Rustic to Regal
Rooted in the arts and crafts movement, a century's worth of American building
By Stanley Abercrombie
By Robert Winter and Alexander Vertikoff Abrams, $50
Craftsman Style is a supremely handsome book about very appealing architecture, interiors, and artifacts. It offers fine photographs by Alexander Vertikoff and a literate text by Robert Winter, editor of the 1997 book Toward a Simpler Way of Life: The Arts & Crafts Architects of California. What's not to enjoy, even to relish? Well, styles are slippery things to pin down, and any book about a particular style must define that style sharply.
Here sharpness yields to inclusiveness. A 14-page introduction explains craftsman design's general origins in the English arts and crafts movement of the 19th century and its particular source in the ideas of William Morris, "the ultimate craftsman for his age." Winter traces its evolution, its decline from the 1920s through the 1960s, and what he considers its subsequent revival. The 27 buildings examined in the rest of the book range in date from Will Price's 1901 residential communities in Pennsylvania and Delaware—Rose Valley and Arden—to the 2001 Grand Californian Hotel in Anaheim, Calif., by Peter Dominick of the Urban Design Group with interiors by Walt Disney Imagineering and Richard Brayton of Brayton and Hughes. The hotel is in a section titled "Craftsman Revival," but a renewed admiration for a past style and even a few imitations of it don't necessarily constitute its revival.
Craftsman style, as interpreted in the book, encompasses a wide range of expressions, from the rusticity and near-Shaker simplicity of a 1905 Woodstock, N.Y., house by Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead to the elaborate eclecticism of Bernard Maybeck's 1909 Roos House in San Francisco. Even so, a catalog of recognizable craftsman traits emerges from Vertikoff's handsome photographs: an extensive use of naturally finished wood (but also shingles, stone, brick, glazed tile, hammered metal, and stained glass), exposed beams, small-paned windows, built-in furniture, and large, prominent fireplaces, often with inglenooks. Floor plans, at least on the ground floor, were often open rather than formally divided, although the book's inclusion of only one floor plan (a Gustav Stickley house design of 1904) precludes a thorough presentation of this aspect of craftsman design.
Geographically, Winter writes, "modern Craftsman architecture has fared best in California," and "only Fay Jones [of Ar-kansas], a follower of Frank Lloyd Wright, stands out as an equal of the California folks." Wright himself is a giant figure in the background of this book. His work is often mentioned as being sympathetic to craftsman style. Winter stops short of including any Wright design as a craftsman example, but he might have explained how Wright sought to distance himself from the praise of handicraft. His 1901 lecture "The Art and Craft of the Machine" was a statement of the growing divergence of craftsmanship and industrial production and a prediction of the latter's larger role in 20th-century design. Wright wrote of his "gradually deepening conviction that in the machine lies the future of art and craft," a future that he called "glorious."
Surprisingly, Winter gives William Wurster's modest evocations of agrarian architecture the craftsman label. And one 1911 house by John Hudson Thomas, though admitted to be "Tudoresque," is judged to have "plenty of wood to tie it firmly to the Craftsman tradition." The biggest stretch in Winter's selections, however, is Craig Ellwood's 1965 Kubly House in Pasadena, Calif. Although the house was framed in wood (when it was decided that the original design in steel would be too costly), it was as much in the spirit of Mies van der Rohe as Ellwood could make it—rectangular, modular, planar, and severely simple. The text tries to justify the notion of Ellwood as a craftsman designer by reminding us that Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (here called Nicholas) considered William Morris one of his 1936 Pioneers of Modern Design. It seems an overstatement, though, for Winter to say that Pevsner "made the case that the Craftsman point of view is the basis for modernism."
Craftsman style was an admirable and warmhearted movement. As Winter felicitously writes, "The popularity of Craftsman architecture, both old and new, lies in the fact that it looks like home." Winter and Vertikoff present its accomplishments well. It is a pity that their book claims for it just a bit more scope and a longer duration than it deserves.
A resident of Sonoma, Calif., Stanley Abercrombie was editor-in-chief of Interior Design for 14 years.