By Markus Favermann
Believe it or not, Boston — the home of mud-frozen architectural and decorative conservatism — was the original epicenter of the Arts and Crafts movement in America.
The Arts and Crafts movement emerged in Britain in the second half of the 19th century and was a creative response to the overly ornate, artificial, factory-made furniture of the period. It was also a rejection of the excessive detailing of decorative objects of the period. Surprisingly, Boston – home of muddy architectural and decorative conservatism – was the initial epicenter of the Arts and Crafts movement in America. And it focused on simple shells and bowls.
Repelled by the crudely made household items of mid-nineteenth-century industrial production, the godfather of the American Arts and Crafts version was Harvard and America’s first art history professor, Charles Elliot Norton. He was an early convert to the English Arts and Crafts movement; He was introduced to it by his friend, the English art critic John Ruskin, along with the socialist designer William Morris. Norton advocated a return to handmade objects, with an emphasis on the study of simpler styles and historical artifacts. He believed in the moral value of good design.
Along with colleagues such as Langford Warren, founder of the Harvard School of Architecture (later the Graduate School of Design), artisans, and a number of Brahmin social reformers, Norton called a meeting in January 1897 to exhibit this more authentic style at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The first American Arts and Crafts Exhibition was held on April 5, 1897 at Copley Hall in Boston. It displayed more than 1000 objects by 160 artisans, half of them women. The popularity of this exhibition inspired the formation of the Society of Arts and Crafts (SAC) in Boston, which sparked the formation of numerous similar groups in cities across the country.
A multitude of studios and workshops soon developed in the Boston area. Stunning products from four of the most iconic companies are now highly collectible. These include Grueby Faience Company, Paul Revere Pottery’s Saturday Evening Girls, Marblehead Pottery Studio and Dedham Pottery.
The Grueby Fayence Company was founded in Revere, Massachusetts in 1894 and produced distinctive pottery, vases and tiles. William H. Grueby attended the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where he viewed French pottery with matte glazes on simple, organic shapes and elegant Japanese pieces. He returned to Boston and developed sophisticated glazes and applied them to elementary pottery forms. He also carved and applied stylized leaves and flowers to surfaces.
His most popular glaze was a rich cucumber green. The first Grueby Green goods were sold in 1897, and this coincided with Gustav Stickley (the leading figure in Arts and Crafts furniture design and architecture) exhibiting his Craftsman furniture at United Crafts in Eastwood, New York. Grueby’s matte green ceramics paired so well with Stickley’s distinctive oak furniture and Craftsman homes that Stickley incorporated Grueby pieces into his furniture presentations and in his advertising. To the detriment of Grueby’s business, the pickle glaze was extensively imitated by other competing firms, leading to bankruptcy followed by a weak recovery. Grueby Pottery fell out of favor at the start of the First World War and closed permanently in 1920. Grueby’s impressive legacy can now be seen in major museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Saturday Evening Girls Club (SEG) was founded as a library reading group to educate and assimilate immigrant girls, mostly Eastern European Jews and Italian Catholics. The program was launched in part as a strategy to “keep them off the streets.” It was also created to “Americanize” these young immigrant women by exposing them to middle-class WASP culture and inculcating moral values.
Founded by reform-minded local Brahmin philanthropists, the SEG program was based in Boston’s North End. It was established early on at North Bennet Street School. The SEG drew its membership primarily from the oldest girls in families, many of whom had dropped out of school to contribute to their family’s income. Paul Revere Pottery was founded to provide women with a safe (and homogenous) environment in which to earn their wages, surrounded by their peers.
SEG employees decorated bowls, plates, cups, tiles, vases, etc. with stylized images of animals, flowers, landscapes, and other motifs. Colors included rich blues, greens, yellows, and earth browns. Many bespoke sets have been made for children’s tea parties or special family celebrations. The outlines for these wonderful designs were originally created by adult female artists. Until they developed their own design and craft skills, the girls literally painted within the lines of the patterns before the bowls, bowls and cups were baked in an oven. Today, SEG pieces can be found in many museum collections, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Founded in 1896 by Hugh Robertson in Dedham, Massachusetts, Dedham Pottery was known for its high-fire stoneware, characterized by a controlled and very fine crackle glaze with thick cobalt edge patterns. It was in service until 1943. The factory, which surprisingly seldom employed more than six people at a time, was on Pottery Lane, off the High Street in Dedham.
An important pattern design used by Dedham Pottery was an image of a blue rabbit. It became known as “the Dedham Rabbit”. The decorative band was inhabited by rabbits squatting on the ground with flattened ears; between each animal was a vegetable stalk. Over time, Dedham Pottery created over fifty patterns for crockery and other pieces. These featured attractive designs depicting a variety of flora and fauna as well as other parts of the natural world, including elephants, dolphins, polar bears, swans, sprouts, lilies, clovers and mushrooms.
In 1904 the Marblehead Pottery Studio began as a small pottery studio as part of a convalescent program for sanitarium patients headed by Dr. Herbert Hall. A year later, ceramic artist Arthur Baggs became leader of the project, and he brought in a style of decoration centered on hand-engraved or surface-painted geometric patterns, due to muted, slightly contrasting colors. In 1915 Baggs became the owner of Marblehead Pottery until production ceased in 1936. The Marblehead Pottery Studio grew into one of the most respected art potteries of the Arts and Crafts era.
In the 1920’s the Marblehead Pottery Studio, like many successful art pottery companies, began to focus almost exclusively on high production ceramics as opposed to individual handcrafted pieces. However, machine-made pottery attempted to maintain the high quality of the hand-decorated originals. Typical glaze colors were blue, green, pink, yellow, brown or grey. An extremely rare piece, a vase designed by Annie Aldrich and decorated by Sarah Tutt, was sold by Skinner Auctioneers in December 2018. The final price for the vase jumped above the pre-sale estimate of $10,000-$20,000 – it sold for $250,000.
For several decades, the pottery leadership of Boston’s Arts and Crafts Movement elegantly distributed this. What’s served next?
Markus Favermann is an urban designer specializing in strategic placemaking, civic branding, streetscapes and public art. As an award-winning public artist, he creates functional public art as civic design. As the designer of the renovated Coolidge Corner Theater, he is a design advisor to the Massachusetts Downtown Initiative Program and has been a design advisor to the Boston Red Sox since 2002. Mark writes about urbanism, architecture, design and visual arts and is the editor of That art fuse.