RIT’s artistic heritage and the Arts and Crafts Movement

By Becky Simmons

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Becky Simmons

RIT’s visual-art programs enjoy a long and distinguished history, starting with the first mechanical drawing class in 1885 at what was then called the Mechanics Institute. A few years later, at the turn of the 20th century, the Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute played an important role in an international art movement that had a strong presence in upstate New York.

Originating in England, the Arts and Crafts Movement reached the United States in the late 19th century. The movement had numerous complex origins and influences, but at the core it was a reaction to industrialization and the proliferation of low-quality manufactured goods. A handcrafted sensibility was emphasized, and functionality and simplicity of form, honest construction and integrity of materials were stressed. Simple ornament derived from nature was applied to all kinds of objects, resulting in a simple beauty. In addition, a populist sensibility sought to create quality goods that were affordable to the growing middle class.

The movement took hold in upstate New York. Gustav Stickley, the well-known furniture maker and publisher of The Craftsman magazine lived in Syracuse, and Elbert Hubbard, founder of the Roycroft community of artisans, wrote and worked from his workshops in East Aurora, near Buffalo. Rochester and the Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute were ideally located at the center of the Arts and Crafts movement in upstate New York and it is not surprising that the programs were influenced by these new ideas transforming art and design.

Contributing to the institute’s adoption of the aesthetic and social principles of the movement was Theodore Hanford Pond, a designer and graduate of Pratt Institute in New York. Pond was hired in 1902 to develop the department of decorative arts and crafts. He arrived at the institute with extensive experience; he had worked at Tiffany’s in New York before he opened his own successful wallpaper and textile design studio. Under his direction, the art department evolved into the Department of Applied and Fine Arts, providing more than ten programs of instruction.

Classes were offered to train students for work in art industries, such as wallpaper and textile printing, carpet weaving, metalworking, furniture building, stained glass, architectural decoration, book design, pottery and embroidery. Students followed a three-year course of instruction. The first year included basic classes in drawing, color and modeling, principles of design and composition. Students also gained a working knowledge of accepted forms of ornament and styles of design. The second year focused on learning about processes and methods of manufacture, and applying the theories and principles learned to the actual design of wallpaper, textiles, stained glass, interior decoration, furniture design and ceramics. In the third year, the student chose a specialty and focused all efforts on learning his or her craft.

Innovative curriculum went beyond basic classroom exercises and teaching of aesthetic principles. The Arts and Crafts movement emphasized a harmonious home environment to foster physical and mental well-being. As an alternative way of presenting student works at the end of the year, the gallery space at the Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute was remodeled into rooms furnished by the works of students. The various craft forms—furniture, metalwork, textiles—were displayed together as a coherent whole, providing students an opportunity to work as a group on a common project.

The following quote from a 1903 catalog demonstrates how the philosophy of the school echoed much of the teachings of the Arts and Crafts movement:

The aim of this course is to afford students a thorough training in the history and principles of decorative art and especially in the practical application of the knowledge thus obtained to every form of art handicraft or process of mechanical reproduction. In other words, the application of an around training of the eye and hand to the beautifying of things of common use and daily need to the exigencies of machine as well as hand reproduction.

The RIT community should be proud of the school’s role in spreading the tenets of this major art movement. Although a hundred years ago, this early manifestation of the school’s drive to embrace new ideas has contributed to RIT’s reputation for excellence in art education that continues to this day.

Staff of RIT Archive Collections created an exhibit of archival documents, photographs and artwork from this era. Anyone can view the display in the Wallace Center’s Gallery for RIT History and Art, located on first floor across from the circulation desk through the end of the quarter.

Becky Simmons is the RIT archivist. “Viewpoints” presents insight and opinions on issues of relevance to RIT or higher education generally. To suggest a topic for a future essay, contact news&events@mail.rit.edu.