If the words "British crafts" came up in conversation, you'd think of: a) hand-crocheted tea cozies; b) Wedgewood porcelain; c) hand-printed floral wallpaper by the Victorian firm of Morris and Co.; d) the Omega Workshops of the Bloomsbury group; or e) a chair made of stacks of glass shards?
Nearly 130 years ago, William Morris, the 19th-Century reformer, poet and designer, decried the ugliness of manufactured goods and founded a company to turn out handmade furniture, wallpaper, textiles and other items, in simple yet attractive styles that harked back to medieval examples. On a much smaller scale for a few years between 1910 and 1920, the painters of the Omega Workshops turned out vividly patterned home furnishings.
But in recent decades a sizable contingent of British artisans finally cast aside lingering traces of the old, frumpy "tea cozy" design mentality. They are producing pieces with a genuinely contemporary spirit that are nonetheless ineffably British. In "Contrasts: Diversity in Contemporary British Crafts," at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center through Oct. 28, the Crafts Council of England and Wales has assembled furniture, vessels, jewelry, hand-bound books, textiles and other works in wood, metal, glass and ceramics, all made during the '70s and '80s.
Crafts materials seem to respond sympathetically to the deep-rooted literary sense of the British, as well as to the keen handling of line they have traditionally shown in typography design, engraving and etching. Even the national virtue of "making do"--in this case, using humble castoff materials--results in some delightful pieces.
The best of the work on view tends to reflect either a fondness for muted, earth-tone colors and imperfect, deliberately unlovely form or a taste for astringently elegant simplicity.
Some of the niftiest pieces in the show tell a story or set a scene. Cobbled together from bits of scrap tin, Andrew Hazell's "Eggs and Beans" offers the sight of a tall, plain-faced woman with a tatty blue robe and spindly legs standing at a stove, where she grimly supervises a mess of beans (a red smear in a pot) and a frying egg.
Carved in wood, Paul Spooner's "Five Artists Reflect on Their Waning Powers" is an ironic tableau in which a group of goateed codgers scratch their heads, gesture and look into space over blank sheets of paper. Below the long table they share are the spool-like cogs of a mysterious stationary machine, clearly a metaphor for inactive brain cells.
Danny Lane's chair made of glass shards--stacks of irregular sheets of glass skewered on metal bars to form legs, arms and seat back--is surely the flashiest piece on view. Other pieces of furniture, like Erik de Graaf's tightly compact "box chair" with a back that adjusts by fitting into one of a row of slots, are fine examples of smartly clean-lined, functional design.
An economical, understated sense of line also informs an elegant pair of feldspar and clay jugs by Walter Keeler, a steel bowl with a serpentine handle by Ivan Smith and a pumpkin shape made of sagging, loosely gathered strips of metal by Amanda Bright. Horizontal steel bars lace through the undulating wooden panels of a folding screen by Rodney Wales, called "Sine Screen" after a ratio used in trigonometry.
The small glass pieces in the show are uniformly disappointing--studio glass has only a brief lineage in contemporary British crafts--and the few jewelry pieces tend to be disappointingly fey. But the lovingly detailed examples of one-of-a-kind bookbinding could have issued from no other land. Incidentally, if you fancy things British, be advised: This exhibit heralds the arrival of "Festival of Britain--Orange County 1990," which gathers steam in mid-October with exhibits, performances and other events in several county venues.
"Contrasts: Diversity in Contemporary British Crafts," work from the '70s and '80s in ceramics, metal, wood, textiles and other media.
Through Oct. 28. Gallery open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Muckenthaler Cultural Center, 1201 W. Malvern Ave., Fullerton.
Take the Orange Freeway (57) north, exit at Chapman Avenue, which turns into Malvern Avenue after crossing Euclid Street.
Admission is free.
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