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Test of time

Ransom Center's arts and crafts exhibit shows good design then is good design now

Michael Barnes
Monica Penick, co-curator of the exhibit "The Rise of Everyday Design: The Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain and America" at the Harry Ransom Center, wears an H&M dress with a William Morris willow bough pattern from 170 years ago. [JAY JANNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

The crisp H&M dress drapes gracefully over scholar Monica Penick’s composed frame.

If the frock’s tight fabric pattern — proliferating willow boughs — appears familiar, that’s because the motif is echoed almost exactly behind her in sample wallpaper and fabric patterns from almost 170 years ago. Those botanical figures now hang at the Ransom Center on the University of Texas campus as part of an illuminating and free exhibit, “The Rise of Everyday Design: The Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain and America,” that runs through July 14.

“Good design then is good design now,” says Penick, who organized the exhibit with fellow scholar Christopher Long. “The same questions are in play: Is it useful, and is it beautiful?”

In fact, H&M, the Swedish discount apparel retailer that sells Penick’s dress, has deliberately revived the simple, natural arts and crafts patterns created in the mid-19th century, part of a determined push in Britain and, later, America to provide ordinary people with improved domestic surroundings as well as more dignified, integrated labor than work in the “satanic mills” of the Industrial Revolution.

Penick’s point about the arts and crafts campaign — which reached its peak influence from the 1880s to the 1920s — is that the designs that infiltrate our everyday lives can persist long after their creation.

“The ideas that we see in this exhibition that had its roots in the mid-1800s permeate to today,” says Penick, who studied architecture at UT and history at Stanford University and now teaches in the department of design in the School of Design and Creative Technology, part of the College of Fine Arts. “Think about the role good everyday design plays at, say, Apple or Target.”

These days, wallpaper with arts and crafts designs is available at Bradbury & Bradbury, and Sherwin-Williams Paint Store offers an arts and crafts historic hue, Ruskin Room Green, named for 19th-century art critic and social thinker John Ruskin, who helped inspire the movement.

Better for everyone

Before the 1850s, good design in America and Europe belonged almost exclusively to the upper classes. Everyone else made do with uniform and often low-quality buildings, fabrics, dishes, utensils and decorative objects, many of them mass-produced. Or they made rough-hewn substitutes at home, especially in rural areas.

First in Britain, then in America, the arts and crafts movement changed all that. At first an attempt to recapture more authentic, pre-industrial methods and styles of the past, this crusade for design reform eventually offered the choice of thoughtfully created everyday objects for reasonable prices.

By the 20th century, for instance, the movement had spawned the kind of Craftsman-style bungalows that Austinites are trying to protect today from bulldozers.

Although the more than 200 arts and crafts objects on view at the Ransom Center might look like the products of long ago — they might even seem old-fashioned, since many of them were inspired by the medieval era — they are in fact the direct creative predecessors to the 20th-century modernist campaign to bring simple but refined design to everybody. They are matched today by efforts of retailers such as H&M, Target and others to put refined style in the hands of just about any customer.

"A key to the success of the arts and crafts movement, especially in the United States, was that the pattern designs were sold at a range of price points,” Penick says. “William Morris' block-printed fabrics or Kelmscott Press books were enormously expensive and only available to an exclusive clientele, but in the U.S, with the rise of retailers like Sears or Come-Pact, or even Elbert Hubbard's Roycroft, arts and crafts goods were marketed to the masses."

Precious objects

Penick explains that Ruskin planted the seeds for the arts and crafts movement as early as the 1840s through his theories on natural art, broader education and the dignity of labor. Ruskin, in turn, influenced William Morris and Charles Robert Ashbee, who advocated for traditional handcraft, simple forms and folk styles.

They urged people to get involved in the “making process” and take inspiration from nature, or at least a romanticized version of it. As in the Pre-Raphaelite and art nouveau fine art movements that paralleled the arts and crafts design era and often resembled it, abstraction transformed ideas from nature.

Books made by Morris’ Kelmscott Press are among the outstanding examples of arts and crafts design in the Ransom show. Luckily, the center owns an extremely rare 1896 Kelmscott edition of “The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer” that is handprinted on handmade paper and bound in pigskin.

“This was its crowning achievement,” Penick says. “And this version is one of only 13 in existence.”

Ruskin and Morris never visited the U.S., such as Ashbee and Walter Crane, members of the movement’s second generation, did.

As early as the 1850s, arts and crafts ideas spread to this country through books, and by the 1870s, through retail showrooms and world's fairs, including the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia and the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893.

While the British founders of arts and crafts rejected mass production — which meant that the common folk could not always afford the products — their American followers embraced it.

“It did achieve the same goals,” Penick says. “Although the process turned out to be the antithesis of the movement's original goals of handcraft.”

It is easier to see the visual and theoretical bridges into the streamlined modernism of the 20th century in the American objects, designs and advertising.

“You’ve got the same emphasis on simplicity, utility and authenticity of materials,” Penick says. “But also the intellectual rigor and the beauty. Arts and crafts ideas influenced a range of designers and makers, including those who worked at the high end of the market, those who worked to make midmarket furnishings and decorative arts in places like Grand Rapids, Mich., and those who were do-it-yourself craftsmen."

Among the proselytizers of arts and crafts were the popular magazines such as Ladies Home Journal and House Beautiful, which sold for 10 cents an issue at the time. Even Popular Mechanics got into the act with stories about how to build or put together kit furniture or houses, such as Craftsman bungalows.

The white-hot center of the bungalow craze was Pasadena, Calif. During the first decades of the 20th century, architects and, later, developers raised massive bungalows there with stone elements and Japanese influences. At the same time, they built smaller, simpler models.

"Greene & Greene's Gamble House was the ultimate bungalow,” Penick says. "The brothers were well-known and influential in the early 20th century but were virtually forgotten by the 1930s. They were 'rediscovered' not long after that, in the mid-1940s.”

One can see the influence of that rediscovery in a model ranch home that was shown at the Texas State Fair in Dallas in 1954. That house was purchased by an admirer and moved but later was demolished. It might seem a stretch to imagine it, but postwar ranch homes are direct descendants of Craftsman bungalows in many ways.

Stickley or Mission-style furniture often ended up in bungalows. Austin, like other cities, went through bungalow mania in the 1910s and ‘20s. Their remnants can be seen in circles of development from Travis Heights, Bouldin, Old West Austin, Tarrytown, West Campus and Heritage to Aldridge Place, Hyde Park, Hancock, French Place, Central East Austin and the Cesar Chavez/Holly Street neighborhoods.

One of the city’s most famous bungalows is the Norwood House, which is being rehabilitated on East Riverside Drive at its original location above the family’s former land that now serves as a dog park.

“Books and magazines helped spread the arts and crafts idea in the United States, and fueled what was called, at that time, 'the bungalow craze,'” Penick says. “These inexpensive publications popularized the movement."

By the 1970s, the back-to-the-land and ecological movements in this country helped keep arts and crafts ideas alive, along with the new emphasis on handcrafting. Hippies and their descendants also preserved and revived bungalows along with older Victorian homes.

“The idea was to design and make things that were simple, useful and beautiful,” Penick says. “Those values are still very much a part of good everyday design.”

Almost all the objects on display are part of the Ransom Collection.

“We wanted to tell the story of arts and crafts through these objects,” Penick says. “And the Ransom Center is one of only a small number of collections in the world that could do this.”

‘The Rise of Everyday Design: The Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain and America’

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday (until 7 p.m. Thursday), noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Through July 14.

Where: Ransom Center, 300 W. 21st St.

Cost: Free