1941 Handweaving Today: Textile Work at Black Mountain College
1943 Black Mountain College
1944 One Aspect of Art Work
1957 The Pliable Plane: textiles in Architecture
Textile Work at Black Mountain College
Almost all textiles today are products of machine looms. They are turned out in great quantities, at high speed. Quantity and speed reflect on the design. In general we think today of more and more, of faster and faster, and only then of better and better.
In this situation the attempt to deal with textiles on a small scale, in a slow manner, with quality mainly in mind, may seem rather futile. This may appear to be retreat and seclusion, but actually have quite a different result. It is true that such work is often no more than a romantic attempt to recall a temps perdu, a result rather of an attitude than of procedure. But, if conceived as a preparatory step to machine production the work will be more than the revival of a lost skill and will take responsible part in a new development.
Handweaving the slow, and machine-weaving the fast method of the same process contrast only in velocity. Sameness of procedure is one of the justifications for handwork preliminary to work for mass production. Weaving in any form is a constructive process; it is also a combinative process demanding aesthetic judgment as to surface, form and color qualities of the materials. Other problems enter, such as functional and social demands. All of these factors engage intellect and imagination if the craft is looked upon as still in formation.
Unfortunately today handweaving has degenerated in face of technically superior methods of production. Instead of freely developing new forms, recipes are often used, traditional formulas, which once proved successful. Freshness of invention, of intelligent and imaginative forming has been lost. If handweaving is to regain actual influence on contemporary life, approved repetition has to be replaced with the adventure of new exploring.
Such an attempt needs a careful foundation. It is only possible if we go back to the elements. Materials have accumulated to themselves set rules of working them. In going back to the fundamental principles we can open the field again for invention, imaginative use of intellectually recognized facts.
We have stated before that hand and machine weaving are fundamentally the same. The theory of the constructive process, the draftwriting, can therefore be taught so as to include both hand and machine possibilities. Handlooms today are often limited technically. Why fit the theoretical knowledge to the present limitations of handweaving? Rather the theoretical work should be developed, expanding beyond the boundaries set to it now, in order to stimulate new experimentation. The teaching should be the development of structures, from the elementary weaves to more complicated derivations rather than the passing on of patterns for weaving. Thus the work can be directed toward independent initiative.
The same return to the fundamentals needed for the structural work is also necessary for the combinative or aesthetic side of it, to clear the way for new forming. For the lack of invention often found in the handweaving of today is a general symptom of this time of standardization. If teaching attempts to direct the development of individuals as well as of peoples, it should try to avert a growing onesidedness which may prove fatal. For ability to form materials presupposes responsiveness towards the material, a flexibility of reaction, and this flexibility is one of the factors we will need for times to come. Through working with material we can perhaps develop this ability to respond. More than intangible material, than tones or words, tangible material can teach that it has demands of its own and suggestions of its own for its forming, that it asks for a reaction. Creating means this reacting to material rather than the execution of a dream, as the layman conceives it. The first vision of something to be done gives more the mood of the work than its final form. The form emerges as the work progresses.
An elementary approach will be a playful beginning, unresponsive to any demand of usefulness, an enjoyment of colors, forms, surface contrasts and harmonies, —a tactile sensuousness. This first and always most important pleasure in the physical qualities of materials needs but the simples technique and must be sustained through the most complicated one. For just this satisfaction coming from material qualities is part of the satisfaction we get from art.
For more advanced work considerations of utilitarian purpose arise. Although for the beginner the thought of practical usefulness has more a constraining than animating effect, conscious deliberations on function and useful objective are in a later stage stimulating, as is the material itself. Demands set by the practical use give the work a certain direction, unthought of before the problem came up, as to construction, choice of material, color and form. An example: The task of weaving a material to be used as wallcovering sets up certain requirements, strongly influenced by the specific tendencies of a period. It brings up the question of a light or dark material, light-reflective maybe, of resistance to dust, the question how it is to be attached to the wall. The answer will probably eliminate fuzzy fibers, loose, stretchable, plastic textures, and suggest straw-like qualities and a stiff, smooth, close construction of weave. The search for the fiber best uniting the requisite qualities may lead to one not used for weaving before. The experiments can result in a fabric equipped with new characteristics, a new fabric.
Awareness of the need for adaptation to purpose introduces one other factor: the importance of recognizing new problems as they appear, of foreseeing a development. "An unspecialized aptitude for eliciting generalizations from particulars and for seeing the divergent illustrations of generalities in diverse circumstances is required. Such a reflective power is essentially a philosophic habit," says Whitehead. The creative impetus, at first coming sensuously from the world of appearance, now receives its stimulus from the intellectual sphere of a recognized need. Only the imaginative mind can transform the intellectual recognition into a material form.
The special inclinations of certain times play a dominant part in the rise of new forms. Today's interest in hygiene, in light, in movable things, in short-lived things even, as far as the serviceable objects of our surroundings are concerned, become manifest in the objects we make. For textiles this means washable materials, transparent or light-reflective ones, materials repelling dust or water, reversible ones and materials which can easily be replaced. For durability need not necessarily be a value in itself, although this seemed a valuation set forever. Accumulation of material values rapidly loses its charm in face of the mutation of a world; thus durableness is no longer equivalent to value. There is a close correlation between demands arising in the course of time, being fulfilled by new materials, and new materials bringing about new demands. In the one case the demand acts as motive power, in the other the pleasure of free forming. Fulfillment of a demand confines a product to usefulness—the result of free forming can be art.
