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The American Arts and Crafts Movement

“Mission joke” is how 1970s antiques dealers referred to the dark, boxy oak furniture produced by virtually every turn-of-the-century American manufacturer until about 1920. And dealers could not give it away then. “Porch furniture,” they also indelicately called it.

A decade later, it seemed everyone had to have it – movie stars and famous directors, singers and hit songwriters – and the forms previously burned as backyard nuisances now populated Madison Avenue galleries, high-end auction houses and the nation’s most prestigious art museums.

On Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, and just down the street from Paramount Pictures, two galleries specializing in the period’s artifacts vied for celebrities’ attention.

In 1988, Barbra Streisand paid $363,000 at Christie’s for Gustav Stickley’s own sideboard – a record price for mission furniture, as was widely reported. (“A half-day’s work” for her, some quipped.)

“Mission joke” became “Arts and Crafts” (sometimes pronounced “ahh-rts”) as its status was elevated 50 years after its demise by, especially, half a dozen traveling museum exhibitions and their accompanying pictorially lush catalogues.

The style’s legitimization in the not-for-profit museum context, as well as the marketplace, laid to rest once and for all any association with suburban garage hobbies and children’s summer camp activities.

The decorative arts movement took root in America as the twentieth-century began; across “the pond,” Arts and Crafts was introduced in England and on the continent as early as 1875. As much a lifestyle (for some, bordering on religion) as a design style, Arts and Crafts embraced multiple media: wood, metal, clay, fiber, glass.

Its aesthetic for furniture was painfully plain and has more in common with the Shakers’ style than any other; restrained and stylized in clay or metal; and often geometric for glass. The exuberant excesses of high-style Victorians was abandoned. Arts and Crafts followed a (predictable) trajectory delineated by Eastlake and Aesthetic styles of the late nineteenth-century.

Quickly and nearly simultaneously, the Arts and Crafts style spread across the U.S., meandering and morphing this way or that to better suit and meet regional preferences. Chicago and the Midwest, for instance, embraced Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie style, where houses stretched to either end of the horizon. The west coast endorsed a So-Cal style typified by Greene and Greene’s 6,000 square foot “bungalows” for the wealthy and, in northern California, Dirk Van Erp’s hammered copper work for the less affluent.

But there were few places with a greater concentration of Arts and Crafts manufacturers, artists and craftsmen, schools and related educational institutions, than New York State.

Best known and most famously: Gustav Stickley (and his two brothers, Leopold and John George) in Syracuse, Elbert Hubbard’s Roycroft (East Aurora – which, by the way, is west of Aurora, NY); Charles Rohlfs (Buffalo) and Adelaide Alsop Robineau (Syracuse); Alfred University (Alfred, NY), Mechanics Institute (Rochester, today RIT) and Pratt Institute (New York City).

Doubtless, fortune favored NYS thanks to its sophisticated and interwoven transportation networks of canals, railroads and slowly emerging turnpikes, providing access to the world’s retail center, New York City.

But merchandise and markets neither wholly define nor comprise Arts and Crafts. Education, in fact, undergirds the entire enterprise. It is, after all, where designers begin designing.

Rochester was home to the very first Arts & Crafts Society, quickly followed a couple of months later by one in Boston. And then hundreds and hundreds of similarly themed Societies sprouted in localities large and small, across the U.S.

For the past 35 years, Asheville, NC hosts a national Arts and Crafts conference featuring educational speakers, hands-on workshops, and seminar-style discussion groups on focused subjects. Commerce mixes with scholarship at the conference’s antiques show and in the booths of vendors of contemporary works in the Arts and Crafts style.

Thirty-five years. Think about that.

Most trace today’s revival of interest in Arts and Crafts to a 1972 exhibition hosted at Princeton University’s Art Gallery. The Movement’s revival is longer-lasting than was the original.

Maybe there’s something to this Mission Joke stuff.

At RIT Press, the scholarly publishing enterprise at the Rochester Institute of Technology (and where I work), a new book series focused on the Arts and Crafts Movement launched this year. Intended to serve interested scholars and serious collectors, three titles will be published in the next 12 months.

One book focuses on Elverhoj, a small crafts community located at Milton-on-Hudson. The second examines the novelty of Gustav Stickley’s 1903 traveling exhibitions in Syracuse and Rochester. And the third explains the enormously significant educational and art pottery story of a small, short-lived west coast summer school.

All titles in RIT Press’s Arts and Crafts Movement series will feature original scholarship on focused subjects presented in high-quality printed books. For more information visit

The Movement’s revival persists in the twenty-first century.

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