By William Morris 1883
The most exquisite things in nature and in art are those which possess and indefinable quality called style. The piece of literature, the architectural work, the beautiful woman, the flower wanting in this last nameless grace are alike unfortunate. For in order to gain recognition and appreciation, in a highly civilised age, distinct, that is to say: separation from one’s kind is necessary. But this distinction must be natural and inherent: never sought after, assumed or forced. In the case of objects created by the artist, style must be a part of the very conception; and not something consciously added in the mechanical execution.
The masters of style, the chiefs of the great schools wrought in obedience to impulse, because they were forced from within; because the thing seen in their mental vision cried out to be born, to become materialised. The lintel, the column, the art were incorporated into the building art by deliberate by deliberate selection, by critics and learned experimentalists. The structural element was seized by the master and fell into place beneath his powerful grasp: the result representing what we now recognise as Greek, or Roman, or Medieval. Now did the two great Italians, Raphael and Michelangelo, strive after their distinguishing traits. The harmonic composition as the one, the infinite linear variety of the other were spontaneous, constant forces which needed not to be fed or fostered by their possessors, of which they were a vital part; living with them, and passing away at the death of the masters, never again to be repeated.
Style is therefore the possession of one individual, or a class of individuals. Outside of these limits it is a false and unjustifiable assumption. We feel this statement to be true when we pause to analyse the impressions that often fall like discords upon our senses, as we go upon our ways of work or pleasure. For example, the sixteenth century French castle architecture “sui generis.” It is incomparable in its way. It lends itself to the nature in the midst of which it was created; rising from the landscape of the river Loire as a sympathetic response to the appeal of the sky, the water, the hills and the forests. Further than this, it represents the time of its birth. Its slender of material, its brilliancy of execution, its imaginative, luxuriant, graceful ornament recall of artistic, pleasure loving Francis First who passed with his court chateau to chateau; avoiding his burger capital, Paris, lest his waste of wealth should incite the honest artisans and shop keepers to discontent and insurrection.
Now, let a reproduction of this style be attempted in the heart of our American metropolis, as has been done in several notable instances. The result is no longer either pleasing to the student and connoisseur, or satisfying to the masses. The feudal architecture is by centuries out of place in a modern city, presumably the home of civic law and order. The broad avenues, teeming with life, movement and adventures of a scientific age, form an incongruous setting for these old time jewels of art. The fantastic ornament, the gargoyles and griffons which overrun the whole and cut the skyline in a hundred curious ways have no longer a reason for existence. They have lost the sense of mystery with which trey were once invested. Their meaning has passed from the vital state into the domain of historical interest. In the evolution of art, their place has long been supplanted.
We can thus go on selecting examples at will, and sure always of arriving at the same conclusion. As we pass through the place Vendome, Paris, we are at once impressed by the formal, stately granduer of the surrounding architecture. The eager shopper with his eyes still dazzled by glittering frivoloties of the rue de la Paix is unconsciously sobered by confronting the grave buildings of the historic square; while the student delights to imagine the space as it must have appeared under Louis le Grand: animated by lumbering coaches and and gilded sedan chairs, with their freight of pompous gentlemen in flowing wigs, and of ladies in heavy velvet and brocade gowns.
Again, as in the first case cited, let the externals of this style be copied in America. The results will be spiritless, literal translation, wanting the life and the soul of the original. A sense of unfitness and unreality will forever pervade and haunt the imitation which, through the lack of spontaneity, has no justification for being; which has no basis of artistic truth, and which represents no dominant thought of the period.
So, advancing from instance to instance, we reach the conclusion that any art worthy of the name must strike its roots deep into the life of the people, and must produce as freely and naturally as does the plant in summer.
We have thus far drawn our example from architecture, but as the smaller is contained in the greater, so are the lesser arts related to that of the builder. Sculpture and painting are its handmaids, and household decoration adjunct and ally.
The object which form our material environment exert upon us an influence that is not to be withstood. If we, our children and successors are to be true citizens and integral part of the Commonwealth, we must choose carefully the objects by which we surround ourselves; bringing our judgement to bear upon them as fully as we do upon our books, our studies and our companions. We must support an art created by the people for the people: simple, sincere and structural; an art wherein the designer and the craftsman shall be one and the same individual, creating for his own pleasure and unassailed by commercialism.
It is in the spirit that the Master and Associates of the United Crafts produce their work and await results. The artistic quality of the Rush or Reeds has been generally ignored by the cabinet maker. The strength and durability of its fibre have largely caused its employment. But it lends itself easily to aesthetic colour and textile schemes. Made soft and pliable and retaining its natural variegation, it gives a whole gamut of green, with occasional rusty glints punctuating what otherwise were a too spiritless mass of colour. It is then often combined with the mellow tones of “fumed oak,” as if we find it in certain chairs and seats recently produced in the workshops of the United Crafts. The combination cannot be otherwise than a perfect one, as it is based upon Nature as is displayed in the autumn woods.