Walter Curt Behrendt’s “The State of the Arts and Crafts” (1925-6)

Translated from the German by Charlotte Benton, Tim Benton, et al.

From Architecture and Design, 1890-1939: An International Anthology

of Original Articles.  (Whitney Library of Design.  New York, NY: 1975).

• • •

Crafsmanship has preserved its high standards of technical skill during the war and the post-war period.  In all spheres of industry people will insist on using this skill both knowledgeably and conscientiously, working honestly and with care.  The results are of high quality, worthy of great respect.  Nevertheless the published word is clear proof that we are unable to relate our lives to this world of craft which is so rich in its forms.  We do not know how to begin to come to terms with its colorful, varied creations.  Already the term ‘craft’ is often used with a derogatory undertone of irony.  It is also recognized that the stimulating effect of a simple machine made object — the clean-cut lines of a polished nickel-plated steel match-holder or an artless inkbottle made in matt rubber — can make a stronger impact on us than any artistic and technically accomplished piece of modern craftsmanship.  The heretics are even saying that the kind of upholstery you find in a modern car is as much a work of craftsmanship as that in the ornamental show coaches of the old dukes in Baroque times.

So-called craftsmanship is now in an extremely precarious and difficult situation.  It lacks clear ideological direction which would give meaning and content to its products, to surpass mere decoration and achieve essential form.  Unless the crafts adopt a single-minded goal in their creation of form, they will fall prey to the meaningless whims of individual taste…Taste alone is not sufficient, it cannot substitute for ideological guidance…

Only architecture can give clear, ideological guidance to the crafts.  It alone can liberate craft from its present fruitless position as ‘art for art’s sake”.  Architects create relationships in space, which is what produces an integrated theme in their work.  The elements are unified from the ground plan, right through to the ornamental [143] detail following a single idea based on the articulation of space, which gives it all meaning and substance.

But architecture itself at present is involved in a spiritual change of direction.  The climate of contemporary awareness was what stimulated this new direction.  This contemporary awareness finds its climax in the passionate admission of the strong creative forces of the time and strives to create a free path for this power by understanding its essence.  Instead of prejudice and tradition, it offers reality; instead of theory and dogma, intense concentration.  It seeks to replace dead maxims with ideas drawn directly from life and tries ‘to understand life through life itself.’ Commitment to essentials is the outstanding feature of this new attitude, whose emotional intensity is at its highest when this commitment is met.

In all spheres of creative work that are under the uncompromising influence and power of Art the commitment to essentials is already clear.  That is the real reason why the spirit of our time is so aroused by the sight of certain industrial products — by a car or an aeroplane, a sailing boat, a locomotive or a modern toy.  All these essential forms are developed organically to suit their functions and reveal a new decisive feature of modern life.  That is why they seem so striking to us.

Architecture too, is in the process of rebuilding a new creative direction from first principles, based upon the new contemporary awareness.  It is rejecting old formal rules, decorative gestures, pure decoration, and is attempting in many different ways to discover the principle of organic form which has already become the established order in industry.  Meanwhile the first successful attempts at realizing forms derived from these essential principles exist all over the world.

These important new architectonic ideas do not evolve from the particular problems of relating spatial elements.  The deciding factor is not the accentuated horizontal or the renunciation of ornament, but a new attitude towards the process of creativity which is emerging, not only in architecture, but in all creative fields.  This new approach operates on an essentially different basis from the old, based on new ideological principles conditioned by the climate of contemporary thought.  That is why the design movement gained no active support with its slogan of ‘form without ornament.’  This seductive slogan, despite the support it received, only concerns inessential superficialities.  The core of the new creative problem will not be satisfied with this slogan which offers no ideological direction but only the danger of a new fashionable formula.

Contemporary thought is concerned with the essential.  It strives for the purity of form which is the fulfilled expression of organic creation.  Our time rejects trivia, no longer appreciates the many-faceted, pleasing charm of individual varieties of form.  It scorns ornament and decoration — in one word it is anti-craftsmanship.  That is the status of the crafts at present.  Although it contains the highest technical skills and a highly developed craftsmanlike dexterity, the applied arts are isolated as an artistic activity.  They cannot be self-sufficient and must take the essential step of joining up with architecture.  On the one hand, some craftsmen are creating expensive goods for their own sake, against the grain of contemporary demand, for an imaginary, scarcely definable clientele.  On the other hand, others are producing work oriented to the new design principles, courageously ahead of their time, for the as yet imaginary spaces of a new architecture.  There is no really solid foundation for either group, so that the fate of all the decorative arts at this time hangs in the balance, suspended in a vacuum…

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~ by Ross Wolfe on October 20, 2010.

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