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Craft And Design In Two Exhibitions At The Art Institute

By Ben Schuman Stoler in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 15, 2010 10:15PM

Cray pattern by William morris Along with the longstanding permanent exhibition of 20th Century American Decorative Arts, Konstantin Grcic: Distinctive Design in the modern wing and Apostles of Beauty: Arts and Crafts from Britain to Chicago completes a sort of triple perspective on crafts and design at the Art Institute.

While the Grcic display, with its reinvented coat hangers and garbage cans next to desks and chairs, is a little to wry, witty, and “design within reach”-y for some, Apostles of Beauty provides a historical groundwork to, perhaps, understand where the whole art-craft-design thing came from.

Grcic is very much now; he draws inspiration from contemporary cultural and technological innovations. Apostles of Beauty, on the other hand, features objects from mid-19th century Great Britain through pre-war America, thought up by visionaries who came together at first in a rejection of contemporary industrial technology.

But just as Grcic, who hails from Germany but trained in England, represents a global perspective on his work, Apostles of Beauty shows just how global and diverse the ideas for modern craft and design really are.

The first room in Apostles of Beauty sets the groundwork for the Arts and Crafts movement by explaining how its founders, including the still influential William Morris, sought a return to honesty of materials, handicraft, and artistic ownership of work in an aesthetic age which they saw was quickly becoming dominated by capitalism and industry. Morris's intricate "Two Panels Entitled 'Cray'" (see above) from 1885 was inspired by a romantic look towards 17th century Italian patterns.

The next room suddenly takes us to Japan. Although the hop across the globe is jarring, the fact is that after Commodore Matthew Perry opened up Japan’s ports to western trade in 1854, members of the Arts and Crafts movement realized Japanese design reflected their own ideals.

In the Japanese Ukiyo-E woodblock prints, for example, is all the geometry, simplicity, and influence of the natural world that the Arts and Crafts movement sought. It didn’t take long for these influences to show up in their own works, like Edward William Godwin’s 1876 Sideboard.

So even though the Arts and Crafts movement began by rejecting global capitalism and industry, it was exactly those forces that brought the movement not only some of its greatest inspiration, but also some of its lasting significance.

Technological innovations were also eventually embraced. The documentary potential of photography, especially, was seen as an untapped resource, and the exhibition features some excellent examples of photography when it was more technical craft than proper art. You can see, for example, how Alfred Steiglitz and Gertrude Käsebier experimented in various chemical and light applications to get their message across in photos and prints.

We find ourselves, then, in Chicago, where socio-cultural intellectualism was thriving and Arts and Crafts societies blossomed.

In the exhibition's final room, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie School bring it all together. Their focus on clear and precise forms in architecture as well as design and craftwork reflect the Japanese and British ideas, but unlike those influences, the Prairie School was not afraid of machinery and industrial construction. Wright especially combined craft and machinery in his work for the Coonley home.

It’s hard when you walk around the exhibition not to think about some of these objects in your own home or apartment. Many of the exhibition’s patterns and materials are still relevant today. Indeed, with technology infused in every aspect of our lives, and with the world shrinking in a way that makes new perspectives always attainable, the lasting impression of the Art Institute’s exhibitions on design is the idea of modernity as a global, incorporating force rather than a parochial, selective one.

Apostles of Beauty: Arts and Crafts from Britain to Chicago is at the Art Institute until January 31.

Konstantin Grcic: Decisive Design is at the Art Institute until January 24.