Group Efforts: when Arts and Crafts met the machine | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Group Efforts: when Arts and Crafts met the machine 

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One hundred years ago last week, members of the just-constituted Chicago Arts and Crafts Society gathered at Hull-House to listen to "Mr. Frank B. Wright," who was presenting a paper on "The Use of Machinery." The Hull-House Bulletin can be forgiven for misidentifying Frank Lloyd--he was not so well-known at the time--but it accurately captured a debate that would define the future of the Arts and Crafts movement.

A "spirited discussion" followed--no surprise, since using machinery for any purpose was heresy or worse to those associated with the movement, which had originated in mid-19th-century England.

Its members sought to end the distinction between fine and decorative art through a commitment to handicraft. By elevating the importance of utilitarian objects, they hoped to improve the living conditions of industrial workers and perhaps end the domination of people by machines.

The Chicago branch of the Arts and Crafts movement soon rejected the antimachine tenet. When important figures from England came here to lecture, they found themselves lectured right back. "The art of the future will be the expression of the individual artist through the thousand powers of the machine," Frank Lloyd Wright told an English architect who gave a talk at Hull-House in 1900. "The creative artist is the man that controls all this and understands it."

Central to the Chicago movement was Hull-House, located in what were then the west-side slums. Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr had opened it in 1889 in the radical belief that the rich needed the poor as much as (or more than) the poor needed them. The settlement house was based on Toynbee Hall in London's East End. Reproductions of great art hung on the walls there, and reproductions were hung on the walls of Hull-House. But Starr and Addams eventually decided that showing art to people was not enough. Shortly after the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society was founded, they hired neighborhood artisans--people who'd worked with their hands in the old country--to run workshops in silversmithing, weaving, and other handicrafts, training other people to practice these arts.

The Chicago Arts and Crafts Society stopped meeting in 1910, but its monuments are still scattered around the city: churches, office buildings, studios--and bungalows. "Bungalows were the production-line extension of Arts and Crafts ideas," says Paul Waggoner, a gallery owner who's curating a commemorative exhibit at the Second Presbyterian Church. The church's interior was designed in the Arts and Crafts style in 1900 by Howard Van Doren Shaw.

The Arts and Crafts movement was finished by the end of World War I, but by then ma-chines had made the style part of the American landscape. Hobbyists read Chicago magazines like Popular Mechanics, which ran articles on making mission furniture, and House Beautiful, which featured the style. Handicraftlike objects had become big business, and Chicago companies like Sears, Marshall Field, and Montgomery Ward had sold them to middle-class people all over the country.

Nine local institutions are joining to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society. The Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, 800 S. Halsted, has just opened a yearlong exhibit called "Art and Labor: Hull-House and the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society"; admission is free (call 312-413-5353). The Second Presbyterian Church, 1936 S. Michigan, is offering tours through December 7; the suggested donation is $3 (call 312-225-4951). You can also call the church for information about other commemorative exhibits and tours at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, the Prairie Avenue House Museums, Saint James Episcopal Cathedral, the Art Institute, Ragdale in Lake Forest, and the Pleasant Home Foundation and the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio Foundation, both in Oak Park.

--Jeffrey Felshman

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Paul Waggoner and Hull-House museum director Mary Ann Johnson photo by Paul L. Meredith; magazine cover 1902.

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