Arts and Crafts movement: a life's passion explored

December 28, 2009

Take a look around your home. That chair you’re sitting in. The silverware on your table. The vase that holds your favorite flowers. Are they useful? Most probably. But are they beautiful, too?

Today, consumers probably don’t think about their home and its furnishings in those terms, but from around 1860 to 1920, those questions mattered – and they formed the basis of the Arts and Crafts movement. Download Full Image

Few scholars know more about the Arts and Crafts movement, and its impact on today’s home and interior designs, than Beverly Brandt, professor of design in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

Brandt’s first book on the subject, “The Craftsman and the Critic: Defining Usefulness and Beauty in Arts and Crafts-Era Boston,” was recently published by the University of Massachusetts Press.

Though craftsman and poet William Morris advised English consumers in the 1880s to “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful,” the idea took off in the United States too, and was centered in Boston.

“The Craftsman and the Critic” looks at Boston in the Gilded Age as a center for reform, epitomized by the Aesthetic and the Arts and Crafts movements; the evolution of the profession of design criticism in the 19th century; the formative years of Boston’s influential Society of Arts and Crafts; important people in the movement; and the Arts and Crafts revival that has flourished in the United States since the 1970s.

Brandt’s book is a labor of love that was nine years in the making. It reflects her career-long fascination with the Arts and Crafts movement and Boston of that era, and is meant, also, to be useful as well as beautiful.

“So much that is written about the Arts and Crafts movement is in the form of glossy coffee-table books,” Brandt said. “I wanted to explore how people got those ideas, and shaped them. To tell the back stories of the objects that are part of the movement.”

She also questions why was Boston the center of the movement, and why the ideas of usefulness and beauty resonate today.

The Arts and Crafts movement, Brandt said, is defined as an Anglo-American design reform movement that lasted from about 1860 to 1920. “Its goal was to unite architects, designers, artists, and craftspeople in an effort to improve the quality of design and hence the quality of life."

It has endured, she said, because Morris, its proponent, upheld beauty and usefulness as ideals, but “did not prescribe what either must be, according to a single theory.

“Morris – along with his contemporaries and his followers – ensured that the products of the design reform movement would transcend the particulars of style and thus age gracefully, as they have into the 21st century,” Brandt wrote.

“The downside to such openness to interpretation was this: at the time, the Arts and Crafts ideal was not always easy to comprehend or to assimilate. Where did one begin in one’s quest for Usefulness and Beauty? How might one recognize them on the pages of a sketchbook, at the potter’s wheel or jeweler’s bench, at an art exhibition, in a store window, or within the confines of one’s own home?

“Enter the design critic – that arbiter of taste, midwife to the creative process, champion of integrity and truth in the designed environment.”

Brandt has been fascinated with the Arts and Crafts movement since she was a graduate student at Michigan State University.

In her first design history class, she sat in a darkened lecture hall, seeing “slides of jewel-toned Morris chintzes for the first time.”

She spent the summer of 1975 in London on an overseas studies program that enabled her to see exhibits and hear lectures on the Arts and Crafts movement. In 1980, she decided to pursue an academic career and enrolled in Boston University’s American and New England Studies Program, where she learned about the Society of Arts and Crafts in Boston.

After perusing the microfilmed records about the society that are housed in the Smithsonian Institution Archives of American art, and becoming further fascinated, she decided to writer her dissertation about the first 20 years of the society.

Unlike those coffee table books that focus on objects in the movement, Brandt’s book looks at the processes. “What intrigues me most,” she wrote, “are the processes by which arts and crafts products came to be, and the ideas that informed them.”

“The Craftsman and the Critic” is lavishly illustrated with portraits of the major players in the Boston Arts and Crafts movement, objects of usefulness and beauty, photographs of buildings and interiors, reproductions of advertisements and much more.

“It took me a year and a half just to work on the illustrations,” Brandt said. “I had to winnow them down to 210.”

The book also has extensive appendices, notes, a bibliography and an index, providing the reader with what seems to be everything there is to know about the Arts and Crafts movement and its Boston iteration.

“It was a fun book to write. I’m a creative person and putting this together was a dream – it’s things I’ve been thinking about for 30 years,” Brandt said.

Though “The Craftsman and the Critic” is a scholarly book, it was recently ranked in the “Top 100 Bestsellers” in Massachusetts, and has received enthusiastic reviews from general readers and respected scholars in the field.

“This is an excellent book. Beverly Brandt is a top-notch expert on the Arts and Crafts movement, especially Boston. Besides all that, she is an excellent writer. Highly recommended,” one reviewer wrote.

Another concluded, “This book is essential for all students of the Arts and Crafts movement in North America. Boston was the first city to institutionalize it and give it focus. Brandt has the whole story and tells it well.”

Lin, Akay earn major engineering honors

December 28, 2009

Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering faculty members Jerry Y.S. Lin and Metin Akay have been selected as Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

AAAS is the world's largest general scientific society, and publisher of the prominent journal Science. Each year, the association recognizes a number of scientists and engineers for significant contributions to their fields and to society. Download Full Image

Lin, a professor in the School of Mechanical, Aerospace, Chemical and Materials Engineering, was chosen for Fellow status for his achievements in inorganic membrane science and technology for chemical separation and membrane reactor applications.

Earlier this year, his leadership in the field also earned Lin a prestigious Award for Excellence from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.

His work is spurring advancements in chemical engineering technologies used in numerous industrial processes, including processes to produce hydrogen as an alternative fuel for cars, to prevent pollution from industrial systems and to purify water supplies.  

Akay, a professor in the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering, was named an AAAS Fellow for his contributions to biomedical engineering research and education. In particular, his work in neural engineering and informatics was recognized by the organization.

Akay’s accomplishments also recently earned him election to the College of Fellows of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering – one of the highest recognitions in the biological and biomedical sciences.

His research spans a wide range of interests in biomedical informatics and biomedical engineering, including the areas of neural, cardiovascular and rehabilitation engineering, and biomedical informatics.

Contributions to electrical and information technologies – specifically biomedical signal modeling and process –earned him Fellow status in the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers in 2009. He also was honored by the government of Colombia for promoting biomedical engineering research and education in Latin America.

In 2010, Akay will take on the leadership of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering. He will be the founding chair of the department and John S. Dunn Distinguished Professor.

Akay will continue a working relationship with Arizona State University through his research and as an engineering graduate program faculty member. He will continue as a supervisor to a group of ASU doctoral and master’s degree students.

Lin was nominated for AAAS Fellow by colleague Yushan Yan, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Riverside.

Yan noted Lin’s international reputation in the field, for both his research contributions and his efforts to advance education in the field and share knowledge with colleagues.

“I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to nominate Jerry,” Yan said. “His selection as an AAAS fellow is a fitting recognition of his tireless commitment and the status he has earned in chemical engineering.”

New AAAS Fellows will be presented with an official certificate and a gold (for science) and blue (for engineering) rosette pin at the AAAS Fellows Forum on Feb. 20, during the organization’s 2010 annual meeting in San Diego.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering