Quintessential Arts and Crafts

BY GRAHAM ,K Arts AN1) ^RAFIS STYl I. has

BLACKBURN I been popular for a hundred years;

"M there are examples in every antique and secondhand furniture store; reproductions abound; and it's a perennial favorite with woodworkers—but what exactly defines Arts and Crafts? Ask anyone familiar with the style- also known as Mission, Craftsman, Crafts, Cloister, or even Quaint -how they identify it, and you'll get answers that typically contain words such as "foursquare," "straightforward con struction,""exposed joinery," and "quarter-sawn oak." Such elements make the Arts and Crafts style inviting to many woodworkers who are new to die craft and who are less intimidated by Arts and Crafts furniture than diey are by other, more sophisticated styles. Despite us apparent simplicity, however, it's just as easy to get a piece of Arts and Crafts furniture wrong as it is to fail at your first attempt at constructing a Chippendale piece that features cabriole legs unless you have a full understanding of what the essential design details are and how they work together.

It's true that the Arts and Crafts style originated partly in response to overdeco-rated and directionless 19th-century furniture, but equally important were concerns about the shoddy quality of mass-produced factory furniture and its effect not only on the consumer but also 011 the people who made it. Arts and Crafts was conceived as an essentially utilitarian style affordable by all; the idea that its manufacture should be something in which the maker could dike pride was central to the philosophy underlying what became known as the Arts and ("rafts movement.

A piece of furniture built in the genuine Arts and Crafts style is therefore first and foremost completely functional.The furni tnre is solidly constructed with a minimum of superfluous ornament, unashamed yet not boastful of its joinery and, more often than not, made of oak—which is a supremely appropriate wood for hard-wearing furniture and a species that harks back to the period in furniture making history when craftsmanship was valued more than commercial success.

The movement embodied the writings of a variety of influential 19th-century art critics, philosophers, architects, and designers such as John Raskin and William Morris, as well as the work of 20th-century furniture makers Gustav Stickley (and his brothers), Elbert Hubbard, and the Roycrofters. Other seminal figures included the noted California architects Charles and Henry Greene, Frank Lloyd Wright, and

By the late 18()i)s, the Industrial Revolution was changing die world of furniture: Tlie individual craftsman was being supplanted by factory production as the leading influence on style. Driven strictly by commercial concerns, mechanization was overtaking what had been a craft with an aesthetic founded on tradition, training, and individual craftsmanship. The result was an abuse of style and an excess of indiscriminate decoration that took the form of a series of"revivals" produced primarily for the sake of novelty in an attempt to capture the market.The Arts and Crafts move ment developed primarily in opposition to this trend, as designers, architects and furniture makers strove to produce items that placed a greater value on purer ideals of artistic honesty and craftsmanship. Initially, at least, the Arts and ("rafts movement was more about what not to do dian it was about a clearly defined new style.This is why there is such a broad range of pieces- spanning a long period—that can be identified as belonging to the Arts and C'.rafts style.

Charles Rohlfs

Drop-Front Desk, 188.1

Heavily influenced by the Gothic stylo, Rohlfs was a loading fig uro in the American Arts and Crafts movement and was a friend of Elbert Hubbard (founder of the Roycroft Com munity at East Aurora, M Y.) Rohlfs was influenced by mod crn designers such as Charles Ronnie Macintosh and, as many other Arts and Crafts designers did, looked back to the Gothic Period in his use of oak, as ox amplified by this desk.

Byrdcliffe Arts Colony

Wall Cabinet, 1904

Tins stained poplar cabinet, with a carved and polychromcd door panel, was a typical product of the Byrddiffe workshops in Woodstock, N.Y., founded by the wealthy Englishman Ralph Whitehead, who had been a student of the eminent Victorian art cntic John Ruskin-the generally acknowledged father of the Arts and Crafts movement. Simplicity of design as well as individual craftsmanship in a communal environment inform this version of Arts and Crafts style.

Gustav Stickley

Armchair, 1902

Regarded by many as defining the stylo, Stickley's mass-produced pieces made of oak were the most commercially successful manifestation of Arts and Crafts furniture. Although his are among the most simple examples of the style, Stickley drew his inspiration from more sophisticated designers, such as Charles Voysoy and William Lethaby in England.

internationally known and influential designers and furniture makers Charles Voysey, Ernest Ciimson, and the Barnsley brothers.

