From the Collection–Byrdcliffe Colony Chest

Zulma Steele (American, 1881–1979) designer, Chest, ca. 1904. Produced at Byrdcliffe Colony, Woodstock, New York. Poplar and original copper hardware. Milwaukee Art Museum, Layton Art Collection L1993.5.1. Photo by Efraim Lev-er.

In honor of women’s history month, here is one of the Museum collection’s most striking objects from the Arts & Crafts Movement–an object that happens to have been designed by a woman.

This poplar wood chest was made at the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony near Woodstock, New York and features a relief panel designed by Zulma Steele. Steele–a talented painter, potter, and designer–arrived at the idyllic community of craftsmen at age 22 in 1903 and became a lifelong resident. She was one of many women drawn to the community in search of an independent artistic career instead of the traditional, subservient role of wife that was prevalent among her contemporaries.

Like other artists associated the the Arts & Crafts movement, Steele was inspired by nature. She sketched from the trees and flowers in the surrounding Catskill Mountains. This chest and the design drawing below show a chestnut floral design, and on other works we see irises, wild carrots, maple leafs, or the ampelopsis (a vining shrub) on the desk and three design drawings in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

Zulma Steele (American, 1881–1979), Chestnut Design for Carved Crest Rail, ca. 1904. Produced at Byrdcliffe Colony. Carbon paper, pencil. Milwaukee Art Museum, Layton Art Collection L1993.7.4. Photo by Efraim Lev-er.

Zulma Steele (American, 1881–1979) designer, Side Chair, ca. 1904. Produced at Byrdcliffe Colony, Woodstock, New York. Wood, cherry, leather upholstery. Milwaukee Art Museum, Layton Art Collection L1993.4.1. Photo by John R. Glembin.

Byrdcliffe was a Utopian community of people that believed in the spiritual value of arts.  Its wealthy founders, Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead and his wife Jane Byrd McCall Whitehead, were followers of Arts & Crafts movement writer and social thinker John Ruskin (English, 1819-1900). The Whiteheads used an industrial inheritance in 1902 to found a community of men and women making arts and crafts in a healthy, beautiful setting. At its peak between 1903 and 1910, Byrdcliffe had about 200 working artists and artisans. The Colony’s mission was to produce beautiful handmade objects that would finance the community, to offer classes in all the crafts to train future generations, and to promote a healthful working farm lifestyle.

However, in many ways, Byrdcliffe was a failure. Its objects were never commercially profitable and they probably produced only about 50 pieces of furniture. “Artistic” temperaments gave rise to some infighting. For years the colony languished in relative cultural obscurity.

Zulma Steele (American, 1881–1979), Design for Side Chair with Carved Crest Rail, ca. 1904. Produced at Byrdcliffe Colony. Pencil, watercolor. Milwaukee Art Museum, Layton Art Collection L1993.7.2. Photo by Efraim Lev-er.

In other ways, though, Byrdcliffe was immensely successful. It was host to numerous writers, artists and musician. Today as we review the cultural force of the turn-of-the-century Crafts Movement through exhibitions or art history criticism, artists and objects from the Byrdcliffe colony are stalwart to the American discussion.  And, however commercially disastrous the original venture, the founders’ ideal is still alive today in the current Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild of artists.

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Byrdcliffe, in 2004 the Milwaukee Art Museum was the opening venue for the major museum exhibition Byrdcliffe: An American Arts and Crafts Colony. The exhibition traveled to Cornell University’s Johnson Museum of Art, the Albany Institute of History and Art, the New York Historical Society, and the Winterthur Museum. The companion catalog, edited by the exhibition’s curator Nancy E. Green, is out of print but can be found on the second hand market and is a tremendous resource of images and scholarship on everything Byrdcliffe.

Mel Buchanan is the Assistant Curator of 20th-century Design. Mel’s curatorial responsibility includes interpreting, displaying, and building the Museum’s collection of craft, design, and decorative objects.

About Mel Buchanan

Mae E. Demmer Assistant Curator of 20th c Design, Milwaukee Art Museum. Lover of museums, objects, and cilantro
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2 Responses to From the Collection–Byrdcliffe Colony Chest

  1. I read your women’s history month entry on Byrdcliffe with interest and not a little dismay. There are highly questionable assertions, which you as a curator in charge of interpretation might want to consider revising.

