Postcard from the 1898 Vienna Jubilee Exposition

The series of newspaper articles by Adolf Loos I’ve been excerpting were written on the occasion of the 1898 Vienna Jubilee Exposition. International expositions (which this one isn’t really listed as, it’s more of a national expo) are a central organizing locus to major changes in domestic design. Bill Bryson, for example, uses the Crystal Palace exhibition (usually marked as the first international one) as his initial point of departure in his book Home.

Loos’s first selected piece begins with his reminiscence of the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Thanks to Loos, I find myself looking a bit further back to the Weltausstellung 1873 Wien [1873 World Exposition Vienna] as instrumental in the development of the movement toward arts and crafts education in the nineteenth century.

Swedish folk costumes displayed at the Weltausstellung 1873 Wien

Its motto was Kultur und Erziehung [Culture and Education]. The movement across Europe was to tie the quality of industrial products to the morality and national identity of the individual countries. What I didn’t realize, which I found out via Loos, was that such concerns were institutionalized at that time. The attempt to codify Swedish Modern at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York wasn’t an isolated moment: it was the culmination of a long journey through crafts education—and crafts education proved central in many other countries as well.

The timeline on The Austrian Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Arts is informative. In 1867, the Wiener Kunstgewerbeschule [Vienna School of Arts and Crafts] was founded and a building was constructed for the museum. “Uniting the practical and theoretical” is a common theme, and central to this is the mission for education. The Österreichische Kunstgewerbeausstellung [Austrian Exhibition of Arts and Crafts] opens in 1871 with the completion of buildings for both the museum and the school. The international exposition follows closely in 1873.

Preceding the efforts to embrace craft in Sweden (1899), in 1884 the Austrians establish the Wiener Kunstgewerbeverein [Viennese Arts and Crafts Association]. The ties to industry are quite direct:

Numerous well-known companies and workshops (above all J. & L. Lobmeyr), personalities and professors at the School of Arts and Crafts join this organization. Its objective is to further expand all the powers of creativity and execution developed by the city’s arts and crafts industry since the 1860s. To this end, several temporary and publically accessible exhibitions are organized at the Imperial Royal Museum of Art and Industry. Objects on exhibit are available for purchase. With these novel and lavish exhibitions, the association manages to generate the domestic and international resonance necessary for the realization of its aims. (Austrian Museum)

This sets the stage, and establishes the precedents for Adolf Loos’s desire to reject of the efforts of the School of Arts and Crafts. Through successive leaders, various historical periods were nostalgically reenacted and rejected. Similar movements occurred in the US as well, with shoddy period furniture knock-offs changing from moment to moment with the fashions, before the final commercialization of Arts and Crafts as a movement, both social and commercial. As is typical, the US was far behind the rest of the world.

In fact, one of the major foreshadowings of arts and crafts is found in Jacob von Falke’s 1871 book Art in the House , which was translated and distributed in the US by 1879. Jacob von Falke was a deputy director of the Viennese School of Arts and Crafts, becoming full director from 1885-1895, and largely credited with initiating the period of historicism in design which both the Secession and Adolf Loos raged against. The school remained affiliated with the museum until 1909, until it was split off into a separate Ministry of Culture and Education.

I think that marks a more definite move to separate the cultural and the commercial in Austria, a move which did not occur in Sweden. In the US, there was never any cultural sponsorship to begin with; it was simply left to the few academics and private relief efforts, that is until the WPA (Federal Artists and Writers Project) in the 1930s. The most interesting thing about the Swedish model to me is the maintenance of a “homecraft” organization in concert with a separate industrial craft organization. The roles seem to be conflated in Austria.

In Germany, the Deutscher Werkbund [German Association of Craftsmen] wasn’t suggested until 1899 (roughly contemporaneous to Swedish efforts) and it represented another attempt to get art into industry. An early member of the Werkbund has been repeatedly cited here, Hermann Muthesius. It wasn’t formally organized until 1907, and lacked the emphasis on traditional craft found elsewhere. The Werkbund was the progenitor of the Bauhaus.

The story of all this is exceedingly complex, and these little narratives are an effort to scatter a few bread crumbs to contextualize the source materials I’m saving here.

Motion Tabled.

Adolf Loos Tea Table
“The elephant trunk table” designed by Adolf Loos

It’s easy to get pissed at Adolf Loos, especially when he passionately argues that tattooed people are either savages or criminals. The difficulty in researching him, for me, is trying to figure out some context for his polemic declarations. In the introduction to the 1982 collection  Spoken into the Void: Collected Essays 1897-1900, Aldo Rossi suggests that Loos’s writings are best taken in the spirit that they were offered. Sadly, virtually every book I found, and every PDF littered about the web, has the context stripped away along with all the dates and attributions. Even recently published collections offer no documentation about where the articles first appeared.

The power to irritate is closely related to the ability to amuse oneself, and the reader who is not overly confused by the academic pedantry will amuse himself a great deal with the writings collected here. Certain pieces, written in the “journalistic” manner, have provoked me to laughter and remind me of another artist who love to confront problems with a sense of humor, namely James Joyce. There is no doubt that these contemporaries of Freud were well aware that “every joke is a murder,” and may be placed among those artists whom Manfredo Tafuri defines as “villainous.” But Loos, apart from being “villainous” in a higher sense, is often “impudent” in the usual sense of the word. While preaching the uselessness of furnishing provided by architects at the same time of the do-it-yourself method—and from this we should logically deduce that one style is as good as another—he considers Secession [art nouveau] furniture actually to be criminal: “The day will come,” he writes, “when the furnishings of a prison cell by the court decorator Schulz or by Professor Van de Velde will be considered an aggravation of the penalty.” This is a statement which, deprived of its sarcasm, could be said to contain a moralism much like that of Gropius. (viii-ix)

Henri Van de Velde Tea table, Padouk 1896
Henri Van de Velde Tea table, Padouk 1896

It appears to me that the designer whose ornaments are so heinous that the ought to be jailed, has produced a tea table that is far less ornamental than the designer who railed so sharply against ornament. In fact, the designs of Professor Van de Velde, a leading Belgian art nouveau designer, are far more restrained than the norm. Loos’s critique is obviously not only sarcastic, but also tongue-in-cheek. That’s the problem of reading things divorced from their context.

I find it downright irritating that there isn’t much out there that isn’t in German on Adolf Loos. Apparently, he was a big fan of America and visited the Columbian Exhibition in 1893, so like Muthesius’s obsession with the English, he provides an interesting view from the outside. The passage from Rossi continues:

In speaking of his mythic America, the significance of which we shall see more clearly below, Loos seems to be delighted with a meal whose main dish is oatmeal; elsewhere he notes the fine eating habits of his much maligned countrymen, “for the Austrians know a lot about good cooking.” This unexplained assertion is equivalent to another on German cuisine: “The German people eat what they are served; they are always satisfied, pay the bill and leave.” (ix)

I am always struck by the way that gastronomy interweaves with architecture; both, one must assume, are matters of taste. In Loos, it seems, sarcasm is a way of life.

