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Historical Background

The midcentury modernism aesthetic. emerged in the 1950s The phrase “midcentury modernism” references both a time period and an aesthetic position.

Using broad strokes, the modernism aesthetic emphasizes largely unadorned, frequently geometric and abstracted forms with either bold or subdued colors. Modernism applies to a number of craft media including ceramics as well as wood, metals and textiles. Within the pottery medium, master ceramicists include Peter Voulkos, Otto Natzler and Frans Wildenhain.

Midcentury modernism was an evolutionary outgrowth of the Arts and Crafts Movement, circa 1900-1920. Again, using broad strokes, Arts and Crafts proponents rejected the machine since it distanced the craftsman from his work; modernists embraced the machine, knowing it was they who manipulated it.

At the beginning of the 20th century, then named the Mechanics Institute, RIT played a significant role in the Arts and Crafts Movement.

In 1902 the Department of Decorative Arts and Crafts was established at Mechanics Institute under the leadership of Theodore Hanford Pond. An "Exhibition of Art Craftsmanship", featuring the work of Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman Workshops, was presented in the Mechanics Institute’s Eastman Building, 15-25 April 1903.

Pottery instruction and courses, then sometimes also referred to as “clay working” or “clay modeling,” was a vital part of the Mechanics Institute’s curriculum at the turn of the century. In 1908 Frederick E. Walrath, once a student of Charles Fergus Binns at the New York School of Clay-Working and Ceramics at Alfred (NY), was hired by Pond and began teaching ceramics at the Mechanics Institute.

Walrath migrated to Rochester from Boston where he had worked for Grueby Pottery, one of the foremost Arts and Crafts ceramics firms. Walrath stayed at Mechanics Institute until 1918 when he accepted a position as ceramicist at Newcomb (Pottery) College in New Orleans.

Post-World War II interest in crafts and craftsmanship manifested itself in numerous ways. Among the most significant was at the university and in the retail marketplace.

Beginning precisely at midcentury in 1950, the School for American Craftsmen at RIT offered instruction in the skills, aesthetics and, significantly, the marketing of handmade crafts, including ceramics, positioning itself as one of the nation’s centers for midcentury modern design.