Handweaving can go both ways; to become art it needs nothing but its own high development and adjustment in all its properties, —to become utilitarian it needs today the help of machines if it is to be more than a mere luxury.
There is one other aspect of the work, one not intrinsically connected with the idea of future development; it is that of handweaving as a leisure-time occupation and as a source of income in rural communities. The importance of such work should not be overlooked. But it is necessary to keep in mind that handweaving here takes on the character of a means to an end and is not in itself the center of interest. It has to be admitted that at one point we discussed handweaving also as a means, when taking its educational value into account, shifting the emphasis from the result to the process. But the objective was to encourage experimenting which leads back to the core of these considerations.
The Weaver 6:1, Jan-Feb 1941
Among the shells on a shore lies a button. In its accurate roundness and evenness it is a queer object here side by side with the diversified forms of nature.
Most man-made things bear such a mark of simplified and obvious orderliness and regularity. Nature is mysterious in her work and multiform. In her hands our button on the beach will become variegated in shape and surface and finally will come to resemble a shell.
In all practical work we curiously reverse nature's way though we know her to be supreme. We find her unsurpassable in variations, while we tend to uniformity. Though she is free in change, we seek, bewildered, more permanent forms. Only in work having no immediate purpose—in art work—do we try to practice her mode of shaping things and thus give up our inconsistency.
If in art work we venture to follow nature by learning from her rich variety of form, at the other pole of our work, the developing of tools, we reduce form to its barest essentials. Usefulness is the dominant principle in tools. They do not exist, like works of art, for their own sake but are means to further ends. Some early tools of stone, representations of the human figure, do not show this opposition, since they themselves are sometimes art. They are understood as magical, useful beings, helping us work, but even in their anthropomorphic form they have the accuracy and simplicity which distinguishes all work of man. It has been a long way from these early forms to the complicated mechanism of modem machines. In our tools today, however, we can still recognize the image of an arm in a lever. That it is no longer man as a whole that is represented is significant, for actually machines do specialized work, a work of just a section of us. The invention of the wheel stands as an amazing feat of abstraction, translating motion instead of outer shape into new form. It is a further step toward the division, still in progress, between art forms and technical forms. (Which does not mean that abstracted forms cannot become the elements of a piece of art.) The concentration on function, which is the main task in the making of tools, brings about concise and unencumbered forms. Today we are peculiarly conscious of the purity of these forms among the many objects of our daily surroundings that lack this clarity of conception.
Even though tools appear to express usefulness most truly in their form, we can also find lucid and plain fitness to purpose in unobtrusive objects of our environment. So much do we take them for granted that we are rarely aware of their design. They vary from the anonymous works of engineering to the modest things of our daily life—roads and light bulbs, sheets and milk bottles. We feel no need to endow these quietly serving objects with qualities other than functional ones. In their silent and unassuming existence, they do not call for much of our attention nor do they demand too much time to be spent on their care; neither do they challenge our pride in possessing them. We would not think of collecting light bulbs or sheets to impress our fellow men.
Although we like some things to be restrained, in others we ask for an additional quality of provocative beauty. The form of an object which has been dictated solely by fitness is often beautiful, but in a quiet and reticent way. The engaging quality we ask for may be independent of this form, something given to it. Proportion or color or surface treatment can be such an extra quality, bearing this happy sensation we are looking for; a curtain of plain cloth may answer all demands of its use, but when in colors, it will perhaps please us more. We feel that much of our work is incomplete without these further qualities and even associate polishing with finishing.
Today, trying to regain singleness of purpose in the things we make, proportion, color, and texture concern us most as completing qualities. We still carry with us, however, manners of perfecting things which belong to another time, the time that was controlled by the craftsman. When a piece of work was in his hands from beginning to end, he could elaborate on the shape and add patterns as a natural development in its completion. But there remain now only a few things which we form one by one, as the craftsman does. We deal today with mass production, and as a result the process of manufacture is necessarily broken up into separate stages, each one in different hands. Thus decorating too has become a separate unit of work, and as such is often only incidental. What once in the hands of the craftsman had been an organic transmutation of form is now often little more than a postscript. But we continue to decorate, searching for aesthetic pleasure, though the conditions of work have changed. Without adding new form values, we obscure the function of things by decorating them. Our decorating today is frequently only camouflage; we make book ends representing animals, vases for flowers themselves resembling flowers. Through decorating we have also learned the trick of hiding a poor material under a rich pattern. Moreover, through ornament we give modest things undue emphasis. Since we have far more things than people had in former times, the rivalry among these objects becomes great. No common rhythm of design can tie them together: our chairs cry "hey" and our ash trays "ho"! We aesthetically overcharge our surroundings.
Rightly or wrongly, we strive for beauty by adding qualities like color, texture, proportions or ornamentation; yet beauty is not an appendage. When it unfolds free of considerations of usefulness, it surpasses, as art, all the other work we do. In works of art our characteristic uniformity, obviousness, and regularity are lost in the search for a synonym; in terms of form, for an inner relation. It is easy to detect the human mind behind it, but like nature, it remains in the end impenetrable.
