niedecken to produce many of his designs. Later, he came to prefer “clean-cut, straight-line forms that the machine can render far better than would be possible by hand.” It is also evident that Wright was more than sympathetic with the taut geometry of Japanese architecture and furnishings. Even more likely than the influence of Japanese or handmade forms is that Wright’s designs were conceived at the drawing board, reflecting the instruments of the designer rather than the workshop of the craftsman. “From the very beginning,” he wrote, “my T-square and triangle were easy media of expression for my geometric sense of things.” (, 125) These tools, along with the compass, are the natural coefficient of the lineal, angular, and circular motions of the simpler machines of production, and thus constitute an inescapable link between the tools of design and those of industry. The same innocent empathy may very well have been behind the functionalist and modern styles that were to come. Wright was, even so, aware that geometric solutions were not necessarily sympathetic to the human figure: “I have been black and blue in some spot, somewhere, almost all my life from too intimate contact with my own furniture.” (, 145)
After 1900 the focus of American Arts and Crafts shifted to upstate New York as the New England societies abandoned the movement for a return to the colonial style of furnishings. A thriving furniture industry had developed at the western end of New York to take advantage of the hydroelectric power that was beginning to flow overland from Niagara Falls. Among the new enterprises that were attracted to settle in the area was that established by Elbert Hubbard (1856–1915) at East Aurora, near Buffalo. Hubbard gave up a career as a successful executive in the soap business in 1892 to visit Morris and his Kelmscott Press in England, and returned determined to awaken his countrymen to the philosophy and practicality of the Arts and Crafts movement. He sold his business partnership in order to establish the Roycroft Press to follow the Kelmscott example by producing handmade books in which all of the elements would be combined to create a work of art. He also began to publish a small monthly magazine, The Philistine, in order to broadcast his homilies on friendship and individuality in thought and expression and to promote the Arts and Crafts gospel. From publications bound in soft leather the Roycroft shops expanded laterally into bookbinding and then into the production of leather products. By 1896 Roycroft had expanded its operations to include a workshop to make the furniture for the enterprise. In obeisance to his commitment to Arts and Crafts, Hubbard ordered his furniture craftsmen (who were, for the most part, local carpenters) to make products that were simple and functional with an honest expression of their structure. When visitors to Roycroft expressed an interest in its simple handmade furniture, he expanded the woodworking workshop to manufacture products for sale. Although Hubbard made no claim to have originated the “Mission” style of furniture, it is evident that Roycroft furniture predated that of Stickley in following the “mission” principles of simplicity, durability, and quality. The title “mission” is now popularly applied to the plain machine-made furniture (usually of oak) that was made at the turn of the century.
Hubbard was not a designer, but his devotion to the philosophy of Arts and Crafts inspired those who provided the designs and samples of Roycroft products, including the cabinetmakers Albert Danner and Santiago Cadzow and the illustrator Victor Toothaker. The metal workshops that were established to provide hardware for furniture and other needs at Roycroft employed Karl Kipp, an Austrian immigrant, and later Dari Hunter, a young American who had studied at Ohio State University and who would later emigrate to Vienna.
In the years when Roycroft was at its peak—before Elbert Hubbard and his wife Alice perished on the Lusitania in 1915—many prominent scholars and designer-craftsmen found their way to East Aurora to visit, to lecture, and to compare ideas with Hubbard. After his death, his son Elbert II maintained Roycroft until the Depression closed the institution in 1938. The Roycroft “campus” has been revived, and it is now on the National Registry of Historic Places and open to visitors.
The Arts and Crafts movement in the United States reached its peak over the opening decade of the twentieth century in the work of Gustav Stickley and Louis Comfort Tiffany. These men represented opposite persuasions of the complex philosophy that drives the American design ethic—the first an asceticism guided by an inner revelation based on self-denial, and the second a sensuous preoccupation with a search for the gratification of aesthetic sensitivity.
