How Arts and Crafts flourished in industrial Detroit

The first Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts building on Witherell, circa 1935.

During the height of the Industrial Revolution, England’s William Morris longed for the Medieval system of guilds that he felt fostered pride and craftsmanship in one’s labor. In 1861 he started the Arts and Crafts movement in an attempt to reverse what he saw as the dehumanizing effects of the new machinery and factories on workers and their products.

“By art I understand the pleasures of life,” he said. “Let all men share in art that is, do what gives them pleasure or do that which gives pleasure to others. The uniform machine-made products are made without pleasure and produce no pleasure…Factories are a hell wherein a man is hopelessly engaged in the performance of one never-ending and abhorrent task.”

He was criticized for not embracing the labor saving machines which brought cheaper and better products to more people and promised future riches for all. But despite the criticism his movement spread quickly.

The entry to The Society of Arts and Crafts classroom building on Kirby in Detroit.

Arts and Crafts societies popped up in several American cities and Detroit found itself in the unusual position of being the poster city of the industrial revolution as well as the movement formed to reverse it. At the same time that Henry Fords production line was making Detroit the crown jewel of the industrial revolution, the city became an internationally known center for the movement.

In1906, the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts was formed in the Cranbrook Press Room of the Detroit News building, then at Shelby and Larned. The society’s first president was George Booth, business manager of the Detroit Evening News, forerunner of The Detroit News. An exhibition hall and sales room soon opened at 122 Farmer.

In 1911 the society moved to an abandoned stable at 37 Witherell and Adams Street. It featured social teas for non-artist members who patronized the craftsmen and bought their products. The members also liked to dress up and act. Detroit became one of the first cities in the country to participate in the “little theater” movement, which allowed amateurs to join with professional actors to perform in small theaters to the delight of the members and audiences.

In 1910 William Morris daughter, May Morris, visited the Detroit group and offered her outspoken views on such things as gas fireplaces, which she called “abominable,” men’s clothing which was “lacking in beauty,” and expressed the view that there was no such thing as “arts and crafts furniture.” In 1912 poet William Butler Yeats paid a visit and spoke to the society.

The group prospered and by 1916 became the first American Society of Arts and Crafts to build its own building. It was constructed on land donated by Booth at Watson Street, a half block east of Woodward and a few blocks north of Grand Circus Park.

William B. Stratton and Maxwell Grylls of Smith, Hinchman and Grylls designed the stucco cottage-style building, typical of the movement. It also featured a theater and a courtyard that provided wonderful light.

In 1917, Booth appealed to the society to rescue art values he felt were threatened by war.

“Better add one beautiful and enduring piece of furniture or one ornament a year than furnish the home complete with the passing fads in furniture, curtains and bric-a-brac. Association with good things itself is an aid to goodness. The motive of the true craftsman is love of good and beautiful work as applied to useful service. Therefore, in all work properly coming under the head of arts and crafts we are to keep before us certain clearly defined ideas:

“First: Have a worthy and useful purpose in mind.

“Second: Let the plan of the design be appropriate and reasonable, pure and simple.

How Arts and Crafts flourished in industrial Detroit

      “Third: Use native materials when possible. Don’t think any oak is better than American oak, any marble better than American marble, any copper, iron or silver better than our own products. But select only the material best adapted for your purpose.

“Fourth: Having a worthy purpose, a plan, and materials both suitable and good, earnestly apply to them good workmanship.

“Fifth: When the question of ornament is considered, keep in mind whether it will add to the beauty or not, as too much will be worse than none at all.

“In the works of artists and craftsmen, the result of joyous and painstaking labor, the result of an art inspired by the very spirit of the creator, in these things men sought truly to express the spirit of life they knew they ought to live. The ideal the Arts and Crafts Society is pledged to uphold as expressing those aspects of life that endure. An art of real purity and beauty, always devoted to high ideals, and expressing truth and high aspirations.”

Booth used the ideals of the movement in designing his Cranbrook estate during the 1920s.

In 1926 the society started The Society of Arts and Crafts school of art, now the Center for Creative Studies.

