Why We Should Listen to Frank Lloyd Wright

Properly harnessed, industrial production can reduce exploitation and increase leisure time.

Fluidr / Flickr

Foll your eyes as much as you like at qualifiers like “artisanal,” “small batch,” “heirloom,” and “bespoke.” Chuckle knowingly, and a little self deprecatingly, as parodies like Portlandia and the spoof Tumblr Fuck Your Noguchi Coffee Table turn them into their own punch lines. These words are big business.

In my neighborhood looms a billboard advertising a mega developer’s “hand crafted” luxury apartments and townhouses installed in a repurposed nineteenth century brewery. He’s probably laughing hardest of all.

The ongoing turn-of-the-last-century nostalgia spell, fueling contemporary markets for mustache wax and obscure herbaceous liquors — excuse me, tonics (tonics that I find delightful, by the way) — shows no sign of waning anytime soon. Yet as others have argued, this obsession with the artisanal production of yesteryear is hardly unproblematic, ignoring as it does the widespread racial, gender, and class oppression that it entailed and still perpetuates.

As Rachel Laudan explains, in casting foodstuffs like handmade tortillas, traditionally pressed olive oil, and home-cooked meals as more wholesome, both nutritionally and morally, we overlook the fact that these delicacies necessitate hours of physical labor — labor that was traditionally performed by women and poorly paid agricultural and domestic workers.

Nostalgia is a form of remembrance, but one that simultaneously demands willful forgetting. And that is why it is so dangerous — it always runs the risk of justifying and replicating the injustices of past eras by making them invisible.

It is fitting, then, that a warning against this fetishization of the artisanal emerged from the penny-farthing-populated epoch we pine for. Frank Lloyd Wright originally delivered his classic text “The Art and Craft of the Machine” as an address to the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society in 1901. Without ascribing any predictive powers to Wright, we can still glean lessons from his words — lessons that seem more urgent today than perhaps they did at the dawn of the twentieth century.

Wright’s address is one of a number of tracts decrying the application of “unnecessary” ornamentation in architecture and design at the beginning of the century (of which Adolf Loos’s 1908 “Ornament and Crime” is especially entertaining). Together, these works advocated a modernism of ostensibly pure, streamlined forms. Several, including Wright’s, also came with a social message.

In “The Art and Craft of the Machine,” Wright argued that the Machine (which he capitalizes) is one of the great emancipatory developments in the history of humankind. The Machine can relieve workers of needless toil; it can be a “tool which frees human labor, lengthens and broadens the life of the simplest man.” However, artists have shunned the Machine because human greed has usurped it and made it a “terrible engine of enslavement, deluging the world with murderous ubiquity, which was plainly enough the damnation of their art and craft.”

According to Wright, artists understandably saw the Machine as a threat, an assault on the “handicraft ideal.” But he argued that this ideal had outlived its usefulness. Rather than lament the obsolescence of the handicraft ideal, we should embrace the fact there is no longer a need for fussy joining and tinkering. Indeed, the Machine could be instrumental in “saving the most precious thing in the world — human effort.”

As a counterpoint, Wright cited William Morris, a prominent figurehead in the nineteenth century Arts and Crafts movement in England. In the face of the Industrial Revolution, Morris and his circle sought to revive what they believed to be a medieval craft tradition.

Morris held socialist ideals, but his artistic project failed to align with them in important ways. As Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt notes in Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream, a major factor behind the skeptical response to the English Arts and Crafts movement was that in producing high quality works made by skilled craftsmen, Morris and company ended up making objects only the rich could afford.

This situation hasn’t changed much over the last century. With growing awareness of the egregious exploitation borne of globalization, artisanal products produced in regions with basic labor protections are presented to consumers not merely as special and precious items, but also as ethical alternatives to mass-produced goods and “factory farmed” food. However, to furnish one’s daily existence with fair-trade, shade-grown coffee and footwear made in Italy instead of Bangladesh is expensive, and a financial impossibility for a great many who would still wish not to rely on exploited labor.

Wright understood this quandary. He asserted that “William Morris’s great work was legitimately done — in the sense that most art and craft of today is an echo; the time when such work was useful has gone,” then followed that statement with a one-sentence paragraph: “Echoes are by nature decadent.”

Contemporary consumer culture validates Wright. So-called ethical living has become a luxury, and as long as it depends on consuming artisanal products, it will remain so, despite the glossary of terms devised to avoid that connotation. Those who can afford to perhaps ought to avoid supporting producers who pollute grossly or rely on exploited labor.

But Wright knew all along that returning to an artisanal past does not and cannot advance a democratic, egalitarian project. While we might enjoy certain activities as hobbies, we are not going to shop, quilt, or homebrew our way to a better world.

What we need to do, Wright asserted, is harness the Machine’s liberatory potential. To some extent, modern society has already done so. But for Wright, there were aesthetic benefits in doing this, too — the Machine’s efficiency would respect and best exhibit the inherent physical qualities of materials like wood and poured concrete, all while reducing human toil.

If the artist will only open his eyes he will see that the machine he dreads has made it possible to wipe out the mass of meaningless torture to which mankind, in the name of the artistic, has been more or less subjected since time began, for that matter, has made possible a cleanly strength, an ideality and a poetic fire that the art of the world has not yet seen; for the machine, the process now smooths away the necessity for petty structural deceits, soothes this wearisome struggle to make things seem what they are not, and can never be . . .

The Machine, properly used, has the potential to provide for humanity in abundance while liberating it from unnecessary work. The streamlined elimination of “structural parts . . . laboriously joined in such a way as to beautifully emphasize the manner of their joining” would yield a new kind of beauty.

In its contemporary context, the handicraft ideal aligns neatly with neoliberal values of individualism and social atomization. Its emphasis on the small, the local, the limited edition, effectively constrains any imagination of broadly communal forms of living and production, all the while presenting the artisanal as a matter of individual ethics and choice. There’s a reason why the DIY culture of craft is strong on the libertarian right, taking form in home-butchered meat and the construction of bunkers and local militias, among other activities.

And still, the Machine’s liberatory potential remains untapped. It persists as a tool of enslavement, increasing rather than decreasing our workloads by facilitating speedups and allowing professional communication to infiltrate our domestic space.

Yet Wright’s sanguine words still ring true: “The Machine is Intellect mastering the drudgery of the earth that the plastic art may live; that the margin of leisure and strength by which man’s life upon earth can be made beautiful, may immeasurably widen; its function ultimately to emancipate human expression!”

We have the Machine. And now we possess methods that emit fewer carbons than ever before to power it. There’s hope for us yet.