Vintage style is Cool in Chicago (Arts & Crafts style isn’t)

Posted on October 06, 2014 by Phil Thompson | 0 comments

There are three things I’ve found true within the last year of drawing Chicago-area homes:

  1. The Arts and Crafts style is in evidence almost everywhere in Chicago. It was most popular in the years when the city expanded most, late 1800s to early 1900s.
  2. Flourishes of the Arts and Crafts style originated in this city–namely the Prairie School–and then influenced American architecture more widely. The Arts and Crafts Society, in fact, was FOUNDED here in 1897.
  3. The style is beautiful, warm, simple, and elegant. It’s all about the family home and living comfortably.

So, considering those points, why isn’t it a style that’s not more celebrated or talked about here? Here are a few things I’ve learned.

What is the style?

First, context: The Arts and Craft movement was a reaction to the styles and practices of the hugely influential and long-lasting Victorian era. The Victorians loved ornamentation, dressing things up, repeating patterns–think of those old doll houses with turrets, porches and small rooms.

House interior Victorian style living room

Victorian_Doll_House_1

The practitioners of the Arts and Craft style returned to simplicity. They highlighted the natural materials used in construction, like wood beams and floors, brick, opened up floor plans, and favored built-in furnishings (shelves, dining room hutches) to the tassled, overwrought and heavy Victorian furniture.

Laurelhurst-1912-Craftsman-living-room-after

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The Arts and Craft style originated in England, then was adopted by influential American architects and designers. Gustav Stickley is probably the figure most closely associated with the American adoption of the style. His magazine “The Craftsman” turned on a huge number of Americans to the style. Today, you’ll hear Arts and Crafts and Craftsman and Mission used almost interchangeably. Craftsman usually references Stickley’s designs more directly. Mission can reference the common characteristics of the old Spanish missions out west.

How I was turned on to it.

I’m not an expert on American architecture. I didn’t know much on arriving in Chicago. The one thing I knew about the local architecture was that I loved it and wanted to learn more. I started to learn about the aesthetic principles of the Arts and Craft style. That little bit helped me understand what made a home beautiful, how a city block could look unified in a style, and–ultimately–what made a beautiful city.

In large swaths of Chicago, you can see homes and buildings that date to the period in which Craftsman-style homes were popular. Consequently, you can walk by long rows of homes and buildings that share the a common aesthetic lineage. A great example is the Chicago bungalow. Those popped up in sub-divisions in areas that were once fringes of the city (e.g., Ravenswood Manor) and were made with a template and a variety of options to accessorize with all the latest Craftsman things.

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Bungalows are just one example of many. There are lots of places around town that reveal the aesthetic influence of the Arts and Crafts movement. Next time you’re in a Chicago home, look for built-in shelves around a large fireplace, exposed wood beams in the ceiling, tall windows with simple stained glass. One of the coolest examples of the style is North Pond, a restaurant in Lincoln Park. It’s not only a building that’s original to the era (built in 1912 as an ice skating shelter), but the current owners of the property have highlighted everything beautiful about the Craftsman style. The place feels warm, inviting, it blends in with the landscape. (The food is fantastic, too.)

DINING-ROOM

a-view-of-north-pond

 

Arts and Crafts legacy vs Arts and Crafts popularity

So if you live in Chicago and love the style, you’re in luck. There are few places with so many examples. The strange thing to me is why it’s not really “around” in a few senses:

  • It’s not a style you see “played up” in a lot of homes here.
  • It’s not something that’s much talked about–I don’t think I heard “Craftsman” until my brother moved to a neighborhood near Gustav Stickley’s former home. That spurred me to do a little more research.
  • Very few retail shops in the area specialize in furnishings from this era. I can think of just two: Oak Park Home and Hardware, and (kind of) a place on the Clybourn corridor, Amish Furniture Gallery

Why the disconnect?

My first thought is that it’s just not in style and that’s that. So for the same reason you don’t see Victorian couches and gold frames anymore, you don’t see the Craftsman stuff. People like vintage today, but not THAT type of vintage. Vintage today means a few things: mid-century (chrome, classic 50s ad aesthetic, whisky glasses) or hipsters harking back to the woodsman look (flannel, beards, antlers, boots). Craftsman is just not the in look.

Still: given that a huge number of Chicagoans live in homes built in the Arts and Crafts era…and given that it’s a style that was hugely popularized by some of its native sons…it’s still surprising to me. Where I grew up–the Brandywine Valley of DE and PA–the locals embraced the colonial past of the region and were always seeking the right colonial look for their homes and furnishings. They went for colonial metalwork, paintings, butter churns, the occasional flintlock muskets on the wall–and there were businesses rushing to accommodate the demand. Inside and out, people’s homes reflected a great pride in the history of their area, and interest in the colonial look didn’t seem to be a passing craze.

Retro trends come and go, and perhaps they’re difficult to understand or explain–but I’ll still wonder when the Arts and Crafts / Craftsman / Mission look will come roaring back into style in this city.


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