Way of Life
IN ONE OF HIS EARLY “Letter to America” broadcasts, Alistair Cooke commented that Americans are inclined to give special credence to anything they hear being said by anyone with an English accent. It’s still true. We’re suckers for that Oxford inflection.
There is a similar tendency within the American Arts and Crafts community to point backward across the Atlantic when seeking validation.
Of course, there’s no disputing the fact that the original Arts and Crafts movement, as it came to be known, was conceived in England by William Morris, John Ruskin and some others, even if it was patterned after old ways that transcended national boundaries. Morris created diverse works of art and marketed his medieval-style wares to the well to do under the motto “Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” In the shadow of the Industrial Revolution, Arts and Crafts ideals advocating the merits of handwork, nature and self-sufficiency soon took root and began to spread beyond the boundaries of Morris’ own country.
Yet with some exceptions, the Arts and Crafts movement in England remained mired in the practice of imitating an earlier style, while on the continent and in America its principles were applied to ever-newer works that respected its ideals. Internationally, Arts and Crafts ceased to be a style and became a philosophy.
Now I’m going to climb way out on a limb and assert, in a California dialect heavily influenced by a Midwestern twang, that Arts and Crafts as a way of life in common practice has its true home in the good old U.S. of A. As I see it, the average Englishman, or continental European for that matter, never really lived the Arts and Crafts life at all, while John Q. Average American often did. For many Americans, self-sufficiency was not a choice but a necessity. Even today, a visit to a county fair will show that few modern societies surpass our own when it comes to the value we still attach to individuals’ handiwork, things natural and treasures from the garden.
America is a nation of pioneers. As with the bungalow, Arts and Crafts as a way of life seems to have ties to the pioneer spirit; only where that spirit helped establish the culture —the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand did the bungalow become a popular permanent residence. If, as Bob Winter says in The California Bun-galow, the Arts and Crafts bungalow defined the way Americans live, then it can also be argued that Americans were living the lifestyle. And while they probably never heard of William Morris, you can bet that your American forebearers — standing alone in the middle of the vast prairie with their family, a few tools, a team and a wagon—had nothing in that wagon that they did not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.
While there is no denying that many of the most enduring and beautiful works were created in England, today’s Arts and Crafts movement is not about the past and it’s not about someplace else. As a way of life it found a home right here, and today more and more Americans are rediscovering that way of life and finding it rewarding. But I suppose it’s okay to look backward once in a while when you’re leading the way.
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