Stickley (1857–1942) took the Arts and Crafts movement as an obligation to meet the needs of material existence in the simplest manner possible. Although trained originally as a stonemason, he was working as a furniture maker when he traveled to England and was caught up in the forms and philosophy of the movement. Stickley’s particular affection for quarter-sawn oak as the ideal material for furniture, it is claimed, may have been fixed by a plain desk with rectilinear shapes by Arthur Heygate Mackmundo that was illustrated in the English magazine International Studio in 1897. When Stickley returned to the United States in 1898 he formed his own company in Eastwood, New York (now part of Syracuse), in order to put his own convictions about furniture into practice. The new Stickley Company displayed its first line of products at the 1900 furniture show at Grand Rapids, Michigan. This resulted in a distribution agreement with the Tobey Furniture Company that advertised it in the Chicago Tribune of October 7, 1900, simply as “The New Furniture.” Stickley objected to the fact that his name was not mentioned and the agreement fell through. The line was as yet unrefined, attempting to combine Art Nouveau influences with the direct simplicity of Arts and Crafts. A year later, however, in 1901, after Stickley had changed the name of his company to Craftsman and adopted the motto “Als Ik Kan” (if I can), originally associated with the Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck, he displayed a major line of new furniture in what was to be known later as the Mission style at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo. This showing established him as an important influence in Arts and Crafts. That same year Stickley began publication of The Craftsman, a monthly journal with Dr. Irene Sargent of Syracuse University as editor. Sargent was to help Stickley refine the principles that would guide his own work.
The determined simplicity of Stickley’s early furniture supported his conviction that its “mission,” in Herwin Schaefer’s words, was to create a “style beyond style,” a “world of permanently valid forms.” Stickley did not intend to create a new style, but “merely tried to make furniture which would be simple, durable, comfortable, and fitted for the place it was to occupy and the work it had to do.” (, 295) Stickley was not comfortable with having the term “Mission Oak” applied to his company’s products, although he did recognize the publicity value in some association with the Southwest’s Spanish missions.
Stickley’s early Craftsman designs resulted in furniture that was heavy and somewhat overscaled. Not until Harvey Ellis (1852–1904) joined the Stickley firm, in 1903, were its products rescaled into lighter and more subtle forms. Ellis was a sensitive designer who had begun his career as a draftsman in Albany, New York, and had worked for Richardson and for some midwestern architects before joining Stickley as an illustrator and editor of The Craftsman. He also designed a lighter line of furniture that included ornamental elements reflecting English and Scottish precedents. (This line was displayed, but apparently never entered full production.) Although Ellis was only with Stickley for a year before his death in 1904, he also designed several houses, including an Adirondack camp and a bungalow, that showed carefully worked-out details. The magazine offered plans and specifications for such houses. The bungalow style of residence, although it had originated on the West Coast and was primarily promoted by Henry L. Wilson of Chicago as cozy, quaint, and attractive, was adopted by Stickley because it was economical to build and was in accordance with his principles of honesty, simplicity, and usefulness.
The freshness and elegance Harry Ellis had brought to Craftsman products helped to increase sales to the point that Stickley decided to move The Craftsman’s editorial and executive offices to New York City in 1905 and to allow franchised manufacturing across the country. (The parent factory remained in Syracuse.) However, the popularity of Mission furniture soon exceeded his ability to keep up with demand, and it was soon being widely copied by other companies. The plain and virtually indestructible furniture became standard in hotels, resorts, classrooms, and dormitories across the United States. Although Stickley tried to keep up with the avalanche of imitations by expanding his own operations, in 1915 he was driven into bankruptcy by the very success of his ideas. By 1916, when The Craftsman ceased publication, the Arts and Crafts movement in America had degenerated into what Siegfried Giedion has characterized as a hobby rather than a religion. Its aborted mission glows faintly in the surviving arts and crafts groups and shines somewhat more brightly in the connection between the Arts and Crafts philosophy and industrial design.
Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933) saw in the Arts and Crafts movement an opportunity to gratify his own desires, as well as those of other humans, for extravagant beauty in the luxuries of life. As the son of Charles Lewis Tiffany (1812–1902), founder of Tiffany Jewelry and Silversmiths in New York, the younger Tiffany was able to devote his early years to the study of art and to exhibit paintings at the National Academy of Design in 1867 and the Centennial Exposition in 1876. However, the philosophy of Ruskin and Morris convinced him that the fine arts of Western culture were too limiting, and he went abroad to study Islamic, Near Eastern, and Oriental art. Upon his return to the United States, Tiffany worked with John LaFarge long enough to learn the art and craft of decorative glasswork. In 1879 he founded, with others, the company of Louis C. Tiffany and Associates, which was to have a strong impact on the decorative arts. The work of the firm included a broad range of decorative arts, such as textiles, wallpapers, and the glass mosaics, tiles, and windows for which the firm became best known. Their most important commission was redecorating the White House in 1882–1883, during the Arthur administration. Tiffany produced an opalescent glass screen that was one of the executive mansion’s main attractions until it was destroyed in 1904 on the order of President Theodore Roosevelt, whose many interests did not, unfortunately, include the arts.