Throughout Loos’s writings one can find many quotations of this sort, some even more amusing and sarcastic than the above, and above all supported by a rigorous sense of logic, a persistent sense of involvement, and an anger akin to disillusionment. This feeling of disillusionment is much broader than any sort of disappointment with society or personal matters; it is centered on an abstract idea, a battle in which the enemy is a priori elusive, ungraspable, and not unlike the enemy of the mystic—sin. (ix)

Rossi’s assertion here brings out an aspect I’ve really not considered before. That the punk spirit (e.g. John Lydon’s “anger is an energy”) has some shared consciousness with the puritan aesthetic. It attempts to rid the world of the sins of bad taste.

In this case the enemy is stupidity and the lack of understanding and a sense of the end of things. Speaking of Karl Kraus, Loos summed up his friend’s thought and anxiety, saying, “He fears the end of the world.” The end of the world here is also the end of a world without meaning, where the search for authentic quality involves a man without specific qualities, where the great architecture of immutable meanings carries with it a sort of paralysis of creativity and the non-recognition of any progress of reason. Truth, architecture, art, the ancients—all this is behind Adolf Loos who, like all men of this kind, was well aware that he was traveling down a road without hope. (ix)

No future? John Lydon would be proud. The name Karl Kraus rang a bell, and I eventually remembered that I read an essay by Walter Benjamin on Karl Kraus years ago, and revisiting it today I remembered that Benjamin was also deeply moved by Adolf Loos, who features prominently in critical parts of that essay. The Benjamin essay on Kraus is worth revisiting another day. Returning to Rossi on Loos, what does it mean when one is “traveling down a road without hope”?

This attitude also calls into question the meaning of trade, of day-to-day labor, and consequently, of how one earns a living. On the one hand are the static architecture of monuments, the great architecture of the ancients, and the rather complicated possibility of “becoming” an architect; on the other hand are the minor activities whose efficacy he denies, such as the ordering of a house, it’s furnishing, its interior design. Loos does not hide this contradiction—on the contrary, he posits it as a part of his working terminology, and in one of his responses to a reader of Das Andere he actually affirms that he will continue to furnish stores, cafes, and private homes, even though such an activity is not by any means architectural—especially in an era when “every carpet designer defines himself as an architect.” (ix)

This places the matter of domestic design and fine art front and center; Benjamin’s Karl Kraus essay connects this line of questioning to art and technology instead, although there’s a telling fragment from around the same time period (1931-2) which includes a citation from a book given to Walter Benjamin by Franz Gluck:

On ships, mine shafts, and crucifixes in bottles, as well as panopticons.

“While reading Goethe’s rebuke to philistines and many other art lovers who like to touch copper engravings and reliefs, the idea came to him that anything that can be touched cannot be a work of art, and anything that is a work of art should be place out of reach.” Franz Gluck on Adolf Loos in Adolf Loos: Das Werk des Architekten [Adolf Loos: The Architect’s Works] by Heinrich Kulka (Vienna, 1931) p. 9.

Does this mean that these object in bottles are works of art because they have been placed out of reach?

(Collected Works of Walter Benjamin v. 2, p. 554)

Leaving aside the mind-blowing conceptualization of surveillance as art, this unpublished fragment really highlights the complexity of these questions, and shows strong connections with Benjamin’s concept of “aura,” The separation between day-to-day labor and artistic labor—the importance of and inaccessibility of the artist’s touch—is featured in Benjamin and Loos’s writing on the topic.

What separates the carpet designer from the designer of architecture, of monuments, from the carpet designer? Rossi offers this thesis for Loos’s acceptance of the paradox:

And why does he do all this? Because his trade gives him something to live on, and because he can do it well: “Just like in America where I earned my living for a while by washing dishes. But one could support oneself just as easily by doing something else too.” The contradiction between art and trade is so played down that the argument touches on an aspect that the idealist point of view has always neglected, that of the artist’s means of subsistence. As always, Loos condemns the moralism of action that is directly opposed to the economic romanticism of the Modern Movement. Each person will live in his own house, according to his own personality, but in all probability someone will ask for advice about this or that problem, or more simply will have better things to do than furnish his own house; then the architect, trying to do his job well, will advise him. That is all. In this light, Loos’s sarcasm directed against the Secession is easier to understand; what Loos is really attacking in his contemporaries is not so much their style or their taste (even though he finds it abominable)—what he cannot tolerate is the “redemptive” value that they assign to their own actions. One trade is as good as another; and even a trade like washing dishes can be done well provided one breaks as few as possible.

This certainly is the one aspect which “modern architecture,” so committed to mythifying its relations with industry and reformist politics, has been unable to admit and unwilling to discuss. (ibid., ix, x)

It seems clearer now why arts and crafts, art nouveau, and even the modernists with their imperatives would bear the brunt of such savage critique. Read in this way, all the high minded moralizing about the value of labor seems strained coming as it does, filtered down from bourgeois artists and designers sitting on their high moral thrones. For Loos’s most scathing thoughts on the topic, read “The Poor Little Rich Man.”

Swedish Modern

Opening pages of Swedish Arts and Crafts- click to enlarge for full effect.

I was looking for furniture designed by Carl Malmsten, or any sort of book about him, when I stumbled on Swedish Arts and Crafts: Swedish Modern —A Movement Towards Sanity In Design, a public relations effort published by the Royal Swedish Commision on the occasion of the New York World’s Fair, 1939.

The Swedish manor culture, which subsequently was to have a tremendous influence on the rebirth of Swedish applied art, reached its height in the eighteenth century. French influences in furniture and interior design marked its entire development, but in the hands of excellent Swedish artists and  craftsmen they were gracefully blended into a native Swedish style—simple and unpretentious, with clean lines, and a sound conception of ornamentation. This 18th century received, fittingly enough, during the last part of the century the name Gustavian, because it is a faithful reflection of the spirit which pervaded the age of the great charmer king, Gustavus III—a refined, sophisticated, if rather formal way of living. (8)

This choice of language is strangely parallel to the autobiography of Carl Larsson, first published in 1931. Gustavus III was a “charmer,” while Larsson claims that he himself was not; both also place ornament, and the control of it, at the center of their concerns. One twist here is vital though—the Royal Swedish Commission immediately cites its ties to manor culture.

