Posted by Christian Larsen, filed under Wolfsonian Collection
In 1851, London opened the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, a showcase of the very best manufactures from across the globe. Much to the horror of the British exhibition commissioners, what was intended to demonstrate Britain’s awesome industrial might instead revealed the appalling state of their products. No formal training existed for designers. Technological dazzle trumped rational design criteria—things were being made and sold to the consumer simply because technologies allowed for extravagantly embellished, eye-popping, multicolored products. For Victorians, bad design was bad business, and that implied bad morals. Worse still, machines increasingly took the place of people, and in turn, turned people into machines. How to bring joy and pride back to labor?
The Great Exhibition galvanized design reforms that spread across Europe and far abroad. Designers wanted to do away with ill-conceived, poorly made products, and instead create useful objects of great beauty and craftsmanship. It was this well-intentioned idea that spawned the Arts & Crafts movement, led by William Morris and a coterie of artists and designers who championed a return to handicraft in emulation of medieval models of artisanal production. In practice, the romance of handwork often resulted in small numbers of rarified, expensive objects for an elite. In truth, the Arts & Crafts dichotomy between hand and machine was largely rhetorical, as many mass-produced objects still relied on hand finishing, and much of Arts & Crafts production used machines when expedient.
Primarily known for his metalwork and above all his copper and brass lamps, William Arthur Smith Benson bridged craft production’s humanist ideals with industrial production’s economic benefits. As an inventor, tinkerer, maker, and designer, Benson and his workshop cast their own metal components and used lathes and presses to produce standardized parts that could be recombined to make multiple designs. He was a master marketer, with a shop and studio in the fashionable district of Kensington. He took a calculated risk introducing his shiny, largely unornamented wares on New Bond Street, an upper-middle class shopping thoroughfare.
With the introduction of electricity, Benson geared his production almost entirely to electrified lamps, a niche market that remained the prerogative of the wealthy long after its introduction. More importantly, Benson catered to changing tastes. Traditionally, plainness had been associated with less prestige. The more ornamented the ware, the higher the price. Benson elevated the virtue of simplicity for elite consumption.
Benson replaced the ornate trickery and sumptuous illusions found in many mass-produced wears with truth to the inherent qualities of materials and their appropriate uses. He used brass for rigidity, and copper for its warm, reflective, light-diffusing properties. These materials are perfectly suited to the construction of rigid brass structural components supporting thin, petal-like riveted copper sheets. Moreover, the materials are aesthetically pleasing in their contrasting warm metallic tones. The electrical wiring itself is visibly structural as well as aesthetically appealing. The lamp may seem decorative by today’s standards. Our eyes recognize unnecessary forms in the face of a minimalism to which we’ve grown accustomed. At the time, the lamps were compared to the pared-down elegance of American bicycles, praised the world over as ingenious mechanical and aesthetic inventions.
Christian Larsen is a curator at The Wolfsonian
Caption: Chandelier, c. 1901. William Arthur Smith Benson, designer. W.A.S. Benson and Company, London, maker. Brass, copper, cord. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.
Note: This post is based on the presentation for The Wolfsonian: Collecting Complaints on March 21, 2014.