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Art in Modern Life and Industry

ISSUE:  Spring 1928

The Economic Laws of Art Production. By Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith, G. C. B. New York: Oxford University Press. $1.50.

The Studio Year Book of Decorative Art, 1927. Edited by Geoffrey Holme and Shirley B. Wainwright. New York: Stevens & Brown, wrappers $2; cloth, $2.50.

Design in Everyday Life and Things: Year Book of the Design and Industries Association. United States as for England; Ernest Benn, Ltd. $2.50.

Anyone who at any time has tried to give expression to some sound idea in any field of work or thought has been countered by someone else or many somebodies who considered it as difficult, perhaps even dangerous, of application to our everyday, life and mode of working. When further questioned for their grounds of objection to the idea, invariably one of their stock replies is that the public or public opinion would have nothing to do with it. Sometimes they go further than mere verbal objection and launch a campaign against the idea with their stalking-horse, the public, as the cover behind which they make the attack! If James Watt, Roebuck, or Robert Fulton, using Watt’s engine to drive the first steamer on the Hudson, had succumbed to the chimeras of the somebodies, it is not unlikely that America’s industrial development would have been different from what it is.

Undeterred by the mugwumps, the men of ideas say “Let us do something”—something special, as did the pioneers of modern sanitation. Seeing what is bad in the field of manufacture of articles in daily use, there would come to them the idea that the bad can only be transformed by focussing attention on the fundamental principles of good design as a measure of common sense.

It is the merit of the two Year Books for 1927 that they bring together a wealth of varied and representative illustrations of modern efforts in the production of good forms and appropriate decoration of household things and of sound architectural planning and construction in domestic and other buildings, and of fitting treatments of their interiors. They are to some extent complementary to each other. On the other hand, Sir Hubert Smith’s book, a clear enunciation of the alpha and omega of the meaning of relationships governing the productions of industrial art works, brings into focus the theories, of which the two other books form the practical embodiment.

“The Studio” volume, it might be said, embraces a richer and perhaps a wider field of illustrated material, so excellently reproduced. With the Year Book of the Design and Industries Association, now in its fourth year, the missionary spirit of its earlier indefatigable workers is still the dominant note in the Introduction and the six admirable essays which follow. Sir Hubert Smith, discussing the economic meaning of a work of art, puts succinctly the idea which has been the mainspring, the endeavour ever since the Design and Industries Association was founded to establish, namely: that “The fostering of common art means caring for utility, fitness, and beauty in all branches of national life.”

Both Sir Hubert Smith and Mr. John Gloag in his introductory essay to “Design in Everyday Life and Things” endeavour to clear the air as to what constitutes “art” and “design,” avoiding philosophical formula and the jargon of the art critics, and come down to brass tacks. It is with the practicality of the subject, the art object, that both are concerned. Mr. Gloag plumps for Professor Lethaby’s synthetical definition that “Art is thoughtful workmanship.” For it is that, with the creative quality of the artist or designer—the sound planning of the article itself, which makes for the “beauty based on fitness,” the point repeatedly emphasized in the considered essay by Mr. Fletcher on “The Principles of Design,” and in the very informing, withal practical, one by the editor of “The Cabinet Maker,” England, on “Furniture Design.”

The introducer of “The Studio” volume, Sir Lawrence Weaver, tilts at traditionalism in decorative art; but what he says should, however, be read in conjunction with the D. I. A. Year Book Introduction which pleads for clear thinking applied to the solving of problems of design. For Sir Lawrence Weaver’s statement that in England “the conflict between the traditionally minded and the moderns” is seemingly one of “a dislike for foreign forms and ideas” belongs to the category of partial truths. Far from a dislike for foreign forms and ideas it could be shown with little difficulty that post-Renaissance art, in particular, has been dominated in England by alien influences—and America is still copying them! But not altogether fortunately for modern American craftsmanship. But says Sir Lawrence later, “The fact remains that in (England) the majority do not think this way”—the way of modern design. They find a magic in Elizabethan and Georgian and their foreign counterparts;” . . . and resent “departures from tradition.” It is doubtful though whether the majority know anything about Elizabethan and Georgian designs, except what is stated in the showcard. In England there are no post-graduate and “practical teaching of period decoration by post” courses, as in America. Still “magic” is a much better expression of the determining factor governing the generality of purchases of so-called industrial art manufactures than “think,” as Mr. Gloag, from another angle, in his remarks on selling, is able to show.