Larsson appears not long after this “charming” passage:

While during the major part of the nineteenth century Swedish artists and artisans busied themselves with copying the styles of bygone days, at the beginning of the present century a new style was born. It was a romantic, Nordic nationalistic style which found its expression in a great number of monumental buildings, all needing artistic embellishment. The romantic influence was felt also in the home, and Carl Larsson, the famous painter, exercised a tremendous influence on the Swedish taste through his home, a romanticized “peasant” interior of great charm and hominess. (9)

In fact, the development of Swedish Modern design is traced through three different types of home: the manor home, the burgher home, and the farm home. I was taken by many of the farm home interiors displayed in the 1939 World’s Fair propaganda, and did a little googling to find an interesting blog post from BuildLLC, which reproduces a contemporary pamphlet on Swedish Farmhouse design with this commentary:

While the guide is regulating and pragmatic, this method of design probably didn’t feel restrictive to homeowners when these farmhouses were originally constructed — in fact it probably still doesn’t feel restrictive in Scandinavia. There are a variety of options to fulfill a homeowner’s desire to make personal choices, and ample opportunity for each farmhouse to be unique. The important element is that this design freedom all occurs within set boundaries defined by sensibility; by what works and what doesn’t, by what is available and what’s not, by the practicality of time and budget. There are six varieties of roofing, seven types of siding, and nine distinct door designs. These three variables alone allow for 378 unique farmhouse designs and while one completed design could vary from another, each individual design decision is manageable. The nine door options are locally made from community resources, not a thousand from every corner of the earth. The same philosophy of decision-making applies to all aspects of this guide: Design decisions are informed by the collected knowledge of the people who built a house before you did.

While on the surface this seems quite laudable, what’s missing from this is celebration is any admission of the narrow nature of the Swedish conception of Arts and Crafts. As the Royal Commision explains directly in the 1939 book:

Under the aegis of The Swedish Society of Arts and Crafts, (Svenska Slöjdföreningen) a state-aided organization founded back in 1845, one industry after another began to employ artists as designers and production leaders. The result of this close cooperation between the Society, artists, and did not long delay its appearance. Along the entire line the output of Swedish home furnishings industries improved in form as well as in technical quality. However, the Society did not confine its efforts to raising the quality of the industrial products, it also launched a lively campaign to improve the taste of the general public and the standard of the homes of small income groups. By a never-ceasing propaganda, by exhibitions, lectures, courses, publications it hammered the gospel of home culture into the consciousness of the Swedish people, to make them realize the necessity for home furnishings in better accord with their actual needs and in harmony with modern life. By thus directing its program to the entire people rather than to limited groups of society, it was inevitable that the arts and crafts movement was to take on a social character. (8-9)

The social character was not simply the embrace of modern industry, but also traditional homecraft. It makes sense that the Arts and Crafts movement, in its most nationalistic zeal, would thrive in a country with a comparatively small amount of ethnic diversity. Traditional ethnic crafts (homecraft) has been lovingly preserved; it’s admirable, although it seems much easier for a country without large immigrant populations to achieve. In 1899, Lilli Zickerman (1858-1949) formed the Swedish Home Craft Association (Föreningen för svensk hemslöjd).

Lilli Zickerman, lower left.
Lilli Zickerman, lower left.

What Zickerman proposed was a grand program to relieve the idleness and poverty that she saw as a result of industrialism. In her view, it was a matter of national concern and a moral duty that she and her associates help poor people to help themselves to work and to enhance the moral and aesthetic quality of their lives. To accomplish this, she and her associates had to educate people of all social classes to turn away from cheap mass produced goods (gottkopskram) and teach them to appreciate the quality and beauty of home-made crafts. In particular, people were to learn from those who still mastered the traditional arts. The idea, then, was not only to preserve and copy traditional artifacts but also to improve them. All peasant furniture and textiles were neither well made nor tasteful enough to please demanding buyers, and stern control was needed to maintain high quality and proper styling. Ultimately, Zickerman and her associates hoped that their program would have even grander effects: they expected that people’s love of their homes and their home region and its place within the Swedish nation would be awakened and strengthened. That love would have a moral and educational value and would prevent both the exodus to the United States and the growth of a rootless, “unswedish proletariate” of the kind that was joining socialist parties. It is no wonder that it was primarily conservative politicians who supported the homecraft movement, not their political adversaries on the left.

(Barbro Klein, “The moral content of tradition: Homecraft, ethnology, and Swedish life in the twentieth century” Western Folklore (Spring 2000)

Only since the 1970s has there been much backlash. Klein remarks that the social character of homecraft studies has been by described by those who enter it as “pompom research” or “pixie research.”  Looking at the propaganda from 1939, it seems that little had changed. The “We Know” that creates the parallel structure of the introduction downright reeks of condescension. The ambivalence since the 70s is manifest in the language used to describe what used to be an optimistic, utopian project:

Few contemporary Swedish ethnologists study in earnest such phenomena as homecraft. The exceptions are a handful of highly accomplished, now retired, women, such as Ingrid Bergman, Sofia Danielson, and Gertrud Grenander-Nyberg who have all been employed at the cultural historical museums. Within the homecraft movement they are sometimes lovingly called “the homecraft mafia.” But their books and papers, which include important Ph.D. and M.A. theses, have not been at the center of the ethnological discussions. Indeed, neither pre-industrial craft nor the homecraft revival have been dominant topics within the discipline during the past thirty years, just as little as peasant art, legendary, or traditional medicine have been. The many ambivalent feelings toward homecraft, from irony to love, come forth in such widely used puns and word plays as hemsk slöjd (“horrible craft”) and slemhöjden (“the slimy hill”).

The pattern here repeats with alarming frequency, in different countries although at completely different time. The task of preserving craft is a difficult one, particularly when its organizing principles (like preservation of national identity) are either adopted uncritically, or hypocritically. There has to be a better organizing principle than nationalism.

I think that the concept of home as a situated but reasonably generalizable locus for the study of craft is worth pursuing.

The ornamented snake

I dreamed this past night that a strange young man urged me to enter a house where he would show me that he could charm snakes. He went ahead. Naturally, I followed him.

In there, I actually saw him standing in the center of the room, and in front of him, raised almost as tall as he, a thick gigantic cobra moved its head, following the beats of unheard music.

In the dimness of lights and smoke behind them I could faintly discern a group of spectators. Apparently they were convinced that the snake charmer had the dangerous snake completely under control.

I did not. Arriving late and totally alone, I suddenly found myself standing quite close to the actors. I felt unpleasantly insecure and would have liked to be outside again.

For a moment, I closed my eyes and thought: “The snake has noticed you particularly.” I feared it might be coming close…and then…and then I felt it close to me. It had slithered to my feet….It rose along my body…it chilled me and filled me with terror. I knew that one sting meant immediate death, namely if I showed the slightest fear.

