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Crafting Modernism

Crafting Modernism

A retrospective at MAD traces the rise of handcrafted objects as a valid art form in the postwar era.

Dale Chihuly, “Wine Bottle,” glass, wood, and brass, 1968. Museum of Arts and Design.
Click image above for slideshow.

It took many years for craft art to be accepted in the U.S. as a legitimate art form that would earn the respect of museums, galleries, collectors, universities, and the general public. Crafting Modernism: Midcentury American Art and Design, opening at the Museum of Arts and Design, 2 Columbus Circle, on October 12, is the first exhibition to trace this evolution by featuring the work of more than 160 artists and designers (see slideshow above).

File 2859 “The most significant development explored in this exhibition is the arrival of the crafted object as an aspect of modern art,” notes Jeannine Falino, co-curator of the exhibition and editor of the catalog Crafting Modernism. The chief catalyst for change was Aileen Osborn Webb (left), a visionary and philanthropist from Garrison, New York. Often dubbed the “godmother” of the craft movement, Aileen Osborn was born in 1892 in Garrison, New York, to William Osborn, a wealthy art collector and active Democrat, and Alice Dodge, a  philanthropist and social reformer. At the age of 20, Aileen married Vanderbilt Webb, an heir to the Vanderbilt fortune. During the Depression, she used her wealth to  alleviate poverty by creating a network for men and women to sell handmade goods. Inspired by this experience, she created America House in 1940, a store on Madison Avenue that was the first in the country to exhibit and sell high level craft objects. In 1943 she spearheaded the American Craft Council, an umbrella organization that still represents and serves crafts artists. In 1944 she founded the School for American Crafts (SAC), now located at RIT in Rochester, New York. In 1956 she founded the Museum of Contemporary Crafts (currently the Museum of Arts and Design), the first museum to exhibit craft art by living artists. In 1964 she formed the World Crafts Council to support indigenous craftspeople around the world.

File 2862While Mrs. Webb was catapulting craft into a serious creative enterprise, the passage of the GI Bill in 1946 inspired thousands of veterans to enter vocational programs where they could learn the skills needed to work in industry, often building upon their war experiences in shipyards, airfields, and battlefields. But even as craft programs expanded, standards varied dramatically and were often non-existent. The study of crafts was still viewed as a hobby by many Americans instead of a serious enterprise.

Mrs. Webb was instrumental in changing this, recruiting highly trained craftspeople from Europe to teach at SAC. “The technical quality of American work wasn’t very good,” recalled the Danish silversmith John Prip (above, right), who taught metalworking. “But it was done with spirit and determination and very often with a great deal of imagination. We worked ‘round the clock, seven days a week. We lived our lives around the school.” Prip and his partner, jewelry designer Ron Pearson (above, left) founded Shop One in Rochester; it was one of the first retail outlets run by artists to exhibit and sell high level regional crafts.

File 3096In 1958, Prip left academia to accept a job with Reed & Barton, a prestigious silver company in Massachusetts, becoming one of the first and finest metalsmiths in the U.S. to work successfully with industry, applying his superior workmanship and sense of design to individualize traditional silver vessels. Mrs. Webb also hired Prip’s friend Tage Frid (left, top), a highly skilled Danish woodworker to teach furniture making, and ceramists Frans and Marguerite Wildenhain (Frans, left, bottom) both trained at the Bauhaus, the avant-garde German school whose objective was to unify art, craft, and industry until Hitler closed it in 1933, forcing its members to flee. This skilled faculty made SAC one of the leading crafts schools in the U.S.

Crafts As A Lifestyle

During the 1950s craft programs continued to expand as more people opted to enter the field, often attracted by the chance to get a steady job in industry. But in the 1960s, a rebellious spirit swept through America, prompted by Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, the growth of feminism, and a perception of factory life as empty and routinized. Working in industry became less desirable to individuals with a creative bent and many craft artists opted to go their own way, setting up small studios where they worked alone or with a partner or several apprentices; the work created in these studios became known as “Studio Art.” Phillip Lloyd Powell, a self-taught woodworker trained as an engineer, shared a workshop with Paul Evans, a metalsmith, in New Hope, PA; they worked independently and also as a team, creating elegant, sculptural pieces that are now in major museums and sought by collectors.

Other craft artists opted for teaching jobs, where they could mentor students, maintain a more flexible schedule, and produce their own work. Still others decided to work in industry, especially as they became appreciated for their talents as “designer-craftsmen.” Although industrial design had emerged as a separate profession earlier in the century, many talented artists took this as an opportunity to create unique designs for items that could be mass produced and would enhance the interiors of homes.

File 2911Charles Eames and his wife Ray (right), who created the iconic Eames chair in 1956, worked as a team producing furniture using molded plywood. In addition to their primary focus as potters Otto and Gertrud Natler produced ceramic decorative elements for inclusion in Dunbar furniture. Jack Lenor Larsen, a fabric designer known for “Long House,” his showcase home in East Hampton, NY, designed thousands of fabric patterns and textiles that were often used to soften furniture in sterile, corporate offices. As the popularity and high-level work of industrial designers escalated, many museums began collecting their art and holding exhibitions that showed how machine-made goods and handcrafted goods complemented each other.