Article by Chloë Catán

Craft, Space and Interior Design, 1855-2005
Eds. Sandra Alfoldy and Janice Helland
Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-7546-5706-4 US $99.95

he collected essays in Craft, Space and Interior Design, 1855-2005 make a pioneering contribution to the field of “crafted space,” a term used to define the symbiotic relationship between architectural space and the objects that animate it. The essays, written by scholars from Canada and the United Kingdom, are presented as case studies that explore this alliance throughout diverging eras and styles – Victorian, Modern and contemporary – selected from geographically diverse locations in the UK, the United States and Canada. An introductory essay by Sandra Alfoldy (Associate Professor of Craft History at NSCAD University, Halifax) and Janice Helland (Professor of Art History and Women’s Studies at Queen’s University, Kingston) presents a unifying thesis which links the heterogeneous subject matter: as architecture houses objects, so objects give meaning to architecture.

Chapter one shows how the exotic aesthetic of a Victorian bathhouse in London determined its social rituals, another that the decorative mosaics and stonework of Belfast Cathedral encoded political statements, while at the same time suppressing the women who made them. Case studies of modernist interiors, such as the collaborative family design of Saarinen House in Detroit or Frank Joseph’s patterned “Scandinavian modern” interiors of the 1920s, both debunk the myth that all modernists rejected craft and ornament.

Particularly illuminating are the stories of women
who built successful careers around their personal ideology
on the crafting of space. A chapter on Margaret
Macdonald’s gesso panels for “artistic” turn-of-the-century
tearooms in Glasgow argues they were much more
than complementary decoration, but were conceived in
professional collaboration with her husband Charles Rennie
Mackintosh as a part of a carefully constructed environment.
Another chapter illustrates the role of Elsie
de Wolfe, the American self-made actress turned interior
decorator, as an early twentieth century pioneer in marketing,
targeting female consumers with her ingenious
brand of attainable good taste, and fuelling the social
aspirations of both the prominent nouveau riche and
the ordinary American housewife. A study of modernist
American architect Catherine Bauer shows how she
designed against the prevailing functionalist current by
creating “humane” social housing designed around the
needs of its inhabitants rather than the utopian theories
of architectural egos that disregarded “most emotional
and cultural values entirely”. The chapter on Anita Aaron’s
1967 exhibition Crafts for Architecture at the University
of Toronto’s School of Architecture examines the
seed that was planted for the continuation of work and
research in this field.

In terms of scholarly discourse, the book argues for
shifting the hierarchy of art forms so that crafts and decorative
art are placed on the same footing as architecture
and other fine arts. For the non-academic reader the texts
may prove a little dense, but the collection as a whole
prompts questions underlying everyday choices about
decoration in domestic and public, or even commercial
spheres. It may remind architects to think about what a
space will be housing, or interior designers to consider a
client’s personal history. It may even make the average
homeowner pause before replacing personalized objects
with the latest stainless steel appliances or electronics,
thus making the latter the decorative focal point rather
than a useful compliment to their homes. Whether intended
or not, the making and placing of things in the
spaces we occupy is always an affirmation of identity.