The Daily Heller: Learning About Indianapolis’ Arts & Crafts Movement

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Design history begins at home. In this case, Indianapolis, IN, USA. I’ve written before about the design history publication Commercial Article, an ongoing project published by the founders of the design firm Commercial Artisan, James Sholly and Jon Sholly. The current issue, No. 14, on the Arts and Crafts movement in Indianapolis, is well-researched and authored by Connie Ziegler. Common to all of its enlightening issues, Commercial Article unearths rare and forgotten pockets of graphic design culture unique to Indiana, which from the material the editors have uncovered, reveals a rich legacy. It could arguably be the most significant contribution to design historical studies in years.

Zeigler’s entertainingly informative story of this Victorian (pre-Bauhausian) era design aesthetic is seen through the work of two “modern” women who “pushed out the edges of female behavior and activity in the newly arrived 20th century, but also took on traditional women’s roles as wives and mothers … together, [Janet Payne Bowles and Helen McKay Steel] and their husbands helped create an Arts and Crafts movement” in the Midwest virtually hidden from the world.

While these artisans’ names may be unknown in today’s design histories, another more well-known male practitioner will be a surprise for some: Bruce Rogers, whose career as a book and type designer (Centaur) and author (Paragraphs on Printing) began in Indianapolis. There he worked for Janet’s husband, Joseph Bowles, who founded America’s first Arts and Crafts magazine, influenced by William Morris’ Kelmscott endeavors, entitled Modern Art (the cover for which designed and lettered by Arthur Weley Dow became an icon of the Arts and Crafts naturalist modernity veering into American Art Nouveau).

Additionally, Indianapolis’ Portfolio Club, founded in 1890 (and still operating today), was an Arts and Crafts group that included “equal representations of both women and men, and boasted impressive names.” For decades, its annual “program,” The Portfolio, showed the changes in style and interest among the Indianapolis design community.

Commercial Article is part journal, magazine and museum catalog—a hybrid venue of historical scholarship and archeology. Even if learning about Indianapolis’ heritage is not the first class or last class in most of today’s design history syllabi, it is a wellspring of wonderful surprises and important insights, and the Arts and Crafts issue might very well be my favorite number.

Like the others, No. 14 is smartly designed and elegantly edited. It is packed with details that add to the knowledge base of all who are now redefining the canons that many design history teachers simply accept as gospel. Commercial Article does not radically challenge previous assumptions and accepted wisdom, but collectively publication has contributed to an expansion of American design history. The 14 issues are not to be missed, and No. 14 is a must to own.