Concerned with form, the craftsman, designer, or artist affects through his work the general trend of style, for better or for worse. The craftsman is today outside of the great process of industrial production; the designer belongs to it. But whether inside or outside, directly or indirectly, he influences the shaping of things. That many imaginative minds find in crafts a wider basis for their work than in the more immediately vital setting of industrial planning is explained perhaps by the more narrow specialization of industry. Unless we propagate handwork as a political means, like Gandhi, the craftsman as producer plays only a minor part today. However, as the one who makes something from beginning to end and has it actually in hand, he is close enough to the material and to the process of working it to be sensitive to the influences coming from these sources. His role today is that of the expounder of the interplay between them. He may also play the part of the conscience for the producer at large. It is a low voice, but one admonishing and directing rightly. For the craftsman, if he is a good listener, is told what to do by the material, and the material does not err.
The responsibility of the craftsman or artist may go even further, to that of attempting to clarify the general attitude toward things that already exist. Since production as a whole is ordinarily directed today by economic interest, it may take the disinterestedness of the outsider, the craftsman or artist, to make us critical of the consequences. We are used to seeing new needs stimulated and new forms emerging for their satisfaction. Our urge for possessing is constantly nourished; again and again throughout history it has been an underlying cause for war. We will have to be more sensitive to the effect of things on us and to be aware of the implications that come with possessions. For things such as tools call for action; objects of art, for meditation. Things of our more passive existence, those which protect and serve us, give us rest and ease; others may burden and annoy us. They fluctuate from unassuming servitude to challenging sensationalism. We shall have to choose between those bringing distraction or those leading to contemplation; between those accentuating anonymous service or self-centered individualism; between the emphasis on being or on having.
Very few of us can own things without being corrupted by them, without having pride involved in possessing them, gaining thereby a false security. Very few of us can resist being distracted by things. We need to learn to choose the simple and lasting instead of the new and individual; the objective and inclusive form in things in place of the extravagantly individualistic. This means reducing instead of adding, the reversal of our habitual thinking. Our households are overburdened with objects of only occasional usefulness. Created for special demands and temporary moods, they should have no more than temporary existence. But they cling to us as we cling to them, and thus they hamper our freedom. Possessing can degrade us.
Having fewer things sets for the designer or craftsman a fundamentally new task, as it implies designing things for more inclusive use. His attitude will have to be changed from exhibiting personal taste and the exaggeration of personal inclinations in designing to being quietly helpful. He will have to focus on the general instead of on the specific, on the more permanent instead of on the merely temporary. Giving up continuous change does not necessarily mean that we reach a state of stagnation or boredom; it does mean overlooking moods and modes. This stabilization need not be equivalent to limitation, nor need it mean scantiness. It is designing in a manner to hold our interest beyond the moment. Pure forms will never bore us. Neither do we ever tire of nature. We have to learn from her to avoid overstatement and obviousness. These are truly dull. We have to become aware of nature's subtlety and her fine surprises, and to translate these into our idiom. It is easy to invent the extravagant, the pretentious, and the exciting; but these are passing, leaving in us only neurotic aimlessness. The things that have lasted and the things that will last are never subject to quick fashion. That good work and great work have been able to survive we may take as a sign of the good sense in us, buried under temporary nonsense. Instead of adjusting our work to the public demand of the moment, so often misinterpreted and underestimated by our industry, which is concerned with fast-moving mass consumption, let us direct it to this true sense of value underlying public demand.
Craft Horizons 2:2, May 1943
A typescript version of this article, annotated in pencil by Albers and dated March 15, 1942, indicates that Albers first presented it as a talk to the Weaving Workshop of North Carolina
Black Mountain College was founded in 1933 by a group of teachers and students as a coeducational college of liberal arts, where ultimate control should rest with the Faculty; where free use should be made of established methods of education, together with new methods, in order to develop a general education suited to modern times; a college which was to be a community in which teachers and students should share responsibility. From the first the College has operated according to this plan, and has found increasing proof of its value.
As a liberal arts college it is necessarily concerned with the essential problems of the times. Today these problems are world-wide. They have grown beyond the horizons of individual, group or nation. But they must be understood by individuals and solved by individuals. This generation will have acute need of both vision and practical competence.
To educate today then must mean to broaden outlook and to provide a setting where theory can be confronted with evidence, a laboratory where thought can be tested by action. Black Mountain College as a community is such a laboratory. While carrying on the traditional disciplines of college education, the college seeks to combine the cultivation of imaginative thought with training in accurate reasoning; it attempts to develop foresight by emphasizing the search for fundamental principles that underlie transitory forms, and to show that knowledge must be linked with a will to act. It can reveal to what ends cooperation and competition each lead, and bring into balance work directed toward individual development and work done in the general interest of a group.
