A museum dedicated to the American Arts and Crafts movement recently opened in St. Petersburg, Florida. Founded by local philanthropist Rudy Ciccarello, it is an impressive structure, “a work of art itself” as noted on the museum's website. It is a five-story building containing 137,000 square feet of space. Along with 40,000 feet of galleries, there is a store, café, restaurant with private dining rooms, reference library, theater, studio, event space for weddings and other occasions, and outdoor green space. It is located in the city's downtown arts district.
The Arts and Crafts movement developed in Britain in the second half of the 19th century. It was a reaction to the rapid industrialization of that era. Factories were poring out goods made by machines, cheaper and more plentiful than those made by hand, but often of inferior quality and lesser beauty. People from various art forms rebelled against the development, seeking a return to more basic but beautiful creations, better combining form and appearance. The leader of this movement was William Morris, a British textile designer, later author, fervent socialist, and finally, book publisher. It is that final calling in life that ties Morris so closely with the fine press movement and makes it such a fundamental part of the arts and crafts movement.
It was also Morris' ardent socialism that connected the movement to egalitarian political beliefs. Guilds were formed with artists working together, while the focus on hand-crafting led naturally to favoring workers' rights vis-a-vis industrialists who replaced artisans with machines.
Morris founded the Kelmscott Press in 1891, and for the remaining five years of his life it was the primary focus of his attention. It was his answer to the poor quality frequently emerging from the new rotary presses. He returned to hand-printing, and designed his books himself, their resembling more the books of centuries earlier than the mass-produced ones of the late 19th century. His most notable creation was his edition of the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, known simply as the Kelmscott Chaucer. In all, the Kelmscott Press published 53 books, 23 written by Morris, between 1891 and 1898, two years after Morris' death, when all of the projects he started were completed.
The Arts and Crafts movement soon spread to Europe and then America. Along with its impact in various types of art, Morris' presence made it very influential in the book world. The private press, featuring hand-printing, beautiful designs, and limited print runs, became a fixture in fine printing in America. This type of printing remains at the center of books as art today, though styles have changed at times. High quality workmanship and beauty are a major part of the collectible book world, even if automated presses printing reading copies in high volumes dominate the mass market.
Among the first two exhibitions is one from a name well-known to American private press collectors. It is that of Roycroft. Roycroft was a community of artists and craftsmen formed in upstate New York by Elbert Hubbard in 1895. The participants, known as “Roycrofters,” were followers of the Arts and Crafts movement. Eventually, there were almost 500 people working at Roycroft, with the guild operating from 14 buildings. The campus remains today as a historic site. It all started after Hubbard visited Europe, where he met Morris. Hubbard wrote a book, but found himself unable to find a publisher. Thus was born the Roycroft Press. At its height, Hubbard had assembled a team of printers, typesetters, designers and bookbinders. Eventually, this led to the establishment of furniture, leather, metalworking, pottery, jewelry, lighting and other shops. It all grew out of his book business (sort of like Amazon!).
Hubbard died in the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, a victim of World War I. Management went to his son, but the cooperative fell into a long period of decline, finally closing in 1938. Today, many people collect Roycroft books, that have the advantage of not being nearly as pricey as those from Kelmscott and some other private presses. Most were printed in sizable runs and consequently aren't that rare. Ones published after Hubbard's death, in particular, are less expensive and form a great starting point for new collectors.
The other initial exhibition is entitled Lenses Embracing the Beautiful: Pictorial Photographs from the Two Red Roses Foundation. It displays photographs and rare books from around the world, from the 1890s to 1940s. Both exhibitions run through January 9, 2022.