Why the Arts-and-Crafts Movement Moves Me

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Kelmscott Manor, summer home of WIlliam Morris

Finding beauty in the everyday objects that comprise the material necessities of our lives, is in essence the key to understanding the allure of the Arts-and-Crafts Movement.

Begun in the salons of the elites who could afford such privileges, to build a world of handcrafted objects, including gardens, where form and function was celebrated, the movement sprung from a serious response to the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution. The American Arts-and-Crafts Movement expressed this concern in a decidedly a more democratic movement, producing the great bungalow design aesthetic. Regardless, the central element remains a devotion to living a life in beauty and functionality, issues that remain important today.

In my opinion the current environmental movement, as a response to our damaged physical and social ecology, traces back to an earlier expression in the Arts-and-Crafts Movement. Since the first Earth Day in 1970, concern for the environment has gone from a minority opinion to the mainstream. As events unfold, from super storms becoming the norm to cancer ruling our health, Care for the Earth (a primary Permaculture ethic) is on many peoples’ minds today. But even before the long-term consequences of the Industrial Revolution became critical, certain elites were responding to negative unintended consequences. Not everyone was thrilled by the changes in England, where as early as the 1870’s, there was a movement to reject the direction society was taking, including William Morris, an artist & socialist, who advocated for an alternative.

The beauty of everyday objects became the hallmark of the Arts-and-Crafts Movement, drawing intellectual guidance of thinkers like John Ruskin (1819-1900), especially in works like The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (1851-1853).

Into this milieu emerged Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944), the talented architect and his cohort, Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1943), plantswoman extraordinaire. Perhaps single handedly their collaboration produced more of the most influential homes and gardens in England. Their work has stood the test of time, the logical culmination of a design tradition begun in the villas of Renaissance Italy, expanded in the chateaus of Louis’ France, and finally imported to England at the height of the Georgian Empire. Jekyll’s books continue to influence garden designers incredibly.

The use of stone & brick to create paths, stairs, and walls, along with the use of hedges to define garden rooms, which were then planted with the exuberant growth of perennials and shrubs, are characteristics of the Lutyens-Jekyll gardens.  The combination of geometry to bring order to the plan and the wildness of the plantings makes these gardens work.  It also allows Nature into the scheme, something often missing in the garden styles that proceeded them.

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In studio @ Lawrence Hall, 1985

While I was taking design studio with Professor Ron Lovinger at the University of Oregon, he directed me to go to the library and look up the gardens of Gertrude Jekyll and Sir Edwin Lutyens. I dutifully followed his advice and I am so thankful. In their work I discovered the beauty of the geometrical layout of the garden, and the exuberant planting with an eye for color, texture and wild abandon. The framework of architecture provided license for plants to be allowed to grow naturally, without artifice or contrivance by the gardener. The attention to construction details further enriched the overall effect. My final project in school was a set of drawings detailing the construction of the garden dedicated to the memory of my father, who had passed during my final year at Oregon.

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Site survey w/ Cherry blossom, 1988

The visioning process of the garden began with a survey, to determine what was possible. The site was very gently sloping and the primary intention was to emphasize the sequence of terraced places that were connected by transitional spaces of staircases. This was an important concept in my understanding of landscapes, informing my sense that garden design is akin to choreography in shaping how we move through space. The Arts-and-Crafts gardens demonstrated this key element in their designs and focused major efforts to create garden rooms and pathway connections.

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Prior to pouring concrete, 1988

The garden I designed was certainly an homage to the style of the Arts-and-Crafts Movement, with plans for brick raised beds and terrace walls, wooden structures, and settings for future plant acquisitions. Even in the earliest phase of construction you can see the emerging geometry of the plan.  You can see the round pond and the future walls of the planting beds around the brick patio and the sunken bog garden, designed to address rainwater infiltration into the groundwater. As early as 1988, I was thinking about ecological systems, which was certainly due to my environmental studies at The Evergreen State College (1972-75).

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The newly completed garden, 1989

After a long summer building brick walls, a skill learned entirely by the seat of my pants, we had a celebratory party, dedicating the garden to the memory of my father, who had passed away in October of 1987. Several friends and family dedicated plants, some remain while others have gone the way of all things. That’s one of the aspects of garden design I enjoy most: the ephemeral nature of nature.  Even as simple an event as the changing season can bring greater appreciation of the garden.  However, change can be difficult, especially when loved plants are lost.  I like to view it as an opportunity to try something new.

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Newly planted garden, c. 1990

Design Vision begins to take shape as plants mature, but it also changes as continual editing. It makes me wonder what earlier designers had in mind for how their creations. Did Jekyll or Lutyens envision the future that has come to pass? So much of the finished product is out of our control, with the living garden subject to a vast set of impacts. Winter snows have decimated plantings, lawns became passe, plants have grown and changed full-sun plantings to mostly shade, just some of the many changes we have to expect in the successional development of the ecological garden.  Some plants grew too well and had to be removed, like the “dwarf” Douglas-fir in the lower right corner of this photograph. The learning curve in the education of a gardener, a phrase coined by Christopher Lloyd while gardening at Great Dixter, often leads directing to the compost heap. But that’s part of what makes the creation of a garden such a rewarding experience.

In the end, what matters? Is there only the ravages of our daily existence upon this island, this planet hurling through space to some unknowable destination, from where we know not? I can’t explain it, and I can’t contain my interest in learning, observing, and celebrating the beauty that abounds. Transforming my vision into the real stuff of our lives is why I am drawn to designing gardens, and to that end the Arts-and-Crafts Movement is a monumental pillar.

Celebrating 4th of July in the garden

Celebrating 4th of July in the garden

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