Once derisively termed "Mission Oak" by our forebearers, American Arts and Crafts period pieces are selling for prices that would make our mothers faint.
The American Arts and Crafts movement, relatively brief (centering around 1900 to 1910), developed from an English movement which was a reaction to conditions created by the Industrial revolution. In Victorian times, England was transformed from a rural country into a highly industrialized society, at the expense of a generation of underpaid, overworked factory workers- including children. Writers such as Ruskin and William Morris also deplored the cheaply made mass produced goods turned out by many factories, advocating a return to the individual craftsman and simplified design. Morris and Company put these ideas into practice in 1875, producing hand crafted furniture, wallpaper, pottery, fabrics and books. Unfortunately, the finished products, although exquisite, were so expensive that only the wealthy could afford them, rather than the middle class the philosophers had hoped to reach.
It remained to America to translate the English principles to a new style of decorative arts that could be made affordable to the middle class by carefully controlled mass production. Gustave Stickley, Charles Limbert, and Elbert Hubbard (founder of Roycrofters) are arguably the giants of Mission Oak furniture, and the list of potteries and metal shops includes the finest ever producing in this country.
The aim of the Arts and Crafts movement was to simplify, to do away with the gingerbread and scrollwork unnecessary to a piece. "Form follows function" was the tenet of these craftsmen, who produced simple, strong, and comfortable furniture that appeared hand-made, yet was affordable. Quarter sawn oak and pegged joints are the hallmarks of Arts and Crafts furniture.
Equally distinctive is the metal work of the period, produced to resemble medieval craftsmanship, yet utilizing modern production techniques. Hand-beaten copper and brass, usually with a dark patina, was used for a variety of accessories, often combined with mica or slag glass for the lampshades so prized by collectors today. The Roycrofters Copper Shop, the Kalo Shop, Tookay and Van Erp are all names indelibly associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. Tiffany Studios, the Gorham Company and Shreve and Company developed many Arts and Crafts lines. While distinct from each other, all bear stylistic features of this movement.
Probably the most highly collected of the Arts and Crafts pieces is its pottery. Nearly all the American art pottery companies produced one or more lines that were compatible with the Arts and Crafts interior. Rookwood, Grueby, George Ohr, Fulper, Newcomb, Teco, Pewabic, and Weller are but a few of the familiar names.
Buffalo Pottery has a special place in the movement; Elbert Hubbard was brother-in-law to John Larkin, who founded Buffalo as an offshoot of Larkin Soap Company. Hubbard was a successful salesman with Larkin until he left of found The Roycrofters, one of the largest and most successful of the Arts and Crafts companies. Buffalo is most famous for its Deldare line of pottery with its distinctive olive drab body and brightly painted figures; it also produced a number of pieces bearing the Roycrofters logo.
In keeping with the concept of individual craftsmanship, most pieces produced in the Arts and Crafts movement are signed. Prices for furniture and decorative items such as lamps have risen to a point where forgeries abound; if you plan on making major purchases, know your field or buy from a reputable dealer.
The Arts and Crafts movement gave way to Art Deco, which in turn bowed to Modernism. Today, concurrent with a new crafts movement, many are returning to the deceptively simple lines of Arts and Crafts. Its furniture and accessories harmonized well with our Northwest homes, proving that craftsmanship never really goes out of style. -Barbara Williams Sackett
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