“Introduction” Carl Larsson: The Autobiography of Sweden’s Most Beloved Artist, 1

This seems a strange way to commence the story of your life. After all, this isn’t Jim Morrison we’re talking about here, but a man known primarily for painting placid domestic scenes. No wonder many have described this book as “dour.”

Rather than a snake, it seems to me that the story of domestic design at the turn of the twentieth century is more like a hydra with many heads. The northern outpost of Arts and Crafts differs sharply from the English or Mediterranean variants. But snakes? What gives?


In the center of the “snail room” exhibited by Italian furniture designer Carlo Bugatti (father of the carmaker) there reside three “cobra” chairs. There is an  example of one in Chicago; I’ll have to look for it the next time I pass through.


This piece is completely covered in parchment, a technique which hid all joints. Decorations are made of hammered copper, pencil and paint, and it is covered with parchment and leather.

The snail room was meant for games and conversation. The chair was shaped like a cobra, inscribed with floral and geometric motifs reminiscent of Islamic art. The chair’s open design served a practical purpose, allowing men’s coattails and women’s trains to hang down behind the seat.

It’s not really Arts and Crafts, but rather Art Nouveau, emphasizing ornament over the more self-consciously “honest” styles of the north.

Though they are sometimes lumped together, there seem to be some very important distinctions between the complex emergent styles of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

I opened my eyes, and now the head of the snake was close to me, facing me. How magnificent it was! The colors, glittering in the most wondrous shades, were blinding me. The most elegant ornaments were forming in front of my eyes. They curled downward to more rigidly geometrical planes, and on the lower parts of its body, where the colors turned more vulgar, the patterns became coarser and more abhorrent.

But the evil little head with the shield around the neck, which is so peculiar to the cobra, offered overwhelming richness of lines and color.

I had to look at it with an admiration close to rapture. The small eyes of the snake were glittering maliciously. They peered almost laughingly into mine. The head was rocking from time to time, sometimes shooting forward and then pulling back, and then I felt its repugnant spongy body pressing itself closer and closer to mine!

I knew that my life was not worth much by now. However, I seemed to myself triumphantly proud, felt that now I would be able to show those present what kind of man I really was.

Or was I?

Oh no, it was so thoroughly terrible, the tension was horrifying! If only the loathsome garishness would disappear! But if all turned out well, what a hero I would turn out to be! (ibid. 1-2)

It is extremely unlikely, I think, that Carl Larsson and Carlo Bugatti were familiar with each other. Nonetheless, it seems almost as if Larsson’s downright weird introduction to his autobiography might be productively be read as a critique of Art Nouveau. There’s a curious love/hate relationship with ornament across all these different threads of design.

Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott, writing in Houses and Gardens (1906) discusses two popular modes of decoration: heraldry and organic motifs. Heraldry, with its deep ties to the English manor house traditions, was old; natural motifs (decorating around some sort of common organic shape, like lotus flowers) were emerging (thanks to the pre-Raphaelites) as a plausible choice to those setting up a home.

Carl Larsson embraced Gustavian design (a situated Swedish variant of rococo), which is perhaps close to an embrace of the sort of traditional heraldic motifs gestured at by Baillie Scott. At the same time, there was a rustic naturalism to his designs. What the English and Swedish outlooks both share is a desire to ornament in such a way that connects with their national identities.

But the cobra did not release me. Now it approached my face, I felt its tongue as if it were fluttering against my lips, but I smiled and remained courageous.

Ah, but I was petrified, and so was my wide smile. Now, now, it stole its narrow, thin, thin, tongue between my lips. I felt it against my tongue. Now I could take it no longer.

I…woke up.

Fortunately it was only a dream, a nightmare.

I immediately realized it was an allegory of my life, as good as any.

You must try to decipher it yourself after reading the memories I have determined to write down.

My steadily smiling face. My hidden horror of life. I certainly was not a snake charmer. It was the snake—life—that charmed me. (ibid. 2)

Not many artists open their autobiography by spinning a tale about french-kissing a snake. I would be curious why Carl Larsson chose this dream, or why Carlo Bugatti chose the cobra as his totem, or the snail. But some things are certain.

The snail room was exhibited at Prima Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte Decorativa Moderna  in Turin in 1902.  It’s primary dictate:  “Only original products that show a decisive tendency toward aesthetic renewal of form will be admitted. Neither mere imitations of past styles nor industrial products not inspired by an artistic sense will be accepted.”

Both Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts stress connections, through ornament, to the lands that birthed them. Larsson had his folk styles and Gustavian ornament, Baillie Scott had heraldry and pagan naturalism, while Bugatti was more connected with Moorish traditions. All are situated in ways both intellectual and geographic.

Carlo Bugatti Throne

The Impressionist Home

A web piece from Smithsonian Magazine, “Step Into Van Gogh’s Brilliant Bedroom” lead me down an interesting cul-de-sac this morning. I’ve been wondering about rooms as jigs that shape behavior for a while, and I’m really interested in the Art Institute of Chicago’s airbnb project that allows you to stay in a replica of this famous interior. Would a person start to think like Van Gogh if they slept there?

It reminded me of a song by David Byrne, “Social Studies”, which I used a long time ago to teach extended possibilities for rhetorical analysis. It was never the hit with students that I hoped it would be.


The basic premise is that in order to understand people, you might become them if you consume what they consume. It’s not that outlandish, really. Marketing companies depend on getting us to buy products that allow us to be like the model or spokes-celebrity who shills for them. My longstanding interest in shopping malls stems from the belief that understanding what people choose to buy and how they buy it is important to the understanding society as a whole.

However, lately I’ve taken a deeper turn. I think that lived environments are important not because of what we buy to put in them, but because of the historical reasons why we need/choose these objects to begin with.

Sometime soon, I want to start writing about Wendy Hitchmough’s The Arts and Crafts Lifestyle and DesignI really like the organization of the book as well as the content—it moves from room to room to discuss not only the decoration and furnishing of the rooms, but the social rituals that furnished reasons for the rooms and their contents. It’s focus on the British strain of Arts and Crafts has really filled a gap in my education in that regard.