The College, from its beginning, has recognized and sought to develop the special function that a community can serve in general education. A community is of a more homogenous structure than society at large but has many of its contrasts and conflicts. Common purpose unites the various groups; it bridges differences of age and of talent, of background and of temperament, and thus furthers actual understanding. Young men and young women, educated together as a corollary of community life, come to realize their relation as co-equals more than as opposites. In a community where all join in the necessary work and where no distinctions are made because of financial status, everyone has an equal change to find a place. Teacher and student find common ground in their concern for the whole; and the student, meeting informally with his teacher, comes to realize that learning is not confined to classrooms but pervades daily life. The persuasive force of example can replace formal authority. In a community, too, the usual difference in evaluation between intellectual and practical work readily gives way to a realization that both are interrelated parts of one whole. This interpretation of work is fundamental in the educational philosophy of the College; it breaks with the tradition which, concentrating on an intellectual education, loses sight of a practical one.
In a community attendance develops naturally into participation. A community not only gives a frame to activities; it embodies the contributions of its members. Each individual gives as well as receives and comes to identify himself with the group. Where consideration for the whole controls conduct written regulations are superfluous, doubly so where there is close contact between teacher and student. Consequently, the College has no rigid rules.
Furthermore, the College has no required courses. The entering student is rarely certain about his interests; and even when he believes them to be definite he may change his mind as new fields open to him. But since he must learn to make his own decisions, the selection of his courses is left to him. However, he does not make his choice by trial and error. He discusses his plans with a faculty advisor with whose help he assumes the responsibility for finding the best way to develop his abilities. He may, of course, seek additional advice from other members of the Faculty. The advisor is aided by recommendations from the whole Faculty, who periodically discuss both the intellectual progress of each student and his progress as an active member of the community.
A student usually begins his studies by exploring in the various areas of learning and at the same time he begins to discover his own inclinations, abilities and weaknesses. He should investigate the fields which have been of interest to him and also those to which he previously has been indifferent but which may open new perspectives to him. He should study in the Sciences and the Arts, the Social Studies and literature to gain sufficient understanding of the peculiar nature of each field and the relation of one field to another. Before specializing in any one subject he should become aware of the unity of learning obscured by the modern departmentalism that has resulted from the accumulation of knowledge.
After this period of general orientation and self-discovery, usually two years, the student limits himself to a field for concentration. In this special field he is expected to gain a substantial and organized body of knowledge. To do such specialized work the student must demonstrate that he is prepared for it. He formulates a plan of studies in his particular field and in related ones. If the Faculty believe the student has acquired an adequate background of general knowledge and that he has made progress in learning to act intelligently and reliably, he is permitted to take the senior division examination, which precedes specialization.
Since learning is not regarded as a training of the intellect alone, the examination tests not only a student's knowledge and memory, his powers of observation, reflection and imagination, but also the maturity of his feelings and the way he expresses himself; it tests whether he can concentrate, draw sound conclusions, and arrive at moral judgments. The Faculty take into account both his performance and his development, since development indicates potentiality.
The length of time a student works in a particular field and in related areas depends on his achievement. After completing his proposed program of studies, he can apply for graduation; he has to demonstrate, however, in a series of comprehensive examinations, what he has accomplished. Before permitting him to take the final examinations the Faculty consider the student's achievement over the period of his stay at the College, approximately four years, and decide whether he is sufficiently independent in judgment and disciplined so that the can act with insight and forethought. The examinations are given by professors from outstanding universities and colleges who judge the student's work in his special field. The recommendation of the examiner provides a measurement of the work according to the standards of long established universities and is a principal factor in the decision of the Faculty regarding a student's graduation.
During his studies the student should have come to realize the emphasis placed on a widening of his views and on an understanding of the relation of general principles to specific facts. He should also have come to recognize a similar emphasis on the development of initiative, on a constructive response to problems. Too often today education tends to develop receptive qualities and to neglect productive abilities. In most fields so much knowledge has to be acquired before new contributions can be made that a student is frequently confronted with results without being brought to understand the creative approach that led to the original discoveries. Naturally he cannot be expected to make new discoveries, but he can be brought to acquire an attitude that leads to discovery. The pedagogical problem of helping a student to combine the acquisition of knowledge with such constructive thinking is different in every field. To develop adequate teaching methods for accomplishing this has been from the first one of the aims of the College.
In the fields of art, music, drama, and writing, work can be made primarily a training in such a constructive approach; for only by writing can one learn to write, and only by painting can one learn to paint. Work in the arts, besides having a function of its own, can thus become an instrument of general education. It, therefore, has a place equal to that of courses that usually occupy the center of the curriculum. Work in the arts activates Imagination and inventiveness and a sense of organization; it increases sensitivity of perception and emotional response to form. Feeling needs discipline no less than intellect. Through work in the arts students learn to rely on their own experience and to grow independent of interpretations by others; they are led to discover how to give thought and feeling a tangible form.
As an indispensible complement to the traditional liberal arts training, our time requires the development of practical ability. The College as a community provides a natural opportunity for demonstrating to the student the various kinds of work which together keep a social organization functioning. He realizes that a share of work falls to him as a member of the community, as it does to professor and hired worker. Engaged in planning, building or farming, doing office or library work, he can acquire skills and develop resourcefulness together with an understanding of good workmanship; he learns to evaluate work for its quality rather than for its kind. He experiences the discipline necessary to coordinate his work with that of others and the obligation he has toward others to complete a given task. He comes to know the power of joint effort. Finally he may learn to direct the work of others. He will realize, however, that where the prime emphasis is on education the development of ability takes precedence over immediate efficiency of workmanship, though efficiency remains an ultimate goal.
