It is difficult for anyone now alive to appreciate the radical changes that the Industrial Revolution brought to humanity. We imagine that we know what it was like before this shift in economics, in culture, in society: We think of farmers tilling fields and of their children piling hay into stacks for winter forage, or of trappers setting their snares for the soft-pelted animals of the forests, or of fishers casting their hand-woven and hand-knotted nets into the seas from the hand-sewn decks of ships. We imagine the hard physical work that nearly every person in society once had to do in the era before machines substituted their labor for ours -- and this exchange of human (and animal) labor for machine-driven labor is indeed one of the key elements of the Industrial Revolution. But it is only one of the key elements. For with the shift to machines came important shifts not only in the amount of work that each person had to do but in other aspects of society as well. Living as we all do in a world in which nearly everything is mass produced and so nearly everything that we come into contact with on any given day -- from the clothes that we wear to the plates that we eat off to the prints on the walls of doctors' offices -- is a copy of something else.
This was not always the case: Two hundred years ago very few things were copies of each other. Certainly there were printing and reproductive technologies that allowed lithographs and books to be reproduced by the scores and even hundreds and thousands (in the case of books and newspapers), but nearly everything else was unique. The aesthetic qualities of each object in a person's world were individual: They applied only to the object and to nothing else. People were surrounded by objects that differed from each other and these differences -- these degrees of better and worse -- marked each dress, each pair of shows, each bowl, each candle, each painting as being the work of an individual who was skilled in some things and not in others. The metaphorical fingerprints of the person who created each object were "written" on that object.
But when machines began to make objects all such variations were diminished if not absolutely eliminated. One place-setting of Fiesta ware -- now newly popular again -- is almost precisely like the next -- or like the same place-settings produced three generations ago. Many people were drawn to this precision afforded by machine-turned parts and machine-produced goods: It was pleasing to set a table at which all of the plates matched. It was convenient to be able to buy a dress in a particular size and to know that it would fit. It was gratifying to be able to purchase a chair and know that the artisanship in it would meet a certain standard. And not only were there aesthetic attractions in each one of the newly standardized and suddenly uniform objects but there was on top of this the relief of not having had to slave over these objects to make them. Beauty without the accompanying toil.
And yet, this was in fact not quite the case, of course, for while machines, when guided by skilled human hands, are in fact capable of creating many fine things, much of what is produced by machines is in fact of far less fine quality than that which humans working with hand-tools can create. And even when it is of fine quality, there is still that problem of uniformity. Even within the first decades after the Industrial Revolution, many people began already to weary of objects that were all the same and began to long for the time when an artisan's specific skills were imprinted on each work.
This rebellion against the uniformity of machine-crafted items (and so perforce to some extent against the labor-saving elements of machine work) was seen in such aesthetic, philosophical and cultural movements as the Arts & Crafts Movement. However, as the following citation suggests, once people had entered the machine age there was no real possibility of going back.
William Morris, one of the most inventive geniuses in modern history, soon became the driving force behind the Arts & Crafts movement. A Socialist in his politics, he sincerely believed that society needed to return to pre-Industrial Revolution times and that handcrafted objects for daily living could not only restore beauty to functional items, but be affordable to the masses. ... His efforts and those of his circle encompassed everything from bookbinding to wallpaper. Their influence spread to architecture, fabric, furniture and pottery. Their results were stunning, and captivated both European and American buyers ....Unfortunately, making these things by hand caused them to be far too expensive for the lower classes to purchase. The market consisted of the wealthy - and, of course, machinery became necessary to keep up with the demand.
As the Movement spread to the United States, fewer artists and designers disdained machinery, but seemed rather to embrace the best qualities of manufacturing. Thus true democratization of the product returned to the Movement. By utilizing mass production, for example, almost everyone could afford Stickley furniture. Arts & Crafts-style bungalows could be ordered from the Sears catalog.
While the artisans and philosophers of the Arts and Crafts Movement created many spectacularly beautiful things, they neglected to consider sufficiently the fact that while the most beautiful things that have been created by people have been made through handwork, the labor involved when machines are eschewed (or before they were invented) ensures that such hand-crafted items simply cannot be afforded by most people.
By the end of World War I the Arts and Crafts Movement was in decline, supplanted by both the aesthetics of Modernism and by the growing desire of the middle classes and even the working classes for affordable consumer goods. The end of the Arts and Crafts Movement can be seen in many ways as one of the final volleys of the Industrial Revolution: It was the last sustained and coordinated effort made against the ascendancy of the machine age and the aesthetics that came with it. When the quarter-sewn oak and locally quarried rock of Arts and Crafts houses were replaced by the painted and lacquered aesthetic of Art Deco -- and as Frank Lloyd Wright helped to transform the structural and design elements of Arts and Crafts structures into their sleek and slick mid-century versions, Modernism would become the signature of the Machine Age aesthetic in the 20th century.
Modernism Arises from the Machine
Modernism is a complex amalgam of ideas and aesthetics, and while the term is applied across the spectrum of creative products -- including literature, painting, music, architecture and sculpture -- it came to mean different things for these different media. Overall there were links among these various forms of Modernism: Whether on the written page or on the potter's wheel, the Modernist creator celebrated the new as well as the abstract, seeking to create a type of work as well as a relationship with the audience that was entirely distinct from traditional aesthetics and artworld social relations. It was a brave new world for the designer and the creator, both in the way that art looked and in the way it was consumed. The audience for art (and design) ceased to be the wealthy, aristocratic patron and became the ordinary person -- who could afford the kind of art and decorated object that was produced with the help of the machine.
The machine aesthetic was assumed by all sorts of objects. Shiny metals, molded plastics, and mirrored glass became important decorative devices. The design of cabinets and tea services resembled skyscrapers. Originally housed in enormous wood cabinets, radios became increasingly smaller and packaged in synthetic materials. The look of the machine was not universally celebrated, yet it was widespread nonetheless.
At the onset of the Depression, patronage of the arts, once the realm of the church and the private collector, shifted to business. Industry drove design and the machine aesthetic was pushed into the average citizen's home through a wide range of consumer items. As economic hardship impacted the country, traditional luxury items were unfeasible. Yet, mass-produced replicas of such items were affordable. As the machine aesthetic became more acceptable, such designs became more common. By 1934, as witnessed at Chicago's Century of Progress Exposition, "the emphasis was on consumerism and labor-saving machines. In effect, the debate over modernism -- its existence, its appropriateness for America, and the merits of its aesthetic qualities -- became secondary to the need for economic recovery .... It was a modernism derived from Bauhaus functionalism, as opposed to the decorative French moderne style so popular in the preceding years. Functionalism -- the opinion that an object's form and appearance should be determined by its purposes -- was driving American design by the…