In reading about Carl and Karin Larsson recently, I cited a passage from an essay by Gillian Naylor that cites Herman Muthesius proclamation that the real innovation of the English was the creation of “the artistic house.” Wendy Hitchmough begins by invoking Muthesius as well, but from a different angle:

Hermann Muthesius concluded that the English derived their confidence and easy assurance from a tyrannical system of rules and customs which dictated what people must wear and how they must behave, and this determined the furnishing and arrangement of their surroundings. It was never necessary to worry about formalities—about where to put the display cabinet, for example, or which room would be auspicious for a proposal of marriage—because the matters were ruled by strict social conventions. “The most striking characteristic that the foreigner notices about the English is that their patterns of life are immutable and fixed for all time. . .Not only  is the domestic routine in the individual and as punctual as clockwork throughout the year but all households of similar economic standing are as like one another as peas in a pod.” (8, 10)

The only way to break free from this regimentation, Hitchmough argues, was “the artistic home.” In the last few decades of the 19th century, it seems that the artistic home was an often repeated trope. It’s there in Van Gogh’s letters as well. His thoughts about home are amazingly profound. From Letter 674:

How I’d like to set myself up so that I could have a home of my own! I never stop telling myself that if at the start we’d spent even 500 francs on furnishing, we would already have recouped all of it, and I would have furniture and I would be free of lodging-house keepers by now. I’m not pressing the point, but what we’re doing now isn’t wise. There will always be artists passing through here, wishing to escape the harshness of the north. And I feel myself that I’ll always be among that number. True that it would probably be better to go a bit further down, where you’d be more sheltered. True that it won’t be entirely easy to find, but all the more reason; if we set ourselves up here, the costs of moving shouldn’t be enormous. From here to Bordighera, for example, or somewhere near Nice. Once we’d settled, we’d stay there for the rest of our lives. Waiting until you’re very rich is a sorry system, and that’s what I don’t like about the De Goncourts, although it’s the truth — they end up paying a hundred thousand francs for their home and their peace of mind. Now we’d have it for less than a thousand, in that we’d have a studio in the south where we could put someone up.

But if we have to make a fortune first……… we’ll be totally neurotic by the time we reach that sort of tranquillity, and that’s worse than our present state, in which we can still stand all sorts of noises. But let’s be wise enough to know that we’re getting dull-witted all the same.

It’s better to lodge others than not to be lodged ourselves here, especially lodging with an innkeeper, which even when you pay doesn’t provide you with a lodging where you feel at home.

The reference to the De Goncourts is a matter of some discussion among Van Gogh scholars, apparently, as to how much or little Van Gogh had read of their work. In describing Van Gogh’s strategies and rhetoric as a letter writer, the suggestion has been made that Vincent might have viewed Edmond and Jules De Goncourt as a sort of crusading role model for the Van Gogh brothers, and they had written about “the artistic house.”

Félix Nadar, Portrait of Edmond et Jules Goncourt
Félix Nadar, Portrait of Edmond et Jules Goncourt

References tothe De Goncourt brothers occur in several of Van Gogh’s letters. I found the Wikipedia entry on  them interesting. French naturalism has had a lot of impact on many visual artists. The 1911 Britannica describes their specific flavor in this way:

“To the Goncourts humanity is as pictorial a thing as the world it moves in; they do not search further than ‘the physical basis of life,’ and they find everything that can be known of that unknown force written visibly upon the sudden faces of little incidents, little expressive moments.”

This aligns closely with Richard Sennett’s assertion that character, for the Victorians, is something that can be “read” from the external appearance of things.  It’s a shift to the visual coupled with an embrace of the emotional and contingent:

“The soul, to them, is a series of moods, which succeed one another, certainly without any of the too arbitrary logic of the novelist who has conceived of character as a solid or consistent thing. Their novels are hardly stories at all, but picture-galleries, hung with pictures of the momentary aspects of the world.”

This returns full circle to the “situated” versus “planned” worldview in the AI articles I was exploring yesterday in remarkable ways. Recall that Muthesius spoke of an English “planned” lifestyle that Hitchmough counterpoised with an Arts and Crafts “artistic house” alternative. Life, for an artist, is contingent and arbitrary. Nonetheless, Van Gogh had big plans:

It’s not the least little bit urgent, but I have my idea. I really want to make of it — an artists’ house but not precious, on the contrary, nothing precious, but everything from the chair to the painting having character.

So for the beds I bought local beds, two wide double beds, instead of iron beds. It gives a look of solidity, durability, calm, and if it takes a bit more bed-linen, that’s too bad, but it must have character.

Most fortunately I have a charwoman who’s very loyal; without that I wouldn’t dare begin the business of living in my own place. She’s quite old and has a mixed bunch of kids, and she keeps my tiles nice and red and clean.

I wouldn’t be able to explain to you how pleased I am to find a big, serious job this way. Because I hope it’ll be a true decoration that I’m going to undertake there.

So, as I’ve already told you, I’m going to paint my own bed, there’ll be 3 subjects. Perhaps a naked woman, I haven’t decided, perhaps a cradle with a child; I don’t know, but I’ll take my time.

I now no longer feel any hesitation about staying here, because ideas for work are coming to me in abundance. I now plan to buy some article for the house every month. And with patience, the house will be worth something for the furniture and the decorations. (Letter 677)

The plan, ultimately, was to exhibit both studies for the decoration of the house, and then the house itself. Van Gogh’s emphasis on physical decoration is supported by a definite amount of reading on the subject:

I read in the literary supplement of Saturday’s Figaro (15 Sept.) the description of an Impressionist house. This house was built, as would be the bottoms of bottles, of bricks of rounded glass — purple glass. With the sun glancing off it, the yellow glints flashing from it, it produced an extraordinary effect.

To support these walls of glass bricks in the shape of purple eggs, they had devised a support in black and gilded iron, representing strange shoots of vines and other climbing plants. This purple house was right in the middle of a garden, all of whose paths were made of a very yellow sand. The beds of ornamental flowers were naturally most extraordinary in their coloration. This house, if I remember well, must be in Auteuil. Without changing anything at the house, either now or later, I’d nevertheless like to make it, through the decoration, an artist’s house. That will come. I shake your hand firmly. (Letter 681)

Scholarly notes trace this reference to “an Impressionist house” back to the De Goncourts, but it doesn’t really matter if it’s correct or not; the article Van Gogh refers to actually describes “a modernist house,” so suffice it to say that the house is beginning to develop into an extension of beliefs, attitudes, and predilections of the designers and inhabitants. Van Gogh, like many others at the time, was concerned with putting together a well considered lived space.

At present I’ve also bought a dressing-table with all the necessaries, and my own little bedroom is furnished.

Gauguin’s or another lodger’s — we’ll still need a dressing-table and a chest of drawers, and downstairs I’ll need a large stove and a cupboard.

None of that’s at all urgent, and as a result I can already see the goal, to have the means of having a roof over my head for a good long time.

You wouldn’t believe how much that calms me; I have such a passion to make — an artist’s house — but a practical one and not the usual studio full of curios.

I’m also thinking of planting two oleanders outside the door, in tubs.