As members of the community, teachers no less than students give part of their time to practical work that usually lies outside the activities of college professors. They have also undertaken the administration of the College, partly as their natural share of responsibility in the College community and partly in an attempt to imbue all work within the College with that attitude which prevails in educational matters. The Faculty, however, not only contribute their work to the College community, but with a student representative are themselves the governing body of the College. They are responsible both for the actual conduct of its affairs and for its educational principles. Though the College is free from outside control, it has established an Advisory Council to which it turns for advice from a detached point of view and for consultation on special questions regarding its work.
Legal responsibility, including trusteeship for the property, rests with the Faculty, but they are by no means the only ones to carry responsibility. Students from the first have won for themselves a share in control by helping to start the College and subsequently by performing essential tasks in building and operating the College. Every new group, composed of students coming from all parts of the country, learns how it can make some significant contribution to the growth of the College. Students have campaigned to raise necessary funds, have done much of the actual construction of college buildings, and have helped to run the plant and farm. They make their own regulations, such as are necessary; for obviously some agreements are needed to avoid chaos through individualistic interpretations of rights and obligations. Students are represented on important committees because they share in the responsibility for the College.
Problems affecting the whole College, if sufficiently important, are considered in community meetings. If a general understanding cannot be reached in one meeting, the problem is taken up again, or it is turned over to a committee to deal with or to make new proposals for general discussion. The question is debated until a solution is found that will preserve the unity of the College.
Participating in the government of the College and in community work, the student is in a position to draw parallels between social and political problems he meets in the College and those he meets outside. He will be better equipped to understand and contribute to the solution of national or even world problems, when he has encountered them on a scale which permits him to observe effects of decisions.
Studios and work at the College, however, are more than merely a parallel with life outside of the community. Teachers and students are active beyond the College boundary: the Faculty in lecturing, exhibiting work, giving musical and dramatic performances and doing research work; the students in participating in the performances. Such work is a part of modern life and at the same time organically a part of the College community.
Though a closely knit unit, Black Mountain College is far from being an exclusive group. It believes more in the breaking down of barriers than in erecting new ones. It believes that a pattern of living tried out in a small group has its application in a wider one. It believes that the unification of theory and practice is a safeguard against illusions as well as against narrowmindedness. But such a unity will not be a safeguard only; it will show how one can take part in the shaping of the days to come.
Black Mountain College Bulletin 2:3, December 1943
Our world goes to pieces; we have to rebuild our world. We investigate and worry and analyze and forget that the new comes about through exuberance and not through a defined deficiency. We have to find our strength rather than our weakness. Out of the chaos of collapse we can save the lasting: we still have our "right" or "wrong," the absolute of our inner voice—we still know beauty, freedom, happiness . . . unexplained and unquestioned.
Intuition saves us examination. We have to gather our constructive energies and concentrate on the little we know, the few remaining constants. But do we know how to build? Education meant to prepare us. But how much of education is concerned with doing and how much with recording? How much of it with productive speculation and how much with repeating? Research work and engineering work, when they are creative, are too specialized to give any general basis of constructive attitude. We neglect a training in experimenting and doing; we feel safer as spectators. We collect rather than construct. We have to learn to respond to conditions productively. We cannot master them but we can be guided by them. Limitation from the outside can stimulate our inventiveness rather than confine it. We need such flexibility of reaction in times of crisis. Too much of our education provides instead of prepares and thus loses its serving role and tends to become an end in itself. We are proud of knowledge and forget that facts only give reflected light.
Education in general means to us academic education, which becomes synonymous with an unproductive one. If we want to learn to do, to form, we have to turn to art work, and more specifically to craft work as part of it. Here learning and teaching are directed toward the development of our general capacity to form. They are directed toward the training of our sense of organization, our constructive thinking, our inventiveness and imagination, our sense of balance in form—toward the apprehension of principles such as tension and dynamics . . . the long list of faculties which finally culminate in a creative act, or, more specifically in a work of art. On the basis of a creative attitude we can then add necessary information, the specialized studies.
Art work deals with the problem of a piece of art, but more, it teaches the process of all creating, the shaping out of the shapeless. We learn from it that no picture exists before it is done, no form before it is shaped. The conception of a work gives only its temper, not its consistency. Things take shape in material and in the process of working it, and no imagination is great enough to know before the works are done what they will be like.
We come to know in art work that we do not clearly know where we will arrive in our work, although we set the compass, our vision; that we are led, in going along, by material and work process. We have plans and blueprints, but the finished work is still a surprise. We learn to listen to voices: to the yes or no of our material, our tools, our time. We come to know that only when we feel guided by them our work takes on form and meaning, that we are misled when we follow only our will. All great deeds have been achieved under a sense of guidance.
We learn courage from art work. We have to go where no one was before us. We are alone and we are responsible for our actions. Our solitariness takes on religious character: this is a matter of my conscience and me.
We learn to dare to make a choice, to be independent. There is no authority to be questioned. In art work there is no established conception of work; any decision is our own, any judgment. Still, there is one right opinion as to quality of a work of art, spontaneous and indisputable—one of our absolutes. There is a final agreement upon it, of those initiated, no matter how much personal taste or trends of the time influence the judgment.