In 1893, after several intermediate changes in the structure of his business, Tiffany had turned his efforts exclusively to glass and established his own glassworks at Corona, Long Island. Among the many excellent glass blowers and workers that he employed to execute his ideas was Arthur Nash, an English émigré, who is credited by some with having invented the distinctive “Favrile” glass in brilliant iridescent colors and rich textures for which the firm became famous. With Nash’s help and that of many other artist-craftsmen, Tiffany was able to move away from the restrained forms and ornament associated with the Arts and Crafts movement in America toward the romantically daring Art Nouveau fashion that was beginning to entrance Europeans. The Art Nouveau style flared only briefly in the United States. Its exotic spirit is best reflected in Tiffany’s rich “Favrile” glass wares and decorative accessories—especially the lampshades, which were based upon his imaginative interpretations of natural forms.
Louis Tiffany may properly be credited with having played a useful role in the sweeping popularity of the Art Nouveau style in Europe chiefly as a result of his friendship with the German entrepreneur Samuel Bing (1838–1905). Tiffany visited Bing’s decorative-arts shop in Paris several times in the 1880s, and later he would make Bing his exclusive European distributor. When, in 1895, the oriental and orientally inspired decorative products that were the mainstays of Bing’s business became hard for him to get, he shifted his focus to include work in the exciting new style and renamed his shop L’Art Nouveau, because, as he said, “we must seek the spark of new life beneath the ashes of older systems.” To stock his new venture Bing sought out the most daring designer-craftsmen in the new style—including Tiffany, who sent him the best examples from his just-opened Corona glassworks. Others included Eugene Grasset (1841–1917), a Swiss-born Frenchman whose graphic designs were already well known in the United States through his covers for Harper’s Bazaar and other American magazines; Emile Galle (1846–1904), the most innovative French glassmaker of the period; and René Lalique (1860–1945), an imaginative French jeweler who was to be an important force in the Art Moderne movement and whose glass perfume containers for Coty were to be much more valued than their contents. Henry Van de Velde (1863–1957), a Belgian painter-designer-architect, also contributed to Bing’s shop by designing four rooms and furniture. Van de Velde and other Belgian, Dutch, and French artists and designers made up a group known as Les Vingt. They absorbed the principles of the English Arts and Crafts movement and the French Symbolists and transformed them into the Art Nouveau style.
Although the name Art Nouveau was French, the style was not particularly French in character. In fact, to the French it was known as Le Style Anglais in deference to its origins in the English Arts and Crafts movement. In Italy, where the style never really took hold, it was known as Lo Stile Liberty, since it was exhibited and sold in the famous shop that had been opened in 1875 on Regent Street in London by Sir Lazenby Liberty (1843–1917) on the advice of William Morris. The German equivalent of Art Nouveau was known originally as Neue Stil. However, over the years the term Jugendstil has come into common use to describe the style that began with the English Arts and Crafts and the search for new expression by the French and the Belgians. Jugendstil set its own course toward a technology-based aesthetic that found its outlet in the Deutscher Werkbund and the Wiener Werkstaette. In Austria the leading force for the new style was Otto Wagner (1841–1918) and his former student Josef Hoffman (1870–1955), who had the courage to break away from the visual-arts establishment in a movement to be known as the Sezession. In 1903 Hoffman established the Wiener Werkstaette, which found its own unique position between the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau philosophies and developed a particularly strong affinity with the Glasgow Arts and Crafts group led by Charles Rennie Macintosh (1868–1928) and Herbert MacNair (1868–1955) and their wives, the sisters Mary and Frances MacDonald.
After the first decade of the twentieth century the Art Nouveau style lost vitality as its forms became stereotyped and began to be replaced by the more geometric forms of the Scottish, Austrian, and German designers. In the United States the works of Stickley and Tiffany influenced other designers and manufacturers and were echoed in products that were sold at every price level. After three quarters of a century, the strongest furniture fashions are again dependent upon the squared-off oak sections of Stickley (although the construction is now a laminated ghost of its original solid self), and Tiffany-style lampshades and windows are available in acrylic reincarnations.