Anyway, on this studio we’re probably spending several hundred francs less than Russell, for example, who spends thousands.  And actually, even if I had the choice between the two, for my part I’d prefer the few-hundred-francs method, as long as each piece of furniture was four-square and substantial. But still, the room in which I’ll put up those who pass through here will be like a boudoir, and when it’s finished you’ll see that it’s not a haphazard creation, but a job done that way deliberately. (Letter 685)

The sense of hope in these letters is almost palpable. Like any good frugal house-husband, Van Gogh is striving to shape his surroundings by careful selection and decoration, to make everyone know he meant to do that. This is nearly contemporary with Carl and Karin Larsson and most of the British Arts and Crafts designers.

There was something in the air internationally regarding intelligent domestic design and everyone wanted in on it.


Carl Larsson's upcycled kitchen cabinet
Carl Larsson’s upcycled kitchen cabinet

Carl Larsson could make a work of art out of even the simplest piece of furniture. The very plain cupboard, which was painted in China red, and the door panels were black-lacquered and decorated with growing flowers, in a clearly Japanese-inspired, asymmetrical composition. This piece of furniture expresses much of the young Carl Larsson’s freedom and inspiration.

Carl and Karin Larsson filled their house with old furniture, bought or given at different times. Nearly every room has a piece of furniture radiating a Baroque exuberance and a feeling for constructional clarity characteristic of peasant master craftsmen. Many of the heavier pieces of furniture probably belonged to mine shareholders, well-off land-owning farmers with a share in the local mine and arable land. Several corner cupboards and mouldings on the doors came from farmer’s homes in Dalarna. Such furniture was inexpensive at that time, and Larsson sometimes bought furniture in such bad condition that it had to be restored by his handyman. On the other hand, most of the old furniture bought for his home was well-made, of solid materials and good craftsmanship, stable and intended for practical purposes. These items are a reflection of Larsson’s nationalism, an expression of his pride in Sweden’s period as a great power in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. (Elizabeth Stavenow-Hidemark,  “The Larsson Approach to Old Furniture,” Carl and Karin Larsson: Creators of the Swedish Style 187)

It’s very weird to me how the books I read tend to overlap. Chris Schwarz’s The Anarchist’s Design Book is filled with a celebration of the sort of workaday vernacular furniture gestured at (with some more ornate examples as well) in the book on Larsson I’m trying to save some snips from. I’ve never liked the word “upcycling” (apparently this term was coined circa 1994) but the practice has been commonplace for a very long time.

In fact, it’s a centerpiece of Mackay Hugh Baillie Scot’s strategy as well. In House and Garden (1906) He repeats exactly the same strategy:

The best way to secure a satisfactory result in furnishing is to have the furniture made specially for its position—a few things soundly and simply constructed which shall seem a part of the whole scheme. In many parts of the country old furniture of a simple type—gate tables, rush-bottomed chairs, bureaus, &c.—may be obtained at a very reasonable cost; and such things, with a few special made furnishings which cannot be obtained in this way, will always be at home in a house such as I have described. This old furniture has a sort of human character about it; and the varied planes of its surfaces, with its strong construction and evidences of careful leisurely work, make it inviting and homely. The modern ” Art” furniture bears testimony, on the contrary, that it is the work of a drilled automaton. Its pretence to finish is a mere superficial deceptive smartness. No human being ever loved or lingered over its completion, and its Art is the bait held out to the purchaser as a substitute for real excellence of design or manufacture. (40)

Schwarz’s “movement” towards home made furniture is not really all that new, and neither is his ranting against Ikea. It seems to me to be Arts and Crafts, through and through. What I wasn’t really expecting was to find that  a bit further on, Baillie Scot comes out in full support of what Schwarz labels as “boarded furniture.” For those who haven’t been following the woodworking magazines, translates to furniture built with nails:

In the making of furniture there are two principal methods of construction in the joining of its woodwork. The simplest is that now used in making packing-cases, the wood being joined by means of nails. The more complicated is that in which the wood is joined by letting one piece into another by the use of what are called mortices and tenons.

It is a foregone conclusion nowadays that the simplest way of doing a thing is necessarily the worst way, and the nail in modern woodwork has been considered a thing to be hidden. While in all other details of construction a virtue has been made of frankness, and while the pegs of the tenon are displayed to view, the nail is sedulously concealed by all kinds of artifices. In the making of the simple kinds of furniture in which the wood is joined by nails of the kind known as clout-headed, made by a blacksmith, these might be shown without shame, and form a feature in the design, and nothing could be reasonably urged against this simple and direct “packing-case” construction for a chest or cabinet. (41)

So there you have it. Not only does he suggest boarded furniture, he also suggests traditional blacksmith-made nails over machine made wire nails. The old cliché about the more things change comes immediately to mind. But, it’s just as certain to say that craftsmanship never goes out of fashion.

Carpenter Hans Arnbom, 1915
Carl Larsson, Carpenter Hans Arnbom, 1915. The paneling is inscribed ‘my friend and builder H. Arnbom’

Postscript: In the final essay in Carl and Karin Larsson: Creators of the Swedish Style, “The Larsson Design Legacy: A Personal View” by Lena Larsson, she tells this anecdote:

When I went into the business in 1940s [interior design], I was often asked where one could buy ‘Carl Larsson furniture.’ ; the answer was that you had to make it yourself. In 1944 Carl Malmsten published a whole set of drawings for general use. (225).

The designer/craftsman Carl Malmsten, who first encountered Carl Larsson’s books in 1907, was apparently very taken by the interior scenes created by the Larssons. James Krenov, a saint to many contemporary builders, was a pupil of Malmsten. The connections are really fascinating to me.


I’ve been obsessed with questions about home as a concept for years. I drift in and out of them, but it always seems to come back around to that. The final section of Rybczynski’s The Most Beautiful Home in the World sent me in a direction I wasn’t expecting, to Carl and Karin Larsson. My wife of, of course, had been there long before me in appreciating Lilla Hyttnäs.

Carl and Karin LarssonI located a book, and positively devoured it. I find it fascinating that Carl Larsson’s first job was as a photo retoucher, and that his home began as a sort of country compound not unlike the sort of place I was raised.

Lilla Hyttnäs was a hodge-podge of things cobbled together, both modern and traditional— which evolved into a sort of Swedish National style— a distant though unquestionably genetic relative to the now pervasive Ikea. Coincidentally, at the same time I’ve been digesting Chris Schwarz’s latest, The Anarchist’s Design Book.

Ikea has long been the nemesis of Schwarz, who commendably has called for a new furniture movement— the build it yourself movement. Curiously, that’s pretty much what Carl and Karin Larsson did. Schwarz knows that the idea of everyone building it themselves is more than a little utopian, and like all utopian notions is pretty much predestined for failure.