In making our choice we develop a standpoint. How much of today's confusion is brought about through not knowing where we stand, through the inability to relate experiences directly to us. In art work any experience is immediate. We have to apply what we absorb to our work of the moment. We cannot postpone the use of what we learn. Much of our education today prepares us for a later day, a day that never comes. Knowing for later is not knowing at all.
We learn to trust our intuition. No explaining and no analyzing can help us recognize an art problem or solve it, if thinking is our only relation to it. We have to rely on inner awareness. We can develop awareness, and clear thoughts may help us cultivate it, but the essence of understanding art is more immediate than any thinking about it. Too much emphasis is given today in our general education to intellectual training. An overemphasis of intellectual work suggests an understanding on a ground which is not the ground of our own experiences. It transposes understanding into assumed experiences which can be right but may be wrong. Our evaluation in school and university is almost entirely an evaluation of intellectuality. The inarticulateness of the artistic person is interpreted easily as a lack of intelligence while it is rather an intelligence expressing itself in other means than words.
Our intellectual training affects our analytic—art work our synthetic ability. We are used to thinking of art work as developing taste or a sense of beauty if not as training artists. We think more of its aesthetic qualities than its constructive ones. But the constructive forces are the ones we will need today and tomorrow. We will have to construct, not analyze or decorate.
That field of art which is the least academic, the least fortified by authority, will be best fitted to prepare for constructive process. The fine arts have accumulated much dignity.
The crafts? They have had a long rest. Industry overran them. We need too much too quickly for any handwork to keep up with. The crafts retreated, a defeated minority. We do not depend on their products now, but we need again their contact with material and their slow process of forming.
The fine arts have specialized on a few materials today, oil paints, water colors, clay, bronze—mostly obedient materials. But any material is good enough for art work. The crafts, too, limited themselves, keeping to woodwork, weaving, etc. But their materials are less easily subordinated. The struggle with a rugged material teaches us best a constructive discipline.
Resistance is one of the factors necessary to make us realize the characteristics of our medium and make us question our work procedure. We have to parry the material and adjust our plans to those of this opponent. When experimenting, we are forced into flexibility of reaction to it: we have to use imagination and be inventive.
We learn patience and endurance in following through a piece of work. We learn to respect material in working it. Formed things and thoughts live a life of their own; they radiate a meaning. They need a clear form to give a clear meaning. Making something become real and take its place in actuality adds to our feeling of usefulness and security. Learning to form makes us understand all forming. This is not the understanding or misunderstanding we arrive at through the amateur explaining to the amateur—appreciating—this is the fundamental knowing.
The difficult problems are the fundamental problems; simplicity stands at the end, not at the beginning of a work. If education can lead us to elementary seeing, away from too much and too complex information, to the quietness of vision and discipline of forming, it again may prepare us for the task ahead, working for today and tomorrow.
Published under the title "We Need the Crafts for their Contact with Materials"
Design, 46:4. December12, 1944
If the nature of architecture is the grounded, the fixed, the permanent, then textiles are its very antithesis. If, however, we think of the process of building and the process of weaving and compare the work involved, we will find similarities despite the vast difference in scale. Both construct a whole from separate parts that retain their identity, a manner of proceeding, fundamentally different from that of working metal, for instance, or clay, where parts are absorbed into an entity. This basic difference, however, has grown less clearly defined as new methods are developing, affecting both building and weaving, and are adding increasingly to fusion as opposed to linkage.
Both are ancient crafts, older even than pottery or metal work. In early stages they had in common the purpose of providing shelter, one for a settled life, the other for a life of wandering, a nomadic life. To this day they are characterized by the traits that made them suited to these two different tasks, obvious in the case of building, obscured, more or less, in that of textiles. Since the obvious hardly needs to be examined, let us turn to the less evident.
When we move about, we carry with us, above all else, the clothes we wear and these have always been of material, textile in its nature, if not actually a textile. We can recognize in leaves and bark and especially in hides and furs, prototypes of fabric and it is their use as our secondary skin, either in their paleolithic or their transposed form, that has made us independent of place, hour and season, in the remote past as today.
In our early history, such independence surely brought on a further immediate need, that for a transportable shelter. The same type of material which proved so suited for clothing was also appropriate here, a material that was pliable above all other characteristics and therefore easily portable. Hides stretched over poles were an efficient solution for this problem of shelter, for such a material, when expanded, could shed water, hold off the wind and give shade. In transit it could be folded; that is, reduced to a fraction of its extended size: the minimum tent.
In a life of wandering, not only what is carried has to be portable, but the means for carrying things have to be found and developed. A string that holds a bundle together, or a group of strings forming a net or bag are direct ancestors to our air-luggage today. The textile material, pliable and lightweight, is of utmost efficiency in transit. It is interesting to observe that our carrying cases with a need for decreasing weight in fast travel are becoming again more and more a mere bag of cloth. But from a string or a connected group of strings to a fabric, a long history of inventions passed. In distant history it may well have been the use of hides that challenged the inventive minds to fabricate a counterpart. Through thousands of years of textile experimentation, however, nature's remarkable model still stands unsurpassed in many of its practical aspects. But in the course of development the resulting "fabrics" have taken on characteristics that belong to them alone and which, in turn, perform in various ways better than the original example supplied by nature.
