Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Defining the Arts and Crafts Style

The aim of the Arts and Crafts movement was to simplify, to do away with the gingerbread and scroll work unnecessary to a piece. "Form follows function" was the tenet of these craftsmen, who produced simple, strong, and comfortable furniture that appeared hand-made, yet was affordable. Quartersawn oak and pegged joints are the hallmarks of Arts and Crafts furniture. Utilitarian and well built, Arts and Crafts style furniture honors, above all, hand craftsmanship and the beauty of wood. Its simple elegance and practical functionality combine to create a warm and nurturing environment. While the realities of manufacturing and containing costs required the use of machinery, even in the largest companies hand craftsmanship was still used.

"Given the real need for production and the fundamental desire for honest self-expression, the machine can be put to all its legitimate uses as an aid to, and a preparation for, the work of the hand, and the result be quite as vital and satisfying as the best work of hand alone" G. Stickley

Well, now that we have the concept, the machinery, and the craftsman, what do we need to create Arts and Crafts Furniture? Well, we need the material, the finest construction techniques, the correct joinery, essential design elements, the decoration, and the appropriate finish.

The following list is taken from an article by Graham Blackburn, Quintessential Arts and Crafts , Fine Woodworking March/April 2003. The pictures were added by me.

1. Material—Quartersawn oak does have much to recommend it: strength, durability, relative stability and an attractive figure characterized by the medullary rays not visible in flatsawn stock. Although a hardwood, oak is not excessively difficult to work—it is easier, in fact, to produce a crisp surface with a less than perfectly sharp tool on a piece of oak than on a piece of softwood. Oak is not toxic and may have a wide range of color—red, white or brown—depending on the species. The wood also takes stain well and can be fumed, a technique that can produce a wonderful aged look. Although most factory-built Arts and Crafts furniture was made of oak, many well-known designers have used other species, such as walnut, mahogany and cherry.

2. Construction techniques—Although cabinet construction with veneered surfaces is occasionally used for the body of an Arts and Crafts piece, the majority of authentic pieces are made using solid wood and frame-and-panel construction. Consistent with the directness and honesty that are the hallmarks of this style is the use of slats where a solid piece or a frame-and-panel section would be overkill. Unlike the furniture of the Gothic Period, turned elements are rare in Arts and Crafts designs. All of this is in keeping with the principle of using the simplest possible methods of work for the most honest and unpretentious result. Simple does not, however, mean sloppy, especially in terms of the construction of a piece. In fact, because the aim of the Arts and Crafts movement was to design furniture that the maker could be proud of, a nice execution, particularly of exposed joinery, is essential when building a genuine Arts and Crafts piece.

3. Joinery—Without a doubt, the mortise and tenon is the king of Arts and Crafts joints. Dovetailing, doweling, lapped and housed joinery also are used where appropriate, but in keeping with the demands of strength and honesty, the mortise-and-tenon joint plays a major role in the majority of Arts and Crafts pieces. Several varieties of tenons are used, including stub, blind, through and tusk, but each is used only when and where necessary for maximum strength without compromise. This means that if, for example, a through-tenon is the strongest possible form in a given situation, the design will make a virtue of the necessity by not attempting to hide or disguise the joint. This results in the ends of through-tenons being finished a little proud of the surface, often nicely chamfered and with any wedges thoughtfully arranged for a pleasing visual pattern and the most efficient use.