Though Carl and Karin Larsson: Creators of the Swedish Style is more than a little over the top in its praise, it strikes at the core of why dreams like this eternally return. The foreword of this exhibition catalog from the Victoria and Albert Museum, written by Anders Clason, “Cultural Counsellor” of the Embassy of Sweden, is a perfect crystallization of the character of the book:

Carl and Karin Larsson were children of the nineteenth century, the century of utopias. It was Britain that lead the way in recognizing the great change wrought by industry, and in struggling against the monster of technology. The town had become a living thing, tearing Western man away from the soil that had been the basis of life. The Larssons, in their own utopia, created a permanent dream picture of Sweden and Swedishness, a country idyll bathed in Nordic light.

Certain artists have the ability to spread gold dust on the wintery path of life. The Larssons were such artists. Their vision of Swedishness is more firmly embedded in the national psyche even than the Swedish sense of community. To have a lilac embowered cottage in the country in your family’s place of origin, that is the Swedish dream. To have it light and white, clean and airy, like a summer meadow sprinkled with ox-eye daisies, is the very essence of that dream. (vi)

Though this might be laying it on a bit thick, the concept of home found in Carl Larsson’s paintings is more detailed and useful than Norman Rockwell, at least to me. It’s closer to a sort of space I find attractive. In fact, that’s the thing that always annoyed me about Schwarz’s anti-Ikea tirades; many people really aspire to that sort of middle ground populist design, largely because it looks, well, happy. Regardless whether the construction quality is something to admire or not, it brings good design within the reach of millions.

Scan 1
Carl Larsson in his workshop at Lilla Hyttnäs

Though it isn’t the best quality, this photograph shows a familiar sort of workshop, filled with trees brought in for the winter and assorted projects in process. Larsson painted workshop scenes as well, no doubt with his own children and local artisans as models.

Larsson Workshop

More and more, I’m drawn into the Arts and Crafts movement as a global phenomenon. It was a reaction against technology of a sort, but it was also an embrace of technology too. Not all technology is considered bad, as evidenced by William Morris’s News from Nowhere: Morris, in a memorable passage suggested in his utopian future that genuinely useful technologies were embraced, while tech with little to offer was simply left behind to rust. The question of what is a good tech, versus bad tech, was left unaddressed in the novel though he really did attempt to lay out some guidelines elsewhere.

One of the key essays in the exhibition catalog by Gillian Naylor, “Domesticity and Design Reform: The European Context” really gives me some new avenues to traverse. Her essay points at the deeper roots of Arts and Crafts to the social upheavals of the mid nineteenth century. She talks about the contributions of the German author Hermann Muthesius, whose The English House has been on my list to write about for a while, citing a passage from Stilarchitektur und Baukunst (1902) suggesting that buildings might transcend “academic and socially divisive preoccupations with style. The English approach to the building arts, he wrote, was:

nothing other than a rejection of architectural formalism in favor of a simple and natural, reasonable way of building. One brought nothing new to such a movement: everything had existed for centuries in vernacular architecture of the small town and rural landscape . . . Here, amid the architectural extravagance that the architects promoted, one found all that one desired and for which one thirsted: adaptation to needs and local conditions, unpretentiousness and honesty of feeling: utmost cosiness and comfort in the layout of rooms, colour, an uncommonly attractive and painterly (but also reasonable) design, an economy of building construction. The new English building-art that developed on this basis had now produced valuable results. But it has done more: it has spread the interest and understanding for domestic architecture to the entire people. It has created the only sure foundation for a new artistic culture: the artistic house. (78)

The focus, Naylor argues, shifted away from easel painting and fine arts, into design reform bent on reinforcing national identities and bringing fine art to the masses. The passage from Muthesius is really interesting to me on multiple levels, not the least of which being that if you substitute “furniture” for architecture, you’ve just summarized the core thesis of Chris Schwarz’s latest book—at least the aesthetics of it.

Usefully, Naylor brings a more critical eye on the phenomenon:

This was, of course, a middle-class vision: it reflected the prestige and elitism associated with ‘high art’, and at the same time romanticized the role of the working class. By aiming to transform factory hands into creative and contented artisans, and by concentrating on vernacular ideals of workmanship, this generation of design reformers also challenged the policies of their predecessors rejecting any form of training programme based on attempts to control or rationalize the design process. (79-80)

The rejection of a rationalized design process by the Arts and Crafts practitioners includes both Taylorism and factory-efficiency analyses and moves to impose any sort of design grammar (such as Owen Jones’s Grammar of Ornament from 1856). I note that Lost Art Press has also been publishing admirable work on pre-industrial design by George Walker and Jim Tolpin  that implies that a grammar of design is at least possible. It stops short from creating a full program, although it does include a new workbook with design exercises.

Such programmes were rejected by the Arts and Crafts generation because they denied the role of individuality and creativity; they were devised to impose rather than generate order, and they isolated the object from the context of making and use. (80)

To be fair, recent work by Jim Tolpin and George Walker does base its design practice completely on the context of making and use. Opposed to a controlled and rationalized design process, Naylor aligns the Arts and Crafts generation with the resurrection of a modified medieval guild system (through Ruskin and Morris) and  “the restoration of the ideal and reality of the home” as “a political as well as social necessity” (80). The political nature of this has unique repercussions in Germany:

Policies to improve standards of worker’s housing had been instigated in Germany from the 1840s, and the association of Wohnugsreform (the reform of the dwelling) with Lebensreform (the reform of life) acknowledged the English celebration of home. In Germany, however, the home came to be associated with the homeland, Heimat, that powerful and politically uncompromised symbol of national unity and continuity. Heimat was (and is) a value-laden concept and therefore difficult to translate; it signified home, locality, and country, as well as a sense of belonging and the inheritance of a shared past. Unlike Morris’s gentle Utopia, however, Heimat was somewhere; its roots were in the German soil and the German homestead, and in the bitter struggles for survival of the German race. (80-81)

Home and homeland are complex topics. Reform through design seems to have spread like wildfire virtually every nation at the dawn of the twentieth century. And not just design in general, but design in the lived environment. It’s wonderful to hope that the same thing might be happening at the dawn of the twenty-first.

Intrinsic Value


The quiet home, with his imaginative father and deeply religious mother, the ancient university at which he passed his most formative years, kept him apart from those freer and less exalted minds who advanced more rationally and patiently to their conclusions. But yet, the spirit of his time awakened within him, as a seed germinates in the warmth ‘of spring.

He apprehended facts which, equally from vehemence of spirit and from lack of specific training, he was unable to state with precision. For him, intuition supplied the place of genuine knowledge, as we may learn from even casual reference to his writings. As an example of his intuitional power in economics, may” be cited a passage of the “Munera Pulveris,” in which he assigns “values” with apparent waywardness. It reads:

“Intrinsic value is the absolute power of anything to support life. A sheaf of wheat of given quality and weight has in it a measurable power of sustaining the substance of the body; a cubic foot of pure air a fixed power of sustaining its warmth; and a cluster of flowers of given beauty, a fixed power of igniting or animating the senses and heart.”

