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July 4-10, 2007

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The Arts and Crafts Movement
(By Rosalind P. Blakesley; Phaidon Press; 272 pages; $69.95 cloth.)

When buying coffee-table books, I follow one rule: You can't own too many volumes about arts and crafts houses, gardens, furniture, tapestries, rugs, etc. The attention to craft and function initiated in the late 19th century by William Morris and his followers never ceases to delight the eye and pique the mind. Rosalind P. Blakesley's large-scale effort comes with all the magnificent photographs that aficionados crave—pencil, ink and watercolor designs for wallpaper by Morris, an elegant hammered silver dish with a turquoise accent by Josef Hoffmann, the sturdy beams of the Gamble House rising from a rock wall and an expanse of well-manicured lawn—plus an unusually astute text. Blakesley examines the ideological roots of the movement, with "its promotion of hand craftsmanship as a critique of industrial society and modernity" and its hope that principles of good taste and design could benefit workers and consumers. She also acknowledges the inherent contradiction that bedeviled the movement: "The irony is that while Morris wanted to propagate good design, it was only the middle and upper classes who could afford the beautiful, time-consuming furnishings which his firm produced." The chapters cover a wide range of varying national responses to Morris' initiatives, from Austria and Germany to Russia and Scandinavia, with a particularly strong chapter about America and the parallel art pottery movement. As a bonus, the layout and typography—with red-type intro test for chapters and lovely period drop caps—echoes the best of arts and crafts bookmaking.

Review by Michael S. Gant


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