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design, context & politics - could the Arts & Crafts Movement save us?

I know - "get a blog." Well, I have one, and this is it. For the most part, I try to keep the content here useful and interesting to everyone with tastes in art and design similar to my own. Now, though, I'm going to use it as a place to think a little bit, and I welcome your own opinions on this, and responses to my not-very-well articulated questions.

As a born-and-raised Californian, most of my contact with Arts & Crafts architecture and design has been with two specific variants of the style: the western (and specifically Latin and Italian inspired) Revival styles - with plenty of rough-hewn beams and natural stone - and the very strongly Japanese-influenced Craftsman forms so popular in portions of Southern California, with their emphasis on fine-grained dark wood, lustrous copper and ceramic tile.

My father's house in Berkeley is a very simple Western Stick variant, one of the area's numerous brown shingles, and he's furnished it with Japanese tansu and prints. My mother's house, a traditional Mission Revival one-story stucco bungalow, is also decorated with a lot of Asian art and craft. After visiting their homes recently I was thinking about how well these two styles complement their location, how they complement and maybe even, to some extent, help define the lives of their occupants.

Certainly part of the reason is the philosophical similarity of the Movement and its precursors. Arts & Crafts in the United States - especially the revival of the style in the Western US - takes a lot from Japanese and Chinese carpentry and woodwork both stylistically and philosophically. It tries hard to be as honest as possible about who / how / where it was conceived and built. The mark of the craftsman is everywhere, unlike in a contemporary tract home, which usually shows absolutely no mark of its designers or builders (although I suppose you could say that the substandard materials and poor technique used to construct most of today's overpriced McMansions are a designer's mark of a sort). Toolmarks, human scale and a more ergonomic design are central to both the Arts & Crafts movement and traditional craftsmanship in Japan and other parts of Asia.

The situation of a structure within its landscape is also important, as the Greene brothers learned at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Architects in Northern California had several unique environments to work within, and some of them gave rise to really unique and interesting styles - the coastal bluffs of Big Sur, for instance, and the redwood and oak forests of the Bay Area hills were each perfect incubators for a specific and very unique style of home.

But at what point does style stop being an organic reflection of the outside world and a synthesis of social and aesthetic philosophy, and start being a pretty picture (or a not-so-pretty picture) without any content? If you took one of these pretty Maybeck homes and rebuilt it with new materials in a flat suburban lot, would it still be pretty, or would it be an abomination? Can art or meaningful design exist without its context? What do you think? And how unhealthy is it for your spirit to live in a place where that context is divorced from the thing itself? I'm not sure how long I'd last in a pretty, clean, fancy, pricey suburban mansion. Obviously I can't afford it, but if I could, I wonder what it would do to me, how it would change the way I see the outside world. Would I be so insulated that my politics and ethics would change?

It's an enormous simplification (and not even 100% correct) to say that our self-exile from the natural is the cause for our national malady - the fact that we disagree so strongly, that we can't see eye to eye, that we hate so many for so little - but perhaps it's part of the cause, and one of the symptoms. I'm not sure.

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