In the old school of economists, such statements could not do otherwise than to excite mirth and contempt; for air and beauty were barred out from the things representing wealth.

Irene Sargent, “John Ruskin: a word regarding his life and public service”, The Craftsman November 1901 p. 3-4

The work of craft in the age of mechanical reproduction

Bernard Leach by Setsuo Kato
Bernard Leach by Setsuo Kato

The art of the craftsman, to use Herbert Read’s terminology, is intuitive and humanistic (one hand one brain); that of the designer for reduplication, rational, abstract and tectonic, the work of the engineer or the constructor rather than that of the ‘artist’. Each method has its own aesthetic significance. Examples of both can be good or bad. The distinction between them lies in the relegation of the actual making not merely to other hands than those of the designer but to power driven machines. The products of the later can never possess the same intimate qualities as the former, but to deny them the possibility of excellence of design in terms of what mechanical reproduction can do is both blind and obstinate. A motor car such as a Rolls Royce Phantom achieves a kind of perfection although its appeal is mainly intellectual and material. There I think we come to the crux of the matter: good hand craftsmanship is directly subject to the prime source of human activity, whereas machine crafts, even at their best, are activated at one remove—by the intellect.

Bernard Leach, A Potter’s Book p. 2

I have a lot of difficulty accepting that our relationship with “mechanical reproduction” is primarily intellectual compared to intuitive or sensuous relationships with “hand” crafts. A potters wheel, to me at least, is at a basic level a machine. It enables reasonably  replicable  curves compared to strictly “hand” work, and is certainly “intimate.”

Where the eyebrow really goes up, though, is the use of Rolls Royce as an example. What set them apart in most ways also included hand work such as fine upholstery, etc..  As an American who grew up around bikers, I would select Harley Davidson or Triumph as my benchmark models for transportation design. I’ve known a lot of people who were attached to them, and their relationship with their machines was about the furthest thing from “intellectual” you could find. Triumphs always leaked oil and broke down. So did Harleys. They didn’t use the finest materials available, nor did they have superior engineering.

It’s possible to attach a nationalist agenda to either, for example defending “American” engineering  against the assault by the (then superior) Japanese imports, but it’s not what drew most of the people I knew to love those machines. The narrative of American or British superiority was a layer applied over the outside over what was really a deep love of a particular machine and how it felt and what it enabled. These machines were emblems and tools of freedom. Superior engineering was for accountants and academics, not for bikers.

Japanese motorcycles were nicknamed “sewing machines”  or “lawn mowers” for the way that they sounded and their emphasis on performance and utility; their mechanical precision was what marked them as soulless designs. It was the imperfections that made people love their machines the most— an anti-intellectual reaction to what was seen as an American (or British) tradition that was in need of preservation. A biker’s relationship with his machine was nothing if not intimate.

My dual discussion of Yanagi Sōetsu and Bernard Leach is necessary because the two seem in most ways inseparable, with both sides filling a need to identify a cultural “other” to demonize. What happened to William Morris’s socialist approach to Arts and Crafts in the 1930s is a bit shocking by any measure. Edmund de Waal has done some interesting work on it, and in an article from 1997  titled “Homo Orientalis: Bernard Leach and the Image of the Japanese Craftsman” tells a story of how the capitalist powers deployed these craft rhetorics to ultimately racist ends:

Since Leach had left Japan in 1920 the small metropolitan network of artists and intellectuals with Yanagi at their centre had changed. Where there had been transfixed attention paid to contemporary Western art and ideas there was now an evangelical nationalism. Yanagi’s Mingei or ‘art of the people’ group had burgeoned in the early 1930S in the climate of increasing nationalist fervour. It was now a substantial movement with a monthly illustrated journal, a regional network of associations, patronage from the powerful Tokyo department stores, and annual exhibitions:

They have their shops and press and sales and their work is on the point of really entering the households of taste of new Japan as an antidote to the wretched half caste and modern products which so sicken Western visitors to this country.

Journal of Design History, Vol. 10, No. 4, Craft, Culture and Identity (1997), pp. 356

The excerpt de Waal cites is from a letter from Leach, and the “wretched half caste” reference speaks volumes. Ultimately, it wasn’t just machine products that were the enemy, it was “impure” products from unworthy national traditions as well. It almost seems like Americans discussing the wretched half-caste AMF Harley Davidsons.

I’m having some trouble processing what happened to the populist/socialist slant in the late nineteenth century as it transformed into its variants in the 1930s and was subsumed by Japanese and American imperialism, National Socialism in Germany, etc.. I never would have thought it possible that such beautiful sentiment could be transformed into cold and calculated murder and oppression.

a mortal wound to craftsmanship

Yanagi Sōetsu

Q. What is lacking in the artist-craftsman?

A. His products are so few and so expensive. They are more decorative than useful. Even if they are made for use they are expensive and therefore not employed in daily life, thus becoming luxury items. From the very beginning they are made for art collectors, and become disconnected from the life of the people. The only person who benefits is the favored purchaser. The artist-craftsman separates himself from need, and thereby divorces himself from the people around him. Is this not a mortal wound to craftsmanship? Apart from use and the people there is no meaning in either craftsmanship or beauty. If the artist-craftsman continues isolating himself from society, he has a responsibility to admit with humility [out of his own experience] that his position of self-expression is one of insufficiency.  And in view of the achievement of the arts of the people, he needs to feel an awakened respect for them and pave the way to the re-expression of that congregate power. At that moment that when the work of the artist-craftsman ceases to be individual and he thus joins the ranks of all men, let him place his work next to the old work that he used to do. And he may see truth for the first time, for his old work will not stand up in service or in beauty.

“The Way of Craftsmanship,” The Unknown Craftsman p.203

Yanagi Sōetsu’s The Way of Craftsmanship was first published in 1927 in Japanese, translated by Bernard Leach in 1972. I have another book on the mingei movement on the way to read, and in the google books extracts I read it seems that Yanagi is no more an innocent than George Nakashima; he’s an aristocrat, instrumental (in theory, at least) to the run-up of Japanese imperialism prior to World War II.  What interests me lately is the way that what seems to be a wonderful, egalitarian spiritual theory can have the unintended consequences of colonizing the very people it seeks to celebrate; in Yanagi’s case, his appreciation of Korean folk-crafts in many ways justified a supposedly paternal relation in Japan’s domination of Korea.

I really look forward to Kim Brandt’s book. She makes the case (at least in the extracts I read) that Yanagi downplayed William Morris’s impact on his theories because of a supposedly more refined aesthetic sense in the Japanese people— nationalism at its worst. But Morris is in there, in spades. It’s really interesting how the arts and crafts pebble rippled around the world.