Makers: A History of American Studio Craft reviewed by Joe Lewis PDF 
book cover
Makers: A History of American Studio Craft

Janet Koplos; Bruce Metcalf

ISBN 10: 0807834130 / 0-8078-3413-0
ISBN 13: 9780807834138
Publisher: Univ of North Carolina Pr
Publication Date: 2010
Binding: Hardcover 
Excerpt from the website http://www.americanstudiocrafthistory.org/

“Research, writing, and publishing of the first comprehensive history of 20th Century U.S. Studio Craft is a multi-year project that was identified in 2002, by a national advisory group, as the highest priority initiative to advance craft in academia and the curatorial worlds.”

 This is not a mystery novel and yet I have the impulse to write “it’s a page turner if there ever was one!”, “I couldn't put it down!”, “exciting, spell binding!”, “informative!" -- Informative being the least of its attributes. Makers: A History of American Studio Craft is an exciting narrative work of non–fiction. Authors Janet Koplos, art/craft historian and Bruce Metcalf, maker, educator and author, have put together what can only be described as a “Who’s Who” or encyclopedic textbook of the American Studio Craft Movement. It gathers together diverse sources of necessary information to create a cohesive timeline of contemporary crafts for our pleasure and education.

William Morris, the acknowledged father of the contemporary craft movement, is where Metcalf and Koplos begin to trace the manual training movement, which was “…focused on primary and secondary education. Now called vocational education, it was tied to teaching children a trade. The first American trade school was set up at Robert Owen's model factory town of New Harmony, Indian around 1825, where traditional manual training was enhanced with a new variation: lectures and recitation were augmented with physical, hands-on work. In its day this was a revolutionary idea”. (p.79) From here Koplos and Metcalf follow the thread of craft education through the social, cultural and institutional landscape of America to where it is today.

Owen’s utopian Workers Village experiment was a failure in the new world however, when he returned to Scotland his progressive ideas found some acceptance which initiated and fostered legislated improvements to mill works positions. Furthermore, his writing inspired the likes of William Morris who subsequently started Morris & Co. which gave rise to the Arts & Crafts Movement. Koplos and Metcalf lead us from the 1850s mid Victorian era and introduce us to the key craft players and philosophies in Europe, Great Britain and America. Decade by decade they let us in behind the scenes of 20th century Crafts so that we get to know the tenacity and creativity of these early practitioners and craft promoters. The authors have compiled source material from each decade, providing us with an historical walk through the industrial expositions and world fairs of the time where hand crafted items were displayed, judged and celebrated. We discover how craft studios and craftspeople were marketed. The authors look at the lesser known crafts independents, cooperatives, and regional organizations alongside the better known national crafts figures of the day, such as contributing founder of the New York Society of Decorative Arts, Candice Wheeler.

In the nineteenth century, American textiles were either imported or copied from Europe, but that all changed under the leadership of Candice Wheeler (1827-1923)*. Wheeler helped found the New York Society of Decorative Arts (SDA), which was modelled on the British “Royal School of Art Needle Work” she had been introduced to at the 1876 (American) Centennial Exposition. The Royal School had originally been established to aid British gentlewomen in strained circumstances due to the Crimean War, and she knew that the deaths of fathers and husbands in the Civil War had left countless American gentlewomen in similar circumstance. . She jumped at the opportunity to create work “for the army of helpless women of New York who were ashamed to beg and untrained to work”. As a philanthropic organization supported by subscriptions, the SDA was able to operate as a school, library, study centre, laboratory, workroom, shop and gallery where the homemade products were sold. In this manner they were able to provide a means of support to women in financial need. In fact, the SDA accepted any craft work, including from men or women regardless of their background, as long as the work met their established craft standards.

Wheeler’s own story touches on all of the key developments in the nineteenth century hand craft culture, such as her involvement with Louis Comfort Tiffany, Samuel Coleman and Lockwood Deforest in forming the “Associated Artists” decorating cooperative that, after her departure, became later became Louis C. Tiffany & Company. As well, with her daughter, she set up an independent association to produce original needle work and large scale architectural commissions. It is interesting to note that it is not specifically mentioned if she herself employed any of the “countless American women with no means of support and no profession of their own” trained by the SDA. 

This style of encouragement and philanthropic support for the production and sale of hand crafted items as a means of income spread from coast to coast in America. At the same time, Art and Craft teacher training emerged in schools attached to Museums and Normal Schools Work being done at the time in included ceramics, china painting, tile work, stained glass, wood carving, needle work, and tapestry weaving. Interestingly, an appetite for American crafts was nurtured by the popular press, in the form of Woman’s magazines, and also by organizations and societies presenting lectures and classes. There where publications for the makers themselves, offering articles about methods, reviews of exhibitions, patterns, supplies and equipment for sale. This flourishing of crafts production fed the explosion of a new style and status conscious American middle class.