In the 1920s the Crown Prince of Sweden, Gustavus was so impressed with the Detroit art scene that he personally requested the Swedish show of arts and crafts furniture, rugs, tableware and hangings which had been shown at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, also be shown at the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts.

In 1928 fire gutted the Watson building, destroying many works of art as well as the theater.

The society introduced the work of Alex Calder to Detroiters in 1929 and later did the same for European and American artists including Renoir, Cezanne, Degas, Matisse, Rouault, Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Picasso, Klee, Modigliani, Marin and O’Keefe.

In 1933 the society belatedly acknowledged Detroit’s auto industry when it became the first art gallery in the United States to recognize the auto as an art form. The design exhibit featured hubcaps and grills, taillights and dashboards, instrument panels, and car ads. A car door perched on an artist easel proclaimed its status as beauty.

Artists at work in the Society’s painting studio.

Art Digest magazine proclaimed: “Almost no one thinks of artists in connection with the automobile.” American Magazine of Art observed: “So far the ‘Art in the Automobile Industry’ is the first of its kind to be held in the United States…It attracted much attention not only locally but nationally.”

The Detroit News’ art writer, Florence Davies, wrote: “People who feel puzzled about modern art would do well to visit ‘Art in the Automobile Industry.’ For here are forms that they can understand and which surely prove that the thing we call modern art need be neither puzzling nor mysterious. Turn around a photograph showing only the rear deck of a modern car and the deck remains a powerful pattern, It is compact, united and beautiful.

“The exhibition as a whole is meant to emphasize the part the artist plays in modern automobile design.” however she noted, “For these improvements we must wait, since the engineer is persistently skeptical of the value of the artist without engineering knowledge.”

Chrysler, Ford, Lincoln, Packard and Hudson participated in the exhibit as did Henry Ford, Edsel Ford, Roy D. Chapin, Walter Chrysler and Alvan Macauley.

In 1935, collector Robert H. Tannahill urged the society to recognize the more modern artists and their works. Tannahill also left much of his collection to the Detroit Institute of Arts.

In 1956 Detroit News art writer, Joy Hakanson Colby, wrote “Art and a City” in honor of the golden anniversary of the founding of the Society of Arts and Crafts.

Now thriving, the society erected a new school building on 245 East Kirby Street designed by Detroit architect Minoru Yamasaki. The delicate and exquisite building features a moat with a small bridge and a sheer brick wall surrounding the school. It opened in 1958. The new building was part of a master plan for the school to become a college.

Detroit’s Ford family donated lavishly to expand the school, which carried the name of the society. As the auto industry demanded more graduates, more classrooms and teachers were needed. In 1962 the school earned the right to grant Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees in industrial design.

Automotive design bridged the apparent contradictions between the Arts and Crafts Movement and the auto industry. The Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts flourished after the industry began demanding more graduates to design its cars.

      By 1973 accreditation allowed unrestricted degree-granting authority in the arts. New fields included glass, fabric design and graphic arts.

In 1973 the school broke ground for the Kresge-Ford Fine Arts and Design Arts Buildings designed by William Kessler and Associates. In 1975, the Society of Arts and Crafts changed the name of the school to Center for Creative Studies.

In 1976 the society celebrated its 75th anniversary with an exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Center for Creative Studies. A 300 page catalog, titled “Arts and Crafts in Detroit 1906-1976, The Movement, The Society, The School,” covered the history, and the artifacts displayed.

Partly written by The Detroit News’ Colby, who had also written the 50th anniversary book, the catalog tells not only of the major names linked to the school, but also provides photos of their works. Some of the prominent names include Jay Boorsma, Zoltan Sepeshy, Morris Brose, Samuel Cashwan, Samuel Halpert, Brenda Goodman, Bradley G. Jones, Hughie Lee-Smith, Charles McGee, John Carroll, Sarkis Sarkisian, Gwen Lux, Guy Palazzola, Fran Cassara, John Foster, Walter Midner and Charles Culver.

Mr. and Mrs. Walter Buhl Ford II were generous contributors to the Society of Arts and Crafts.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News.)By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News