"Better living through art" went the rallying cry of the Arts and Crafts Movement in turn-of-the-century England and the United States. The Industrial Age had arrived, and the craftsman, once a free agent with taste and skill, had been reduced to a "machine without will."
Quality and individuality had vanished from the work process. Adherents of the Arts and Crafts Movement lamented the change, mingling morals with aesthetics in their campaign to revive the value of hand-crafted products.
"I am not pleading for the production of a little more beauty in the world," William Morris, artist and leader of the British Arts and Crafts Movement, told an audience in 1901. "It is the lives of human beings that I am pleading for . . . the reasons for living."
A home furnished with objects of beauty, hand-tooled with pride, answered human needs, Morris and others reasoned.
Eugene Freeland, a Rancho Santa Fe resident, couldn't agree more. His collection of lamps, vases, dishes and other domestic accessories fashioned of glass during the Arts and Crafts era makes up part of the current exhibition, "Tiffany, Steuben, Music Boxes, Circa 1900," presented by the Felicita Foundation for the Arts at the Mathes Cultural Center in Escondido (247 S. Kalmia).
"These are practical pieces, and are used on a daily basis," Freeland said. "But, when you look at them, you'll smile. Your breath will be taken away."
The "vibrant joy of living" Freeland experiences when surrounded by his collection is exactly what proponents of the Arts and Crafts Movement had in mind when they urged a merging of the fine and functional arts. From furniture, rugs, lighting fixtures, vases and bowls to the houses containing them, products of the Arts and Crafts Movement elevated practical objects to the level of art and, at the same time, brought art down to an accessible, human scale.
The stark installation of the current show does little to evoke the objects' intended domestic setting, but the work dazzles in any context. Vases, bowls and candlestick holders by both Steuben Glass Works and Tiffany Studios tend toward opulent textures and simple forms. Steuben's "Futuristic" candlestick holders, for instance, are of a basic, elegant design; their iridescent blue sheen, however, lifts them into the realm of the sublime.
Lamps designed by Lewis Comfort Tiffany adopt organic motifs. Both shade and sinuous, vine-draped base assume a plant-like fluidity and grace in the "Pansy Lamp," while the "Three Light Lily Lamps" suggest the limpid beauty of drooping, downward-turned blossoms.
Nature inspired the artisans of the Arts and Crafts Movement on both sides of the Atlantic.
"All most lovely forms and thoughts are directly taken from natural objects," wrote John Ruskin, British champion of the movement. Later in the same essay, he asked, "Must not beauty, then, be sought for in the form which we associate with our everyday life?"
The stylized curves of European Art Nouveau designs and Oriental art's abstraction of organic forms were also highly influential on turn-of-the-century arts and crafts. Freeland's collection of art glass evolved, somewhat haphazardly, as he tells it, from his initial interest in Oriental art. Intrigued by the cloisonne and china his mother had purchased on a far eastern trip in her youth, he began to acquire related works of his own in the 1960s. When he ran out of room on the floor and walls, he turned to glass, starting his collection with a small, gold-lustered Steuben dish.
The late John D. Lyon of Los Angeles began purchasing music boxes as early as 1953, but stopped only 10 years later because of their dramatic increase in price. His collection now resides with his brother in Escondido.
As docents wind and operate the eight cylinder music boxes here, dating roughly from 1850 to 1890, rich, harmonic sound fills the spare gallery space. Most of these early home entertainment systems are large, and encased in decorative, inlaid wood boxes, but one can be held in the palm of the hand.
The "Oval Clock Enameled Porcelain Silver Gilt Bird Box" opens with the slide of a small lever, revealing a miniature bird whose moving beak emits a convincing, melodic song. Names of several other boxes, such as the "Ideal Sublime Harmonie Piccolo," prove as amusing as the instruments themselves.
IF YOU GO:
What: "Tiffany, Steuben, Music Boxes, Circa 1900"
Dates: Through July 28
Times: 10-4, Monday through Saturday.
Where: Felicita Foundation for the Arts
Mathes Cultural Center
247 S. Kalmia St.