4. Design paradigms—In American Arts and Crafts pieces, whether of the mass-produced variety typified by Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman furniture or the higher-end custom designs of the Greene brothers, there is an immediate impression of squareness. This is most evident in the profiles of tops, edges and other flat surfaces, such as broad chair arms. Molding is almost completely absent, sharp edges are gently relieved but not rounded, and overhangs are kept to a minimum. Although many details are, in fact, square—such as in paneled framing, where a bottom rail wider than other frame members is rare, and in the design of glazed doors,where all panes are equally square—absolute squareness is largely illusory, and slopes and curves are common. It is not that the style is inelegant—many pieces can be found elegant design paradigms such as the golden rectangle -but the strength and utility of a piece always dominate. Both gently and boldly formed curves are common in skirts, chair rails and the lower edges of cabinet sides, but they are invariably simple and rarely compound, except for occasional tight cutouts on stool bases. Such shapes, including ogees and intersecting arcs, are nods to the influence of medieval Gothic oak furniture, much valued by leaders of the Arts and Crafts style for its craftsmanship and honesty. Curved yet square-edged brackets are another common feature of many pieces. One other detail that would seem to belie an apparent squareness and angularity is the frequent use of tapered legs. The tapers, however, are usually limited to a short section near the base. Tapering legs like this prevents the piece from appearing too heavy, but because the tapers are equally formed on all four sides of the leg, a general feeling of squareness persists.

5. Decoration—Despite a superficial plainness characterized by square edges, the lack of molding, the use of a relatively homogenous material and the flatness of panels, Arts and Crafts furniture often is decorated with a variety of techniques ranging from simple curved cutouts to delicate floral inlays. Reflecting a continuing sensitivity to other styles and fashion on the part of designers such as Harvey Ellis or Charles Rennie Macintosh, who are perhaps better known for their Art Nouveau styles, the influence of the more flowing, nature-based Art Nouveau style is felt in many Arts and Crafts pieces—for example, in the products of various “utopian”workshops such as the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony in Woodstock,N.Y.—in the form of pastel-colored painted sections, tulip inlays and lily patterns. Central to the principle of craftsmanship in this style of furniture is the use of other natural materials, such as reed and rush for seats, leather upholstery and hand-wrought hardware made from iron or hammered brass. The hardware often is as square and sturdy as the furniture it serves and stands in complete contrast to the elegant and finely wrought shapes found on 18th-century pieces or the overworked fantastic shapes common on much 19th-century furniture. A gratuitous form of in terms of structural function, but one that is consistent with the incorporation of natural materials, is the frequent use of a row of hand-wrought nails as an edge decoration.

6. Finish—It would be inappropriate to finish an Arts and Crafts piece with a glossy lacquer. But while natural finishes like simple oiling and waxing may predominate, other processes, such as filling, staining and fuming, are common. Careful surface preparation is most important. In the case of an open-grained wood like oak, a matching wood filler should be used. If oak is filled first, it then may be waxed or perhaps lightly oiled and then waxed. If wax alone is used, it should be colored so that the wax-filled pores in the wood do not show white. Fuming, the process of exposing oak to the fumes of ammonia, is a common method of turning oak darker without producing the irregular color that can result from careless staining. The popularity of fuming, especially among early proponents of Arts and Crafts furniture, resulted from the misconception that genuine Gothic furniture was extremely dark. That darkness, in fact, came from centuries of exposure to smoky atmospheres. When new, however, most Gothic furniture was brightly painted or valued precisely for its light golden color.

In future posts we are going to explore finishing, joinery, construction techniques, and decorative cut-outs, along with a lot of other aspects of woodworking for Arts and Crafts Furniture. There will be projects traced from start to finish, book reviews, articles on the "philosphy" of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and short biographical sketches of the creators of the movement. I hope that you are enjoying reading this blog as much as I am enjoying writing it.


Steve W. Carter said...

Brad -- I don't think it is possible for you to enjoy writing this blog as much as am enjoying reading it! Each post brings new enjoyment which makes me look forward the next post.

James Lambeth said...

I love your blog! Do you have any ideas where I can get some pictures of arts and crafts molding and baseboards, and also square columns? We're remodeling and putting in some square columns to set off the dining room/area. We have no idea how to trim them out. Thanks.!

Brad Ferguson said...

Thanks so much for your kind words. If you are looking for ideas for Arts and Crafts style interiors I'd recommend "America Bungalow" magazine and "1900 Style" magazine, both available at BN and Borders. For details on the interior trim check out Robert Lang's Book, Shop Drawings for Arts and Crafts Interiors, available at www.craftsmanplans.com or BN, Amazon.
Good luck with your house.