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|The Simple Arts
by Stanley Abercrombie
|"Leading 'the Simple Life,' the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain 1880-1910," Oct. 7, 1999-Aug. 1, 2000, at the Wolfsonian at Florida International University, 1001 Washington Ave., Miami, Fla. 33139.
Often a complex process leads to something that is apparently simple. The architecture of Mies van der Rohe is one example, the late-19th-century Arts and Crafts movement another. Mies' vision of logical, pared-down design was attuned to contemporary construction technology. But the Arts and Crafts movement advocated a return to nature and handicrafts -- and for followers of A. W. N. Pugin and John Ruskin, a return to the Gothic -- that was hopelessly at odds with the 19th-century industrialization. In the end, it was doomed to failure, which of course, makes the Arts and Crafts movement not a bit less interesting today.
"Leading 'the Simple Life,' the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain 1880-1910," an exhibition at the Wolfsonian at Florida International University in Miami, features almost 100 examples of this historicist, turn-of-the-century style. All but three of the items come from the collection assembled by Mitchell Wolfson, Jr., which was acquired by the university in 1997. They are shown to advantage in the spacious sixth-floor gallery of the Wolfsonian's South Beach headquarters.
Among the works is a sideboard, rocking chair and coin cabinet by Ernest W. Gimson, a cabinet of inlaid wood by W. R. Lethaby, a fireplace surround and silver fruit stand by C. R. Ashbee, an electric light sconce by C. F. A. Voysey, a ceramic garden seat by Pugin, a book illustration by Arthur Mackmurdo, textiles by the movement's indispensable figure William Morris, and more.
Only distant cousins of the Arts and Crafts movement, but delightful to see in any context, are flatware, a cabinet, and designs for several interiors by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Stretching the usual definitions of Arts and Crafts even further are an armchair by Sir Edwin Lutyens and a 1948 radio cabinet by Richard Drew Russell. This last is meant only to show the later influence of the movement.
The curator of the exhibition, Wendy Kaplan, is certainly an expert in the field. She is author of the 1987 book The Art that Is Life: The Arts and Crafts Movement in America, co-author (with Elizabeth Cumming) of the 1991 The Arts and Crafts Movement and author of a 1996 monograph Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Kaplan has written the primary text in the catalogue, which has been edited by The Wolfsonian's Andrea Gollin.
The highlight of the Wolfsonian exhibition is a full-size replica of the fireplace and adjacent inglenook designed by M.H. Baillie Scott in 1897 for Glencrutchery, the house of Deemster Thomas Kneen on the Isle of Man. Based on a 1900 photograph, the installation includes reproductions of the original wallpaper by Henry Wilson, the upholstery by J. H. Dearle, the faience tiles by William De Morgan, and the hand-stenciled frieze by Baillie Scott himself.
In this intimate corner we are privileged to see the complexities and deliberate anachronisms of Arts and Crafts passions which produced, at least for a while, the longed-for image of "the simple life."
STANLEY ABERCROMBIE is editorial director of Interior Design magazine.