In approaching the modern movement in design, as reflected on the Continent, and staged at the Paris Exhibition, Sir Lawrence Weaver is rightly cautious whether novelties “it is the business of exhibitions to stage” do really represent a general movement favourable to modern design. But in France he frankly avers admirable modern work is being sold at ordinary prices; and of Germany, at Leipzig, he admits that the Deutsche Werhbund craft work “showed a vitality and modernity of design” unequalled or approachable “in any collection of like size, of work by, English craftsmen,” a point I made in the English and American press two or three years back and got denounced for doing in the former as “bad manners.” What fools we are! But let him tell the story, further, of what he saw at Wertheim’s in Berlin, going there with doubts of the German manufacturers’ interest in modern design as against the special sort of people, the craftsmen. “I saw (in the furniture and pottery departments) some things I should not care to possess, but nothing I hated for its baseness or stupidity. I know no French, English, or American Department Store of which I could say that.” Then he goes on: “Here was case after case of the finest modern pottery, some from the great factories—the small, but very many also from the studios of individual artists.” If it is unwise to generalize from this, at least it can be said that at Wertheim’s there exists a close partnership between the manufacturer, designers, and distributing forces, and the public. This Mr. Fletcher in the third book urges rightly as a necessity for any improvement in industrial design, and should be taken to heart by every lover of well constructed and planned things in America. For as Sir Lawrence Weaver concludes: “No Department store in Berlin or anywhere else is run on aesthetic emotions;” and the conclusion must thus be drawn that in Berlin there must be a public big enough to make it profitable to sell good articles, of modern design, by competent designers, who have studied the public’s real needs. What a clearance there would be in English and American department stores if such a public became vocal in London, New York, Chicago, or Manchester or Philadelphia! Nevertheless, there is an increasing public wanting beauty of form combined with serviceability in the common things of life; for otherwise the sales of the wares illustrated in the two last books would fall off, and that certainly is not the case.

When we come to consider what differentiates the work of art from general commodities, akin in that all fall into the common category of being the product of human labour, Sir Hubert Smith is enlightening. The former, he says, must (a) emphasize the element of quality of fulfillment of function; (b) imply a doctrine of “ends” as well as “means.”

Again, the author of the first book, properly castigates the view of the aesthetes ancient and modern that it is the “freedom from any utilitarian purpose” which distinguishes the fine from the industrial or applied arts. This author puts as the third characteristic of a work of art its obedience to the law of congruity; whilst with practical insight does the essayist of “Design in Furniture,” in the third book, deal with the needful limitations imposed by the materials and production technique and the necessity of conforming to them if fitness is to result in the finished piece of furniture. The ill-results of neglect of fitness are evident, for example, in a biscuit box made to appear like a six volume edition of Shakespeare or the more insidious conceits of floorcloth made to look like marble or parquetry; whilst the good results are pointedly conveyed by the illustrations of furniture and pottery in both year books.

Very important—in fact, the most important of all the characteristics needful in a work of art—is the fourth definition of the first book, “that it must be a single entity exhibiting a unity of plan or design.” Lack of plan is rightly criticised by Mr. Gloag in his Introduction to the third book, and again there by Mr. Frank Pick, of the London Underground railways, in his captivating little essay on “Design in Cities.” To me it is but sufficient to cite two commercial centres, Chicago and the Potteries in England, of what might have been achieved, if they had been “planned with sufficient vision to make expansion a graceful possibility.” Whereas, Copenhagen stands as a pattern of what sound planning reinforced by imagination can achieve in the making of a beautiful city, as to a lesser degree do the new San Francisco and Washington. That a work of art “must possess the quality which we call ‘beauty,’” to quote Sir Hubert Smith, seems too obvious, too trite. Yet, if the aesthetes and philosophers be deferred to, there would seem to be no end of difficulties as to what constitutes “beauty.” But, as this author remarks, approached from the standpoint of practical effects rather than of ultimate causes, the difficulty disappears. The fact is, in our measure of things, in distinguishing between the useful and ornamental, we fail often to recognize the many points of contact between the two. In industrial design the contact is pronounced. Take the common glass flask seen in Tuscany: it is pleasing to the eye as well as soundly designed and suited for its purpose, namely, the carrying of olive oil. Thus it is the attractiveness of an object, its conformity to certain limiting conditions of form, which through its appeal to the eye makes it beautiful.

