Frank Lloyd Wright on Machine Production and William Morris’ Legacy.


William Morris was the leader of the arts + crafts movement that emerged in the late 1900's. The movement valued individual and well-done craftsmanship as a response to increasing industrialization. Later, it would indirectly influence the development of the Bauhaus in Germany by way of Herman Muthesius, the German cultural attaché living in England at the time of the arts + crafts movement. Here we discuss Frank Lloyd Wright's take on Machine Production (who supported machine production) and William Morris' Legacy (who opposed machine production).

Frank Lloyd Wright is not in opposition to the Machine and its production. In fact, he is incredibly boosterist towards it. His argument is clear and plain, “that in the Machine lies the only future of art and craft.”§ For Wright, the Machine is always subservient, controlled by people, and an assisting mechanism; as opposed to a dominant force that propels the sociocultural fabric of the day.

His understanding of the Machine opposes Morris’ categorization of it as a “damnation of [their] art and craft” or “a terrible engine of enslavement,” but rather “a universal educator” and something that carries within it “the power to destroy, the greed” in Morris’ time.§ Not only does the Machine carry that power, but it is also an emancipatory process. Now, Wright claims, the artist is free once he opens his mind to the possibilities granted by the Machine.§

The basic craft work so valued by Morris to Wright is a drudgery who believes it is a sentimental value that attaches Morris to his insistence of ‘early craft’ as it has “no longer decent significance nor commercial integrity.”§  

Interestingly, Wright mentions commercial integrity here, in a piece nearly 15 years after the Home Insurance building by W.L.Baron Jenney - the first steel frame building, and 8 years after the Colombian World Fair. But before the writing of Georg Simmel’s 1903 “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” where he introduces the idea of constrictive freedom actualized by the emergence of the money-economy. 

I am inclined to attribute an accelerated entry of commercialism into Chicago’s collective consciousness through Daniel Burnham and his partner John Root. Fueled by an ambition to become the greatest architects in the world, in favor with a great number of men, and having solved the problem of height and Chicago’s soil, they promised and delivered the desires of the time: building height and profit, which translated into both a consumerist and commercial emancipation. Where did craft take place in the new, efficient, ‘commercial integrity?’ Seemingly nowhere, at first glance.

This glimmering commercialism eases Wright’s implicit separation of ‘functional objects’ and ‘art objects’, even if belatedly, with the latter finding a more welcoming home in Wright’s own buildings and home. Functionality and generic-ness became an expectation with the Machine; a uniformity was required and any defectiveness was seen as problematic. (Despite the success of the Japanese exhibit at the World Fair in 1893, it seemed the principles of wabi-sabi hadn’t carried over). Truly, why would one bother handcrafting a generic kitchen chair if it is was only meant to be a cheap, generic kitchen chair to begin with? If the Machine was able to produce a chair, with no difference in quality, in half the time, then it was logical to let it do so, and thus free the craftsman do other creative and meaningful things.

The latter point also implicitly addresses another ‘Morris contradiction’. Wright claims that the Machine actually helped Morris build his business in the crafts he wished to pursue and despite his miscalculation of the relevance of the Machine, “[h]e did sublime work for it (...) when he fought the innate vulgarity of theocratic impulse in art as opposed to democratic.”§ Morris was aware of the nuances and the “danger to art,” however, he also “plainly foresaw that a blank in fine art would follow the inevitable abuse of new-found power.”§ Who filled such a gap in this fine art? Morris, who “threw himself body and' soul into the work” to bring a fresh breath to the “beauty of art as she had been. ” § 

Thus, Morris’ legacy, despite his resistance to the Machine, by Wright’s account, “did the best in his time for art, and will live in history as the great socialist.” § 

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