Crafting an enduring style for the American home

An exhibit of furniture and other objects illuminates the arts and crafts movement's lasting influence on design.

By LENNIE BENNETT, Times Art Critic
Published February 16, 2006

TARPON SPRINGS -- Here's a personal anecdote illustrating the virtue of the arts and crafts aesthetic.

Some years ago, when I was in my Mario Buatta decorating phase, I favored ornate curtains that ended in mounds on the floor, an effect called "puddling." The fabric puddles required frequent shaking out, which I often deferred. One day I lifted one of the puddles, and eight baby snakes, each about a foot long, dropped from the folds.

This would never have happened in a Gustav Stickley room.

Stickley was the most famous American arbiter of a design principle, developed by William Morris in Great Britain in the late 19th century, that abhorred elaboration (such as puddling). Simple and straightforward were its basic guidelines, along with a respect for craftsmanship and the integrity of the materials used, however humble.

You can see how Stickley and others interpreted that principle in a first-rate exhibition of American arts and crafts furnishings at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art. The 80 or so objects are part of a collection amassed in less than a decade by Tarpon Springs businessman Rudy Ciccarello. It has become so large and valuable that he has set up a foundation, endowed it with the collection and hopes eventually to place it in a permanent museum home. For now, he plans to exhibit it occasionally. The Leepa-Rattner show is its first public outing, and it's great.

Morris was a protean figure, an artist, philosopher and poet who believed in blurring the line between fine art and decorative craft. He also had a moral imperative: to better conditions of the working class poor in England, whom he considered slaves to an economy based increasingly on mass production. His new model - actually one based on medieval guilds - would have people working collectively rather than in assembly lines. Pride of workmanship would lead to superior products that would be appreciated by consumers.

His workshops indeed produced beautifully crafted home furnishings that were the antithesis of Victorian excess, but Morris never figured out how to translate his one-of-a-kind pieces into more affordable versions that could be owned by any but the wealthy.

Even though his decorative objects were never democratized, his design ideas were.

Within a few years after Morris' death in 1896, American designers had locked the arts and crafts movement in an embrace of enduring fidelity. They adhered to its philosophical elements, interpreting them in individual ways as this exhibition shows us. Charles Rohlfs used fanciful, sometimes eccentric details in a revolving desk and side chair on display. Designer William Wallace Denslow and craftsman Jerome Conner of Roycroft Shops worked wrought iron into a pair of sea horses with Gothic-meets-art nouveau curves.

But Stickley's marketing genius and industrial juggernaut really defined American arts and crafts as we think of it today. His United Crafts and Craftsmen Workshops churned out classics such as the Morris chair and established a "look" still being copied by retailers ranging from Target to Ralph Lauren.

Stickley founded a periodical, the Craftsman, in 1901, which promulgated design theories, extolled the value of craft and acted as a style book for arts and crafts furnishings with floor plans, model rooms and architectural plans for craftsman bungalows. It was enormously successful, especially with middle class homeowners, who were Stickley's primary market.

Stickley's business was mostly furniture, but he branched out, collaborating with craftsmen who created ceramics, metalwork and glassware that accessorized his tables, chairs, sofas and cabinets.

Artist Arthur Wesley Dow also helped codify the spare, Asian-influenced design aesthetic associated with the arts and crafts movement. He was a gifted and influential teacher whose theories were assimilated by several generations of students, who in turn became teachers, artists and designers. As William Morris had in England earlier, Dow was probably the person most responsible for reviving the woodblock print in America, and several examples of them are here.

Women's involvement in the movement was more related to social reform than artistic output. A Boston librarian and her artistic friend founded the Paul Revere Pottery Shop, funded by a wealthy female philanthropist, which employed young female immigrants. The workers, known as the Saturday Evening Girls, earned living wages while learning a craft under conditions far better than those in typical sweat shops. For 30 years, the shop sold functional ceramics often glazed in a sprightly, signature bright yellow and decorated with flowers or animals.

Along with individually displayed objects, an installation brings all the arts and crafts elements together in a cozy, roomlike setting that underscores the impact the movement made on decorative tastes.

The way we live has always said a lot about who we are. Arts and crafts furnishings' enduring appeal taps into our craving for a life less complicated, even if it's only a visual illusion.

And about those snakes ...

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com.