“This is more than just a parade of books or a parade of furniture. It’s the story of an era,” says Erin Coe, curator at the Hyde Collection, about the current exhibition “Live, Love, Work: The Roycroft Legacy.”
To those familiar with Roycroft, Coe is clearly referring to the American Arts and Crafts movement – pure and simple. For those unfamiliar with Roycroft or its times, the story is the stuff of grand opera, complete with self-styled hero, seekers of Utopia and a contorted version of Verdi’s rousing “Anvil Chorus.”
Before the fat lady sings, the seekers – Roycrofters – produced some of the finest examples of early Twentieth Century furniture and decorative arts.
Roycroft was an umbrella term used to cover a community, a printing operation, a line of bound books, copper ware, leather craft and furniture.
In the last decade of the Nineteenth Century, even as prosperity reigned, disenchantment with the tawdry undercurrents of industrialism festered. Those who could afford to find their focus through higher learning or adventure did so. The rest stayed wed to the machine, dreaming of a better way. The times were ripe for charismatic leaders.
Europe had theirs. Since the mid-1860s, John Ruskin(1819-1900) and William Morris (1834-1896) had been preaching anartistic brand of socialism. Moreover, Morris found a way tocapitalize on it, printing books, wallpaper and textiles at hisKelmscott Press.
Enter Elbert Hubbard (1853-1915), a successful soap salesman – some say a genius marketer – for the Larkin Soap Company.
Rich enough to follow his heart, Hubbard dropped out. He tried Harvard for a semester, but remained emotionally and intellectually unfulfilled. In 1895, he retired to East Aurora, N.Y., about 20 miles south of Buffalo, then one of the nation’s leading industrial centers, and bought a printing operation called Roycroft.
The Roycroft name has two meanings, according to Bill Menshon, facilities manager and acknowledged Roycroft expert at the Burchfield-Penny Art Center at Buffalo State College, the lending institution for the Hyde Collection show. “Roycroft is an old term that meant the quality of something was good enough for the king. It’s also a nod to the Roycroft brothers, who were Fifteenth or Sixteenth Century book makers in Europe,” he said.
After a trip to England to meet with Morris, Hubbard returned to East Aurora inspired. He began politicizing others through writings published in a monthly magazine called The Philistine. While it lasted 20 years, his greatest literary accomplishment came in 1899 when he penned and printed the motivationally charged essay, “Message to Garcia.” “Garcia” met with instant success and cast Hubbard into the public eye.
He soon became the most sought-after speaker in America, anenlightened man putting forth ideas on life, love and the workethic. His many mottos – among them, “Aim High and ConsiderYourself Capable of Great Things,” “Folks Who Never Do Any MoreThan They Get Paid For, Never Get Paid For Any More Than They Do”and “The Love you Liberate In Your Work Is The Only Love You Keep”- became tenets of a reform-hungry populace.
As people flocked to East Aurora for a chance to meet and work with Hubbard, he welcomed each and every one as a valued contributor, participants in the experimental work community he called Roycroft.
Menshon explained, “The Roycroft goal was to produce handcrafted items that would enhance the lives of ordinary people and, at the same time, provide decent employment for the craftsmen.”
Steeped in the belief that anyone could become an artisan, newcomers apprenticed under journeyman, acquired new skills and found their place in the making and marketing of Roycroft products. In addition to salary, the system gave back such perks as exercise breaks and lectures and concerts organized by Hubbard. By 1900, the Roycroft production crafts shops included the Roycroft Press, Bindery, Copper Shop, Leather Shop and Furniture Shop.
The way Hubbard spun it, “The place got too small when we began to bind books, so we built a wing on one side; then a wing on the other side. To keep the three carpenters busy who had been building the wings, I set them making furniture for the place. They made the furniture as good as they could – folks came along and bought it.”
Putting the PR in perspective, Menshon said, “Hubbard ran it like a commune, but it was always a for-profit commune.”
Hubbard’s business plan was not dissimilar from that of the Larkin Soap Company, a model he had helped build and knew well. He advertised aggressively, printed mail order catalogs, sent out “Dear Valued Customer” letters and upped the marketing stakes before opening or expanding any one of Roycroft’s craft production shops.
At Roycroft’s core was the Roycroft Press and Bindery. While it produced The Philistine for 20 years, as well as Little Journeys, a magazine dedicated to Hubbard’s fictionalized and fantastic meetings with history’s greatest men and women, the press also licensed and reprinted the works of known authors, including Robert Browning. (Browning later sued Hubbard for taking liberties with his text.)
Roycroft made the editions available in formats that wouldappeal to bibliophiles as well as ordinary Americans who, a fewyears before the Arts and Crafts movement opened them up toinformed opinion and information, probably had not given muchthought to such things. “Collectors could buy heavy covers andstandard paper, suede bindings, molded bindings with parchment orJapan vellum, hand illuminated,” Menshon said.
The illuminators tended to be women. Typically, they followed the designs of Dard Hunter, Roycroft’s head graphic designer, and then signed their own works.
Menshon elaborated, “There were also hand-signed, illuminated, numbered editions, generally signed by Elbert Hubbard. They might have sold for $10 or $25.” (As with celebrities today, some books that went out under Hubbard’s signature were inscribed by underlings copying his hand.) The books printed prior to 1905 tend to be the most desirable.