Between the Panama-California Exposition in 1915-16 and the opening of Greenfield Village in Dearborn Michigan in 1926, America design left Europe behind as a source of inspiration and looked to its own colonial past. The Colonial revival brought low warp/flat/horizontal hand weaving into the fold of craft practice with overshot and rag rugs displacing high warp tapestry. With it came a new wave of philanthropic and ethnographic forays in search of traditional/authentic American hand crafted products, such as ones into the Appalachians, or into the South West – the latter giving rise to commercial adaptations of Navaho blankets into rugs. By the mid 1930’s the Bauhaus influence emerged in America from the influx of artists and designers fleeing Germany. The Bauhaus attitude toward form and function swept through all the GI Bill supported schools and centres that flourished after WW2. The Fifties, in spite of the conservative political atmosphere, saw a tremendous blossoming of craft education and practice that informs all of the teachers and design institutions today.

This textbook and its associated website are an important contribution to American and world craft and textile history. It provides a model for historians in other countries and abundant minutia for further research. The introduction to Elissa Auther’s String Felt Thread: the Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art identifies a critical splinter between instructional weavers. Mary Meigs Atwater (1887- 1956)* took it as her mission to recover forgotten hand weaving patterns for replica and preservation work. In contrast, Anni Albers (1899 – 1994)* felt that experimentation and adapting pattern and hand techniques for industrial production was most important. Atwater’s preservationist approach influenced the Guild movement, which operated outside of the school framework. The Guild initially developed as an income generating enterprise in the first half of the century, but it was with the inclusion of amateurs and hobbyists in the membership that gave the Guild a previously unheard of sphere of influence. It was Alber’s approach that became entrenched in the schools, although by 1980 the concept of industrial training had fallen into disrepute and what it has been replaced with something new altogether. But  that’s a story for another time – and no doubt the tremendous amount of research in this book will provide us with a springboard for our inquiry —and isn’t that the ultimate reason to write a textbook? 


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*1. Candice Wheeler (1827-1923) [Chapter 1, the roots of Studio Craft, Candice Wheeler, Social Service to Business p. 17 -19   

* 2Mary Meigs Atwater 1887- 1956 [Chapter 4 1930-29, Boom Time in a Consumer Society: Weaving for Many Purposes p. 125- 126] 

* 3 Anni Albers (1899 – 1994) [Chapter 6 1940-1949, New Opportunities Bauhaus Style: Anni Albers p.207-209]

About the Authors:

Janet Koplos is a New York City based art critic, lecturer, and curator. For 18 years she was a Senior Editor at Art in America magazine, where she is now a Contributing Editor. Koplos has written for numerous national and international publications and has also authored/co-authored nine books, including the forthcoming Makers: A History of American Studio Craft and Murano/Venice: Three Artists Three Visions. Her broad expertise encompasses contemporary art, contemporary American crafts, contemporary Japanese and Dutch art, Mingei and American folk arts, architecture, and design.

Bruce Metcalf earned a B.F.A. degree in 1972 at Syracuse University and an M.F.A. at the Tyler School of Art of Temple University in 1977. Metcalf taught at Kent State University in Ohio from 1981 to 1991. He has been a contributing editor of Metalsmith magazine for nearly two decades and teaches at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

Associated Website: Intended originally as a text book, Makers: A History of American Studio Craft -Education Course http://www.americanstudiocrafthistory.org/
is now supported by an accompanying website with Faculty and Instructor resources.

The website provides an Image Database, chapter by chapter links to Artist Links and Learning Materials, and Glossaries for each medium. Note that the Faculty and Instructor resources where carefully reviewed and tested by a team of five instructors form five different faculties. Makers: A History of American Studio Craft is a collection of people, places and events that inform the psyche of generation after generation. This book shines the light on these exceptional people, places, and events and opens the door to further inquiry. Here you will find exciting information such as regional similarities and differences in design, or facts that fill a previously unknown history of your favourite craft. It is a cohesive portrait of approximately one hundred years of activity in craft production, teaching, and marketing in

The book and website is a project of the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design (CCCD) with support from the Windgate Charitable Foundation.

Center for Craft, Creativity and Design played host to Inspired design: Jacquard and Entrepreneurial Textiles. Conference, at Blue Ridge Community College, Hendersonville, North Carolina, USA. January 7-10 2009.

You can read about that conference in fQ Volume 5 Issue 2 Spring 2009 

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