Initial attempts must have been concerned mainly with thread construction. In fact, excavations in the last decade in northern Peru brought to light innumerable small pieces of cloth that seem useless in their limited size unless understood as structural experiments. The earliest specimens show textile techniques other than weaving, but gradually weaving evolved and finally took over. It is interesting in this connection to observe that in ancient myths from many parts of the world it was a goddess, a female deity, who brought the invention of weaving to mankind. When we realize that weaving is primarily a process of structural organization this thought is startling, for today thinking in terms of structure seems closer to the inclination of men than women. A reason may have been that men as hunters supplied the skins of animals and that women as gatherers had pass through their hands along with berries and roots, textile raw material in the form of reeds, vines and grasses. Later, with weaving traditions established, embellishing as one of the weaver's tasks moved to the foreground and thus the feminine role in it has become natural in our eyes. Regardless of speculation as to origin, we know that it has taken generation after generation to perfect a method of interlacing threads that has proved in the course of time so potent in possibilities. What we should bear in mind here is the specific quality of textiles in regard to flexibility, pliability, and their high degree of performance relative to their weight, before taking up the part they play aesthetically.
From the first shelter of hides to the latest tent for camping 'in peace as in war, the idea of a transportable, and therefore lightweight house has remained essentially the same. The walls are of non-rigid, non-supporting material, a material of textile character if not a textile itself, a material that can easily be fastened to supports. Wherever provisional quarters have to be built speedily and independent of local material, the textile house, the tent, is the answer because of the inherent characteristic of cloth that one might call its nomadic nature. (The felt-lined tents, the yurts, used as houses in Outer Mongolia, can be dismantled in fifteen minutes, so The New York Times of October 21, 1956 reports.)
Shelter is perhaps the most vital use, besides clothing, that has been made of this pliable, quasi two-dimensional material. This two-dimensionality has played a major part in the making of textiles. Length never created a serious problem, while width on the other hand had to be solved by various inventions. Thinness of fabric, linked with lightness, is still a concern of weavers.
A further quality of cloth or of its antecedents should be added to our list: its ability to keep us warm, its non-conducting quality. Insulation is one of the performances of fabrics that is clearly apparent in clothing.
If a first need for textiles came with a need for clothing and shelter, the use of these textiles changed with changing needs, with the development of needs. Though they still protect us today against the weather in the form of clothes in our regular settled form of life, they no longer provide us with shelter except in our spells of nomadism, as tourists or warriors. With the discontinuance of this one major function textiles moved indoors, inside our habitations. If we recall the attributes we have given them: insulating, pliable, transportable, relatively lightweight, all of these have been and still are active, as they were outdoors, in the interiors of houses all over the world throughout the centuries. But with their relaxed duties, that is, no longer having to guard our life, they have accumulated more and more functions that belong to another realm—aesthetic functions. These, in time, have moved so much to the foreground that today "decoration" has become for many the first and sometimes only reason for using fabrics. In "decoration" we have an additive that we may well look at, if not skeptically, at least questioningly.
We can surmise that perhaps a parallel development, however faint, can be found in regard to clothing. We still, in certain climates and at certain seasons, need clothes as urgently as did our early ancestors. But with a sedentary life, with permanent, warm shelters, clothing is no longer a twenty-four hour problem in any weather. We dress indoors for other reasons than solely as protection against the cold or heat. That we dress for aesthetic reasons among others, has been proved with the first pretty fig leaf. Perhaps we even can say that part of our protective covering has moved indoors if we look at our bed with its sheets and blankets as a sort of clothing extension.
In general then, except for some of our clothes, textiles have taken on an indoor existence. Their protective duties have changed. Instead of keeping off the wind, they now may keep the sun from inside the house, and important today in a crowded world, protect the privacy of the inhabitants. They still give warmth, on floors for instance, and may give insulation from drafts as curtains—functions losing importance with improved building conditions. On the other hand they are taking on new tasks like sound- absorption, a problem growing with a noisier world. In fact, we ask of our fabrics more diversified services than ever before. Today we may want them to be light-reflecting, even fluorescent, crease-resistant or permanently pleated and have such invisible qualities as being water-repellent, fast-drying, non-shrinking, dust-shedding, spot-resistant and mildew-proof, to name only a few. We are witnessing today an acceleration of textile progress not even remotely resembling any other in history. Strangely, advances are not due to any improvements in weaving itself, that is to new inventions of thread interlacing. Here we can actually see a regression. The impressive textile development at present is almost entirely due to new chemical processes that bring us new fibers and finishes. In constant succession we find announcements of new textile materials and treatments that ". . . ize" our fabrics, from the already classic "Sanforize" to a surprising "sanitize"—self-explanatory—to an occasional absurdity such as "heavenize" riding the wave of the day's ". . . ize" promises.
But though these new qualities, often not visually apparent, show where the concentration of present textile progress lies, the traditional, visual qualities usually carry greater weight in the mind of the public, at least when concerned with settled life. A fabric is largely chosen because it is red, for instance, and often regardless of whether equipped with other virtues, in preference to one more sensibly endowed for a specific situation but lacking such instantaneous, visual appeal as that of color.
