Turned Upside Down

The onset of the Industrial Revolution caused major changes in virtually every craft. Machinery worked on a scale and at a cost that a pre-industrial artisan could not compete with, and the advent of canals and railroads meant that the village artisan had to contend with rivals not just across the next hill, but across the country. But as profound as that change was, something even more traumatic happened; the fundamental axioms were turned upside down. This change disrupted how the buying public valued good work.

This shift happened in part because the Industrial Revolution rose alongside the emergence of nation-states that competed against one another for industrial dominance. This trend developed into National Exhibitions to showcase advances in industry and science, which later morphed into “World’s Fair” events. These events began in the last decade of the 18th century in Germany and France, and by the mid-19th century had morphed into truly international venues including the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition in London. These exhibitions had an enormous impact on public perceptions of fashion and taste. Instead of a local interchange between artisan and neighbor, the narratives about what constitutes good work were – for the first time – taken over by the industrialists and an eager press ready to broadcast their ideas. Because industrialization consolidated makers and designers into fewer hands, it became easy for the designers to move in unison to push new trends before the consuming public. Industries learned to coordinate with media outlets to push new fashions through newspapers and large national and international shows.  A new axiom was born that is still very much alive today: “form ever follows function.” This late 19th-century concept was the foundation of the engineering design schools that became the driving force behind industry in the early 20th century.

The deluge of machinery during the Industrial Revolution also contributed to this radical transformation of the modern imagination. Before late 18th-century mechanical engineer James Watt perfected the steam engine, humans thought of themselves as “souls,” a mixture of mortal flesh and spirit, but the new scientific, mechanical method suggested that we think of the universe as a machine, and human beings as machines too. This sea change from soul to machine was reflected in the thinking of the modernists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These designers began to replace natural ornament carved by hand with sterile machine-made details – a trailing acanthus vine was exchanged for rows of metal rivets laid out in perfect precision. Designers also eschewed any traces of the human hand and instead highlighted sleek, polished machine finishes.

–George Walker, excerpt from “Axioms of Pre-industrial Craft,” in Issue seven


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