Truth and Beauty

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Robins of Modern Times, ca. 1860.

Get thee to the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco before the end of the month to see a spectacular show, Truth and Beauty: the Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters. The show combines works by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood alongside the medieval and Renaissance paintings and manuscripts that inspired their work.

It’s easy to forget the context of the PRB’s work: an England decimated by industrialization, coal dust and income disparity. Rather than simply looking backwards, the PRB visualized a better future, one of meaningful work, of environmental stewardship and beauty.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, 1871/1872.

The vivid colors of the PRB’s work can’t be translated to books or the web–you have to see them in person. Gardeners will love the botanical accuracy. In fact, the PRB’s paintings almost seem like they’re about to be taken over by the vines, flowers and grasses that tangle around the central figures.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what we can learn from the PRB and from the English and American Arts and Crafts movements. To be frank, I’m tired of my own and my generation’s cynicism and irony and I’m haunted by Adam Curtis’ critique of self-expression in contemporary art. I think it’s well past time to get back on the the road not taken, the one started for us by the PRB.

Maplewoodshop: Saving Shop Class

In U.S. schools shop class has been sacrificed to the Moloch of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Ninety percent of shop classes have been eliminated with the exception of a few robotics programs. The result, ironically, is STEM graduates so out of touch with the physical world that they design things impossible to build.

Image: Maplewoodworking

Maplewoodshop seeks to reverse this trend with an innovative woodworking program that trains teachers to integrate hand tool woodworking into their lessons plans. Teachers who graduate from Maplewoodshop’s training get a rolling box containing all the tools they need to teach woodworking classes in any room. Maplewoodshop is a great example of not letting perfection be the enemy of the good: we’re not going to get shop classes back any time soon but that doesn’t mean that we can’t do something.

You can listen to an interview with Mike Schloff, founder of MapleWoodShop here.

A Brief History of Secret Drawers

In 1642 a young couple,┬áRobert and Susannah Jones, bought a large used chest. The couple lived with the chest for 20 years until, one day, they decided to move it. They heard a rattling inside and did some investigating, discovering a secret drawer. Out spilled a olive-wood rosary and huge amount of papers with mysterious writing and symbols. At some point their maid used around half of the papers to bake some pies before the couple decided to put the papers back in the chest. Some years later when the great fire of London broke out Susannah, now a widow, had the sense to take the papers with her. It turned out that those papers were John Dee’s account of his conferences with angels.

Secret compartments like this used to be a common feature of furniture up through the Victorian period. I’m guessing today’s paranoid tech CEOs probably have a few secret compartments in their modernist survival bunkers.

A desk, built for King Frederick William II by the Roentgen brothers takes the secret drawer idea to its zenith. This thing has secret drawers within secret drawers within secret drawers, all propelled by a complex mechanical system:

For a more recent expression of the secret drawer trope see this impressive desk by furniture maker Lonnie Bird:

The problem, both in the past and now, is that a decent burglar probably knows where your “hidden” compartments are located.

John Ruskin On Perfection and the Nature of the Gothic

In a one of his attempts to hold back the tides of the great industrial crappening, William Morris published a beautiful edition of an excerpt from John Ruskin’s sprawling tome, The Stones of Venice. You can read and download Morris’ Kelmscott Press edition, The Nature of the Gothic, via Archive.org.

I thought Root Simple readers would appreciate this excerpt:

But, accurately speaking, no good work whatever can perfect, and THE DEMAND FOR PERFECTION IS ALWAYS A SIGN OF A MISUNDERSTANDING OF THE ENDS OF ART.

This is for two reasons, both based on everlasting laws. The first, that no great man ever stops working till he has reached his point of failure: that is to say, his mind is always far in advance of his powers of execution, and the latter will now and then give way in trying to follow it; besides that he will always give to the inferior portions of his work only such inferior attention as they require; and according to his greatness he becomes so accustomed to the feeling of dissatisfaction with the best he can do, that in moments of lassitude or anger with himself he will not care though the beholder be dissatisfied also. I believe there has only been one man who would not acknowledge this necessity, and strove always to reach perfection, Leonardo; the end of his vain effort being merely that he would take ten years to a picture and leave it unfinished. And therefore, if we are to have great men working at all, or less men doing their best, the work will be imperfect, however beautiful. Of human work none but what is bad can be perfect, in its own bad way.

The second reason is, that imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we know of life. It is the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of progress & change. Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent. The foxglove blossom, a third part bud, a third part past; a third part in full bloom, is a type of the life of this world. And in all things that live there are certain irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty. No human face is exactly the same in its lines on each side, no leaf perfect in its lobes, no branch in its symmetry. All admit irregularity as they imply change; and to banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality. All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be Effort, and the law of human judgment, Mercy. Accept this then for a universal law, that neither architecture nor any other noble work of man can be good unless it be imperfect; & let us be prepared for the otherwise strange fact, which we shall discern clearly as we approach the period of the Renaissance, that the first cause of the fall of the arts of Europe was a relentless requirement of perfection, incapable alike either of being silenced by veneration for greatness, or softened into forgiveness of simplicity.

Irving Gill: the Greatest Architect You’ve Never Heard Of

Last week I met up with a friend in San Diego, where I lived for ten years in the 1990s. I took a long walk between downtown and the neighborhood where Kelly and I shared an apartment, Hillcrest (home, incidentally, of the world’s greatest dive bar, Nunu’s). Along the way I kept spotting houses and apartments designed by the less-famous-than he-should-be early 20th century architect Irving Gill.

In the first decade of the 20th century, Gustav Stickley promoted Gill in the pages of the Craftsman Magazine. But many of Gill’s buildings fell prey to the rapacious and indiscriminate mid-twentieth century wrecking ball and he fell into obscurity.

He’s often thought of as a kind of proto-modernist but I’m not so sure. His buildings also have a neo-primitive quality, like a mashup of adobe missions, vernacular Greek architecture and a de Chirico painting. More than any other architect I know he understood the Mediterranean climate of Southern California and designed buildings appropriate to the climate.

I don’t know why we don’t have more courtyards like this one designed by Gill.

He pioneered concrete tilt-up construction and was a master of the multi-unit bungalow court.

Most of all I think he understood form and proportion. That’s how you can spot his elegant buildings.

If one were to write the Southern California version of William Morris’ News From Nowhere, I think our local road not taken utopia would have been built by Gill.