The Roycroft Press indeed played a role in making Americans more literate – or at least providing them with decorative books for the cabinets Roycroft sold. On November 7, 1907, the East Aurora Advertiser reported that the printing shop was mailing 2,500 packages a day.
As Hubbard’s star burned, the influx of settlers to East Aurora continued. By 1905, the community supported about 500 people, all of whom needed bungalows. Using local wood and materials, such as distinctively rounded “hard head” stones, workers put up new buildings and revamped old ones, creating a campuslike environment. Roycroft’s production shops supplied nearly all the accoutrements of living.
In the early days, from 1899 to 1902, the Blacksmith Shop produced functional but primitive wrought iron wares – andirons, lighting fixtures and furniture latches. In 1902, a proper Copper Shop was built and the “anvil chorus,” as Hubbard christened the smiths, began producing lamps, bowls, trays, candlesticks, bookends, desk items and smoking accessories.
These objects, while not precious in metal, are quite elegant. For the most part, they are uncomplicated, nicely finished, agreeable to hold and completely practical.
The Copper Shop attained the pinnacle of Arts and Crafts sophistication in 1905, when Dard Hunter took over its creative direction. Notably, as was the mind-set of the community, anyone excelling in one craft might as easily excel in another. Consequently, Karl Kipp, who had begun in the Bindery, became a principal metalware designer and craftsman.
“That’s when they started using the Viennese Secessionist motifs, square cutouts, positive and negative spaces,” Menshon stated. Geometric patterns and “lively” surfaces finely hammered became Roycroft hallmarks.
Through the years, Hubbard’s influence was keenly felt. Whennot on the road lecturing, he would fill the Roycroft Inn, whichopened in 1903, with invited intellectuals and politicians.Ultimately, the production shops all bowed to his keen eye andmarketing expertise in one way or another.
After Hubbard’s death aboard the Lusitania in 1915, the Copper Shop continued to innovate. Added to the traditional brass wash and Aurora brown finish were blue “Roycroft Bronze,” “Sheffield” silver plate, green “Italian polychrome” and “Antique Verde.” Some works by Kipp also incorporated embellishments of German silver. In the 1920s, copper designers collaborated on lamps and vases with Corning and Steuben.
One Hubbard motto declared, “Beautiful art is a collaboration.” Hence, many items went unsigned. However, certain well-known names came to be associated with the Copper Shop’s output. Among them are Walter U. Jennings, Ernest Fuchs and Victor Toothaker.
Economic decline eventually caught up with the Copper Shop. Kipp resigned in May 1929, after the staff had been cut in half by Bert Hubbard, Elbert’s son. A few months later, the stock market crashed. Metal arts production continued at a very reduced rate.
The Leather Shop grew out of the leather bindings factory in 1905 and operated until 1925. The 1919 Catalog of Copper, Leather and Books claimed that the Roycrofters had revived an old Spanish technique of molding leather. Pictured products, many with Art Nouveau motifs, included paneled screens, table clocks, place mats, picture frames, jewelry boxes, billfolds and handbags.
Considering that the Furniture Shop was ancillary, it is remarkable that it became the jewel in the Roycroft crown, producing a full line of furniture not only for the bungalows but also the Roycroft Inn and many upper-class homes.
Roycroft’s Mission-style furniture is perhaps one of the most authentic of American forms. In the straight lines, devoid of decoration except for the occasional bulbous feet or brass tack trim, one can see the philosophy that drove the Arts and Crafts movement. Quality is all about design, craftsmanship and the intrinsic beauty of the materials.
Although little has been recorded about Roycroft’s furnituredesigners, Hubbard did hire experienced cabinetmakers James Cadzowand Albert Danner, both of whom had trained in Germany. The chairs,tables, beds, desks and cabinets – of which more than 80 aredisplayed in the 1912 catalog Roycroft Handmade Furniture -are primarily of quarter-sawn oak, although rare examples of mapleand mahogany exist.
For the Roycrofters, the well-defined medullary ray flecks running perpendicular to the grain of the wood must have appeared as rays of sunshine. In this material, they found all the splendor they needed.
Carved into most wooden items is the Roycroft symbol, a double cross over an encircled “R,” adapted from an ancient colophon. Often the “orb” logo is front and center, giving the piece instant recognition.
So popular was the furniture that Edwin Wiley Grove, a patent medicine inventor turned hotelier, commissioned Roycroft to manufacture all the furniture and decorative objects for his Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C. Grove Park opened in 1913 and is still operational; it remains a Roycroft repository.
Around 1915, the Arts and Crafts style began to fall from favor. Roycroft, however, continued producing and selling its unique brands. As late as 1925, the East Aurora Advertiser stated that the Furniture Shop was producing 1,200 oak cases especially designed to hold 14 volumes of Little Journeys.
Time and the vagaries of taste moved on, but Roycroft continued until 1938. Shortly after, much of the Roycroft product line disappeared into closets and garages. Many exquisite pieces were not uncloseted until the 1970s, when yet another countercultural revolution created a renewed interest in the simplicity proffered by the American Arts and Crafts movement.
Today, the best of Roycroft can be viewed at the Hyde Collection, 161 Warren, Street, Glens Falls, NY 12801. “Live, Love, Work: The Roycroft Legacy” runs through April 2. For information, 518-792-1761 or firstname.lastname@example.org.