John Farleigh © National Portrait Gallery
This is an edited extract of a talk I gave to the Society of Designer Craftsmen on 25 March.
The debates on art and industry in the 1930s were bound to impinge on the designer craftsman. The progress of manufacturing, modernist ideas and the Wall Street Crash all sowed doubts about the role and purpose of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. Within it there emerged a group of reformers who thought a rapprochement with industry was inescapable. They were represented by the wood engraver John Farleigh, who, in 1933, read a paper to the Society, Welcome Machinery! — one of three read before a symposium that year — Farleigh’s, one by J. H. Mason about the place of hand-work in modern civilisation and one by Noel Rooke about the craftsmen and education for industry. Farleigh, Mason and Rooke were all practitioners of fine printing, had all been associated with private presses at one time or another, and all taught at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, part of a strong contingent of book arts in the Society. The president was Edward Johnston and C. H. St John Hornby, the vice-president, ran the Ashendene Press when he wasn’t running W. H. Smith.
Farleigh said the craftsman now had to face the challenge of designing for mass production. There were some things members made that couldn’t be made by machine but there were other things that could. He had no doubt that hand-made things were better, but if something was going to be made by machine, it was best that it was designed by a craftsman. Anyone who designed for the machine had to understand the machine, so the craftsman had to embrace machinery. “We are in a machine age,” Farleigh said, “and to ignore it is to ignore life as it is lived today.” That would be suicide for the craftsman, whose job isn’t just to make unique articles for the client who’s able to pay for them, but also to make things to be used by the many. Later he told the Society that members who refused to design for machine production had no social conscience.
Farleigh’s best-known work is his wood engravings for Bernard Shaw’s book The Black Girl in Search of God, a controversial fable that mocked religion and whose notoriety stimulated large sales. Farleigh put forward the book as an example of designing for the many. Designing for the machine press hadn’t been either easier or more difficult than for designing for the hand press, it was simply a different challenge.
John Farleigh. Illustration for The Black Girl in Search of God.
Farleigh was referring to machinery in two aspects. The first was the factory, but the second was the machine itself, and he observed that opposition to the machine it was based on a misunderstanding because there’s little to distinguish a machine from a tool. The point was better made by David Pye, who is unsurpassed as a writer on design and workmanship.
Pye defined a machine as a tool to which some motor force is applied, whether hand or electricity or anything else. A hand tool wasn’t better or worse than a power tool and it didn’t necessarily call for more skill either. Take the dentist’s drill versus the hand brace. In this case, the power tool undoubtedly requires more care, judgement and dexterity than the hand tool. It’s not possible to distinguish between the appearance of hand-made things and machine-made things because there’s nothing in them that allows us to determine what the motive force was of the tool that was used to make them. Nor can many things be said to be truly hand-made because tools are required for almost everything — the exceptions Pye mentions are writing and sewing and we may add baking. Pye was forced to conclude that “hand-made” isn’t a technical term at all — it’s a social and historical term that refers to workmanship of a kind that existed before the industrial revolution. Pye is much clearer and more analytical than Farleigh, but Farleigh was probably trying to say something similar.
Mason took a rather more traditional view than Farleigh and did believe in the distinctiveness of hand-made things. He said that the division of labour was harmful and that the products of machinery were generally inferior to hand-work. That was especially so in the case of printing, which he knew about as head of the printing department at the Central. Those who work with the hand press can raise the standards of mechanical printing by their influence, as he and Edward Johnston had done. Noel Rooke told an encouraging tale of how the example of typographers, printmakers lettering artists at the Central and the private presses had lifted commercial printing out of the doldrums. Out of this symposium came the idea of including deigns for mass production in the next exhibition. Needless to say, it met with stiff opposition in the following year, notably from Douglas Cockerell, Grailey Hewitt and — the most vociferous — from Bernard Leach.
Noel Rooke. Woodcut.
But what’s interesting is that, when we drill down into Bernard Leach’s views, we find that they weren’t all that different from Farleigh’s. In some ways he was as hostile to industrial civilisation as Ruskin and Morris had been, but he acknowledged that if mass-produced pottery were designed by the right people it could possess what he called “quality of body and beauty of form”. What was needed, he thought, was a new type of designer who understood both the studio and the factory and could keep the factory up to the artistic standards of the studio. Surprisingly, despite disliking much about modern America, he admired Charles and Ray Eames. But Leach always insisted that the factory must come to the craftsman, the craftsman should not go to the factory. He didn’t think the Society should exhibit designs for mass production. Its job was to serve the crafts without compromise, and if it exhibited industrial design it would betray its purpose. He resigned over the issue and Dora Billington had to use all her tact and charm to persuade him to re-join.
Farleigh returned to the topic of admitting design for mass production to the Society on and off for years, but there was always loud dissent and eventually he had to drop the idea. But the dissenters were in a minority and by 1944, two-thirds of the members were said to be designing for industry.
Boxes in Resin ‘M’ designed by Reco Capey and made by Imperial Chemical Industries.
Exhibited at ‘Art and Industry’, 1935.
Design for mass production was included in the 1935 and 1938 exhibitions but those events didn’t differ much from earlier exhibitions. In 1935, six cases out of 600 were devoted to mass production and none departed far from the Society’s traditions. Naturally, Farleigh’s wood engravings featured prominently, and other book arts as well. There was lettering and typography by Grailey Hewett, Alfred Fairbank and Lynton Lamb — all of whom taught at the Central. The only throughgoing examples of industrial design were Reco Capey’s: perfumery productions in glass, metal and synthetic materials for Yardley similar to the designs for manufacture in synthetic resin by ICI that he showed at the 1935 Art & Industry exhibition at the Royal Academy.