When we revert to nomadism, however, as travelers, we are open to textile behavior as were our distant forebears, with this difference, that the dominant, mobile quality of fabrics through usage in thousands of years is lost in general to our awareness, while we seek eagerly newly acquired features, suited to our speed of travel. One dacron-cotton shirt, fast-drying, absorbent and shape-retaining, may take us around the world.
In our settled existence the character of mobility in our fabrics is nevertheless manifest: as curtains they are drawn open or closed, letting in light or shutting it out, thereby changing dramatically the appearance of a room. As table mats or tablecloths they are put on and taken off again; as bedspreads they are removed at night. They can be lifted, folded, carried, stored away and exchanged easily; thus they bring a refreshing element of change into the now immobile house. The very fact of mobility makes them the carrier of extra aesthetic values. A red wall may become threatening in the constancy of a high pitch, while red curtains of equal color intensity and able to cover an equal area can be of great vitality and yet not overpowering because the red area can be varied by drawing the curtain. The perishable nature of fabrics, though in many respects a severe disadvantage, turns into an advantage when a red fabric can be replaced by a blue one for instance, more easily than is possible with most other materials. Their perishability is often a welcome reason for change. That color, texture, draping quality, gloss or dullness, etc. have become dominant as aesthetic components is a logical development. That we also overdo our textile furnishings today in many instances is a residue, it seems, from temps perdus, from periods in architecture less efficient than ours in providing controlled temperature.
Let us look closer. Let us assume someone is moving into quarters that today have those wires, pipes, buttons, etc. that serve to light and heat, supply with water or drain, cool and ventilate a place. Let us suppose that blinds at the windows regulate the light by day and guard the privacy by night. In short let us visualize it as ready to live in, once beds, chairs and tables, essentials to our western mind, have been moved in; a place that obviously can function virtually without textiles. Nevertheless, without them there will be a feeling of barrenness, even coldness, that can be justified in part and partly perhaps is no more than a matter of convention. What is missing through the lack of fabrics is presumably something that is warm to the touch, quite possibly color, the soft play of folds and the lustre or fuzz of fibers in contrast to flat, hard, and cool surfaces. On the floor, or on sections of it, we may miss a soft, sound-subduing and warming covering, a carpet or rug, and at the windows a light veil to keep out any glare and add to further privacy.
If today, we would go about the task of choosing fabrics guided by a clear head before we become engrossed in the spontaneous pleasures that color, surface, and the "hand" of cloth give us, our rooms would look uncluttered, spacious and serene. They would look animated by those qualities of materials that we know so intimately from wearing them: from their use next to our skin. And if we think of clothing as a secondary skin we might enlarge on this thought and realize that the enclosure of walls in a way is a third covering, that our habitation is another "habit."
It is not abundance or sparsity of fabrics though, that may date our interiors. It is as much the way our fabrics are used. Today we have no time for frills: we hang our curtains from ceiling to floor in straight folds. Instead of decorative additaments they thus become an integral architectural element, a counterpart to solid walls. Mies van der Rohe was one of the first to use them in this architectural form. Le Corbusier, in a different way, incorporates textiles into an architectural scheme, using them as enormous flat wall-panels, banners, that carry color and form and serve perhaps also as sound-absorbing flats. Above all they become a focal point, as in the halls of his Indian High Court of Justice at Chandigarh.
This is not an altogether new use. Large tapestries have for centuries been used as pictorial walls and rugs as pictorial floors, warming, but principally centralizing our attention. A beautiful view, the flickering of a fire, the play of water, flowers, all serve as such a focal point. If man-made, it is only art that is able to hold our interest any length of time. There seems to be no real place today for "almost art," for embellishment and for ornamentation: the elaborated detail. Perhaps it is the restlessness of our manner of western living that has to be achieved by a planned simplicity, a strong subordination of details to the overall conception of an architectural plan. When we decorate we detract and distract.
Textiles themselves have responded to a large degree to this keynote of calm by showing, instead of mainly patterns, overall textural designs and solid colors. By introducing materials suited to partitioning sections of interiors, they have contributed specifically to impressions of spaciousness and lightness in our living areas, that is, to tranquility. Fabrics, however, could be incorporated into the interior planning far beyond an occasional partition. A museum, to give a large scale example, could set up textile panels instead of rigid ones, to provide for the many subdivisions and backgrounds it needs. Such fabric walls could have varying degrees of transparency or be opaque, even light-reflecting. They could be interchanged easily with changing needs and would bring an intensified note of airiness to a place. In ancient Japanese houses veil-like fabric panels were used to form rooms and to allow the breeze to pass through. (The Japanese movie "Gate of Hell" shows such use in early times.)
The essentially structural principles that relate the work of building and weaving could form the basis of a new understanding between the architect and the inventive weaver. New uses of fabrics and new fabrics could result from a collaboration; and textiles, so often no more than an after-thought in planning, might take a place again as a contributing thought.
Perspecta The Yale Architectural Journal 4, 1957
Abridged and reprinted as "Fabric. The Pliable Plane," in Craft Horizons, 18, July-August 1958
1941 Handweaving Today: Textile Work at Black Mountain College
1943 Black Mountain College
1944 One Aspect of Art Work
1957 The Pliable Plane: textiles in Architecture