    The most important revision given the context of women’s history would be in the captions that attribute of the furniture designs to Steele. I am well aware that some of the drawings of furniture bear Steele’s signature, but that means only that she made the drawings. She signed drawings of furniture that have decorative designs by both Dawson Dawson-Watson and Edna Walker. It is true to say she designed specific decorations like the lily on the back of your chair. I tried to get Ms Green to correct her seriously flawed catalogue without success.

    “Steele–a talented painter, potter, and designer–arrived at the idyllic community of craftsmen at age 22 in 1903 and became a lifelong resident. She was one of many women drawn to the community in search of an independent artistic career instead of the traditional, subservient role of wife that was prevalent among her contemporaries.”

    Steele married Nelson Parker in 1926 and the pair built a big stone house (with a studio for Edna Walker) miles away from Byrdcliffe. There is nothing in the record to support the biased premise that she was not a subservient wife because she made art. Some women may have found an “independent artistic career” at Byrdcliffe, but it is facile to say that they were “in search” of such a career or that the community was set up in any way that fostered female independence in a non-traditional way. Ralph Radcliffe-Whitehead was an elitist, a chauvinist, and a womanizer who expected both male and female artists to be subservient to his whims. Hervey White, Marie Little, and Steele were among his victims.

    “Like other artists associated the the [sic] Arts & Crafts movement, Steele was inspired by nature. She sketched from the trees and flowers in the surrounding Catskill Mountains. This chest and the design drawing below show a chestnut floral design, and on other works we see irises, wild carrots, maple leafs, or the ampelopsis (a vining shrub) on the desk and three design drawings in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.”

    Which artist of which era or movement was not inspired by nature? Was a Redouté painting of a rose not inspired by nature? Was a Rubens nude not inspired by nature? I know you want to suggest (in a dumbed-down way appropriate for a short blurb) that followers of the Arts and Crafts movement used motifs they saw in nature differently from the way Belter used a carved flower. The whole Ruskinian bit about indigenous materials or the Dow methods of conventionalization that Steele was taught probably could be reduced to a couple of succinct sentences with a lot of very careful thought.

    In a similarly unclear summarization you write: “Byrdcliffe was a Utopian community of people that believed in the spiritual value of arts.” If “spiritual value of art” means anything at all, what would be the difference between the beliefs of Byrdcliffe artists and the artists who decorated and furnished Fontainebleau?

    Byrdcliffe never had “about 200 working artists” even in 1903 when the crafts enterprise was most fully operational. By 1910, most residents were temporary summer renters who were there for R&R and not for craft or fine-art training or production. Commercial profitability is a useless measure in assessing Byrdcliffe’s success or failure if only because the Whiteheads were dilettantes not much interested in marketing Byrdcliffe production as a means to sustain the colony. In fact Ralph Whitehead’s and Marie Little’s weavings sold well. Jane and Ralph’s White Pines pottery sold as did Pitman/Hardenburgh/Steele pottery. The colony was not set up to commercialize its products with Byrdcliffe branding as, for example, Hubbard did at Roycroft or Stickley did at the Craftsman factory. The founders’ ideal is barely “alive today in the current Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild of artists.” Struggling to maintain the original Byrdcliffe campus buildings, the Guild board came up with an idea to pay for that maintenance by selling off the founders’ home at the heart of the colony, which would have gone against Peter Whitehead’s will as well as his parents’ ideals.

  2. Mel Buchanan says:

    Dear Mr. Edwards,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments–I’m thrilled to have a Byrdcliffe expert weighing in. Because I have done no independent research into the Colony, I relied on Nancy Green’s assessment for this blog post. In my summary, I admit that I could not be as thorough as your adept analysis. Instead, in a short allotment of words, I was hoping to direct readers to a variety of interpretive avenues.

    I apologize for the confusion regarding attribution of the furniture to Steele. In using “designer” rather than “maker” I hoped to be clear that she did not make the object, but only was involved through her signed design drawings.

    I look forward to someday seeing updated information published about the rich Byrdcliffe colony.

    Sincerely, Mel

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