Is There Meaning Now?
Much has changed since the genesis of the Arts and Crafts movement. That change is evident in our workshops. Walls and shelves once full of hand tools now carry predominantly handheld electric and air tools. Stationary tools large and small have proliferated. Round the shop run lines carrying compressed air and waste from machines. The wood rack holds a variety of manufactured sheet materials. Furniture makers of old wouldn’t even recognize it as a workshop.
Given such radical change, it’s reasonable to ask: does the Arts and Crafts movement have anything to offer today’s furniture maker and woodworker?
My answer is a resounding: Yes! The tenets that guided Gimson and the Barnsleys resonate still:
Design, simply expressed, is always going to take a few words to say, but hours of drawing, mock-ups and rethinking to develop the best solution, which is then subjected to a rigorous critique.
Using first-rate or “rightful materials” underscores your commitment to the design and the workmanship required to make the piece. Quality material sawn straight-grained from the log will behave better: it will cut and work better on the bench as well as remaining flat; it will show off its grain and color better when it’s finished. I don’t mean wood that is necessarily exotic or expensive. Whatever the species, the best deal you can get is its top quality material.
The work should be constructed using “rightful” joinery expressed by “rightful” workmanship.
Although my own work involves using CNC industrial machines, I am a strong advocate of hand tools, especially so for amateur woodworkers. Using solid wood and hand tools allows for a simpler analysis of process than is possible with a complete reliance on power tools and industrial materials. Furniture of the best quality once was and still can be made using only hand tool methods. Unless handwork is embraced by amateur woodworkers, truly handmade furniture, which means tools skills, sharpening skills and working methods, will disappear like the craft of the wheelwright — and that would be a sad loss indeed.
Design is Key
Finally, some closing and hopefully encouraging thoughts on the critical importance of design. Design, like language, is a learned skill, not a natural gift. The seminal crafters of the Arts and Crafts movement, the men who worked with their own hands, understood that concept and applied effort and determination to all the aspects of their designs. And that is likely the key to the relevance and longevity and the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement. Regardless of the quality of William Morris’s philosophical arguments, the primary reason that Arts and Crafts furniture pieces continue to resonate with 21st century consumers, builders and designers is the simplicity and elegance of their designs, as guided by the three tenets they created.