In the consideration of “Economic Fitness as a Condition of Art Value,” the author of the first book discusses with much insight and knowledge the many aspects and factors entering into its determination. For example, could it be said that precious stones cut by lapidaries come within the term “economic fitness,” although it may be said they possess rare qualities of beauty expressed in the material, the design and workmanship expended on them? Frankly, no; for, apart from whether they are valued solely for their intrinsic beauty or because they represent so much wealth, the fact remains that as against the doubtful advantage of their possession of a lustre quality under certain conditions has to be weighed the great sacrifice of material inevitable in the cutting and paring down of a diamond. As Sir Hubert Smith avers in considering a “law of least cost,” purely wasteful expenditure of effort or material detracts from the art-value of the resulting product. We all know the spell “The Rajah’s Diamond” of Robert Louis Stevenson’s inimitable story had on Thomas Vandeleur, because of its beauty and size. But supposing that it had been cut down, losing a third of its weight in the process, is it likely that it would have been as desirable on aesthetic grounds? In estimating precise art-values the factors of personal taste and appreciation, it is rightly indicated, require to be considered warily.

The pre-determining factors which lead to or react detrimentally on the response of the public, as of maker and salesman, to the art-values in a finished design are ably considered by the author of the first and some of the writers in the third book. The two chapters on “The Position and Function of Design in Modern Industry,” and “The Evolution and Modification of Artistic Styles” of the first book should be read in this connection.

Important issues are raised regarding the efficacy of the well-organized design studios, such as exist in Paris, in meeting the needs of industry as against or in conjunction with the more direct efforts of the individual manufactory by means of its own designing staff, and particularly in consequence of the publication of the Report of the recent inquiry in New York State apropos of the dependence of art industries on foreign design sources, entitled “Art in Industry,” which Professor Charles Richards edited. This epoch-making Report favours the independent studio organization. As Sir Hubert is inclined to agree, an ideal organization of this kind, such as the Report favours, utilizing the best talent of the art schools, keeping closely in touch with the practicalities of manufacture, might conceivably have helpful results in solving certain pressing problems: for instance, the absorption of talent for creative designs; thus saving both difficulties, manufacturers in securing designs and promising designers in getting a living. But—and it is a big but—it would certainly tend towards a more complete divorcement between design and execution, as Sir Hubert Smith declares; for the new organization would be a self-contained industry, and altogether dissimilar from the bottegas of Renaissance Italy, where the design and making were jointly carried on. It might also become the dictator of what the manufacturer should buy, as for a time did the Paris studios in dress and textile designs, and having reactions not altogether advantageous for the community as a whole. Whilst Sir Hubert Smith presents the problems for solution with clarity, he is not unmindful of the difficulties in the way of solving them. The way to a solution seems to lie mid-way between the old bottegas and the modern designing studios. That is, a bridge is wanted by which the talent in the latter can be more closely in contact with the executant knowledge in the former; for conditions of modern machine manufacture preclude the designer being also the executant: and in an Ohio pottery the designer of a mould in which a vessel is shaped may know nothing of the surface pattern it is to receive. The extant guilds of individual designers in the United States are divorced from close contact with manufacture; but certainly in big manufacturing concerns it should not be an insuperable difficulty to recreate within its own organization the status of the designer such as prevailed before the machine era.

As to the declamation against the slavish following of William Morris or any school of design, discussed by the Editors of “The Studio” book and in Mr. Collins Baker’s able essay on “Design in the Home” in the third book; fundamentally it is sound sense. But it is well to add that there is infinite wisdom in walking warily lest in decrying William Morris the painter is cut, and industrial design flounders in a sea of uncommon nonsense about the principles of design. “Let your own light (so) shine” is Mr. Collins Baker’s good counsel. But I would add, provided it is a light; for recently? as he the Keeper of the London National Gallery must know, so many self-advertising lights have been darkening the picture plane that it is difficult to see the wood for the trees.

Much more might be written about these fascinating books and their illustrations. “The Economic Laws of Art Production” is a book which must be read. Like the illustrations and the essays in the two following books, it will appeal to the producer by showing the necessity of appreciating the designer’s ideals and the public’s needs. To the public, it ought to appeal; for it will stimulate the subconscious desire to be surrounded by common objects of beauty: to the designer, by the evidence shown of a sympathetic insight into his problems, and the wise counsel to be guided by the limitations of the material. “Good design,” as Frank Brangwyn, the famous decorative painter once remarked to me, “is good business.” He should know.


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