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Arts & Crafts:
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by Arnold Schwartzman

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LATEST FEATURE____________________________________

The Story of a Modern Medieval-Style Guild
by Bob Brooke


The Arts& Crafts Movement spawned a variety of businesses, from small cottage industries to mass-production factories, to artist communities. Roycroft, a reformist community of craftspeople and artists, was probably the most ambitious of these endeavors.

Elbert Hubbard founded the community in 1895, in the village of East Aurora, New York, near Buffalo. Participants became known as Roycrofters. The work and philosophy of the group, often referred to as the Roycroft Movement, had a strong influence on the development of American architecture and design in the early 20th century.

Hubbard had been a very successful soap salesman for J. D. Larkin and Co. in Buffalo, but wasn't satisfied with his life. So in 1892, he sold his interests in the company and briefly enrolled at Harvard. Disenchanted, he quickly dropped out and set off on a walking tour of England. He briefly met William Morris and became fascinated with Morris' Arts & Crafts Kelmscott Press.

Hubbard chose the name "Roycroft" after the printers, Samuel and Thomas Roycroft, who produced books in London from about 1650 to 1690. The word “roycroft” had a special significance to Hubbard who believed "roycroft" meant "king's craft" in French. In guilds of early modern Europe, king's craftsmen were guild members who had achieved a high degree of skill. Hubbard borrowed the Roycroft insignia from the monk Cassiodorus, a 13th-century bookbinder and illuminator.

The mark was commonly referred to as the Roycroft orb or simply “the Orb.” The basic shape, minus the inserted "R," was a medieval colophon with which monks ended their manuscripts in order to signify they had done the work to the best of their ability. Hubbard used the mark with an inserted "R" to signify Roycroft, as both a shop mark and as part of the general medieval craftsman ambiance he was trying to achieve.

William Morris’s ideas influenced Hubbard while on a visit to England. He was unable to find a publisher for his book Little Journeys, so, inspired by Morris's Kelmscott Press, decided to set up his own private press to print the book himself, founding Roycroft Press.

Over 500 craftspeople came to work in East Aurora, forming a community of printers, furniture makers, metalsmiths, leathersmiths, and bookbinders. Soon the Roycroft Campus became a center for furniture makers, metalsmiths, leathersmiths and other craftspeople who came to East Aurora to join in the Movement. The woodwork shop began to produce souvenirs, ashtrays, and candlesticks and sold them through mail order catalogues.

By the early 1910’s, the Roycroft “brand” had expanded beyond publishing and furniture making to include everything from lighting and stained glass to pottery and jewelry. Prominent Arts & Crafts artists like Dard Hunter and Karl Kipp were among the bigger names to emerge out of the Roycroft community

Roycroft’s cabinetmakers made high-quality oak, ash, and mahogany furniture. The designs were rectilinear, with bold proportions and used prominent pins, pegs, ad mortise, and tenon joints with a warm, nut-brown finish. Legs were usually tapered and sides canted—bun feet are a frequent and stylized flowers were sometimes used—or handwrought copper or iron hardware. Motifs inspired b the Wiener Werkstatte were used following a visit to Vienna by Roycroft designer Dard Hunter in1908.

Besides furniture, the Roycrofters brought Arts and Crafts metalware to a mass audience. Hubbard used the marketing techniques he had used to sell Larkin soap to help make the Roycrofters a thriving commercial enterprise. Hubbard opened the Copper Shop in 1903 and began producing a variety of items, including vases, candlesticks, trays, and light fittings affordable to everyone. Those who made the pilgrimage to the Roycroft Community, which had become a popular tourist attraction, could purchase a small copper item as a memento. Those who couldn’t make the trip could purchase these items from the mail order catalogues, which made the Roycroft handicrafts available nationwide.

The Viennese and Glasgow Style influences appeared in the nickel silver bands pierced with squares which brought simple geometric decoration to the copper wares. A hammer-marked surface, enhanced by the reddish-brown patina and the obvious use of rivets, also characterized the Roycroft pieces.

In 1915 Hubbard and his wife, noted suffragist Alice Moore Hubbard, died when a German submarine sunk the RMS Lusitania, sending the Roycroft community into a gradual decline. Following Elbert's death, his son Bert took over the business. In attempts to keep his father's business afloat, Bert proposed selling Roycroft's furniture through major retailers. Sears & Roebuck eventually agreed to carry the furniture, but this was only a short lived success.

Though Bert took the Roycrofters to wider sales distribution, changing American tastes led to slowly declining sales figures. Finally, in 1938 the Roycrofters closed shop.

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