Charles Robert Ashbee (1863 – 1942) was British furniture and furnishing jewellery designer. Ashbee was a prominent figure in the British Arts and Crafts Movement and its spread overseas towards the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. He was a vital link with progressive design thinking and practice in Europe and the United States.
His design philosophy also played a role in reconciling the principles of honesty of construction and appropriate use of materials with mechanised production. In many ways, this culminated in many of those linked with the founding of the Deutscher Werkbund in 1907, having their viewpoint underpinned. Not only was Ashbee a silver and metalware designer whose work was presented in Austria, Germany, and France, but he was also a writer on design issues and a co-founder of the Guild of Handicraft.
After studying architecture in the early 1880s, he became increasingly interested in socialist ideas and John Ruskin’s works, which led to the founding of the Guild of Handicraft in London’s East End in 1888. This group of leather, wood, metal and jewellery artisans contributed to the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society’s second exhibition in 1889.
From 1893 to 1894, Ashbee also designed Magpie and Stump, the family home in Cheyne Walk, London, with Guild members working on the interior and other houses in the street. In 1896, Ashbee was elected to the Art Workers’ Guild. Two years later, he founded the Essex House Press, the Guild’s first printing operation. In 1898, the Guild produced furniture designed by Baillie Scott for the dining and drawing rooms in the Neue Palais of Ernst Ludwig, Grand Duke of Hesse, in Darmstadt, designed by Ashbee and Baillie Scott.
In 1899, Ashbee’s Guild of Handicraft, like many other individuals and organisations active in the ‘art industries’ at the time, opened a shop on Bond Street in London. The Guild, which had grown to 150 members by 1902, relocated to Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, in the rural Cotswolds and continued to attract designers and thinkers worldwide.
Ashbee visited the United States in 1896 and 1900–1, meeting American architect and designer Frank Lloyd Wright during the later tour. Ironically, upon its relocation to Chipping Campden, the Guild began to have difficulties in the same years that its global impact grew. It was disbanded in 1908, with Ashbee writing the following year about the underlying issues in Craftsmanship in Competitive Industry.
Unlike several other early arts and crafts theorists and practitioners, Ashbee was more open to reconciling the movement’s principles with machine use. It has been speculated that Ashbee’s meeting with Wright altered his viewpoint. Hermann Muthesius, who had studied British Arts and Crafts firsthand and was a founding member of the Deutscher Werkbund in 1907, expanded the notion more radically in Germany.
Woodham, J. M. (2006). A dictionary of modern design. Oxford University Press.
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