Because tin* movement that resulted in this style of furniture began as far back as the middle of the 19di century, the range of design elements that belong to this style is, in fact, much broader than many people realize.

Six Quintessential Elements

( Hit of all the features that make Arts and Crafts furniture unique, there are six main elements that make this type of furniture noticeable and memorable.

  1. Material Quartersawn oak does have much to recommend it: strength, durability, relative stability and an attractive figure characterized by the medullary rays not visible in flatsavvn stock (see the top right drawing on the facing page). Although a hardwood, oak is not excessively difficult to work —it is easier, in fact, to produce a crisp surface with a less than perfectly sharp tool on a piece of oak than oil a piece of softwood. Oak is not toxic and may have a wide range of color — red, white, or brown—depending on the species.The wood also takes stain well and can be fumed, a technique that can produce a wonderful aged look. Although most factory-built Arts and Crafts furniture was made of oak, many well-known designers have used other spec ies, such as walnut, mahogany, and cherry.
  2. Construction techniques Although cabinet c onstruction with veneered surfaces is occasionally used for the body of an Arts and Crafts piece, the majority of authentic pieces are made using solid wood and frame-and-panel construction.

Although not an avowed member of the movement, the architect Wright, like the Greene brothers, designed furniture for his houses-such as this ex tremely rectilinear pine chair with exposed joinery, which although typically "Wrightiar," is also distinctly in tho Arts and Crafts stylo.

Consistent with liic directness and honesty that are the hallmarks of this style is the use of slats where a solid piece or a franie-and-panel section would be overkill. Unlike the furniture of the Cothii Period, turned elements are rare in Arts and Crafts designs. All of this is in keeping with the principle of using the simplest possible methods of work for the most honest and unpretentious result.

Simple does not, however, mean sloppy, especially in terms of the construction of a piece. In fact, because the aim of the Arts and Crafts movement was to design furniture that the maker could be proud of, a nice execution, particularly of exposed joinery, is essential when building a genuine Arts and Crafts piece.

3. Joinery Without a doubt, the mortise ltid tenon is the king of Arts and Crafts joints (see die sidebar 4 011 p. IS). Dovetailing,

Quartersawn Lumber Suits the Style

Medullary rays

Medullary rays

Flatsawn Oak

Most boards from a tree sawn in this pattern show no medullary rays and arc less stable

Quartersawn Oak

When a tree is first quartered, the boards cut by any of the patterns shown are loss likely to warn and will show medullary rays.

Ernest Gimson

Sideboard, 1905

Gimson was one of the chief figures of the Arts and Crafts movement. His sideboard, with its rectilinear ity, simple lines, use of native wood (chestnut) and restrained use of minor ovolo molding on the logs, is an expression both of the values of the movement as directly expounded by William Morris and of the related attempt to reintroduce traditional country crafts to high-quality lurniture.

Charles Voysey

Dining Chair, 1907

Voysey was another admirer of William Morris and a leading exponent of the British Arts and Crafts movement. His particularly spare stylc-a Shaker-like simplicity complemented by more flow ing and elegant details such as the heart shaped cutout and square legs that taper to octagonal feet-was the precursor to the American Mission style popularized by makers such as Gustav Stickley.

Paneling

Eighteenth and-ninetecnth century paneling typically has a frame consisting of stiles and rails of different widths, invariably molded on the inner edges surrounding a fielded or raised panel. Arts and Crafts paneling is typically square, witti equal width rails and stiles. Panels arc sometimes carved, but more often than rot they arc plain and flat in unmoldod frames.

doweling, lapped, and housed joinery also are used where appropriate, but in keeping with the demands of strength and honesty, the mortise-and-tenon joint plays a major role in the majority of Arts and Crafts pieces.

Several varieties of tenons are used, including stub, blind, through-, and tusk, but each is used only when and where necessary for maximum strength without compromise. This means that if, for example, a through-tenon is the strongest possible form in a given situation, the design will make a virtue of the necessity by not attempting to hide or disguise the joint.This results m the ends of through-tenons being finished a little proud of the surface, often nicely chamfered and with any wedges

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