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C. F. A. Voysey

Textile design by C F A Voysey, produced by Alexander Morton & Co in 1898.

Charles Francis Annesley Voysey was, by all accounts, a difficult man. I’ve had a craving for his work since first learning about him in the early 1960s; then, seeing my first example in the summer of 1971, I was addicted. Whether Voysey’s “difficulty” was directed at employees, clients, friends or family, I don’t know. It was unlikely to have been clients because he had dozens, mostly residential.

[Hell. By most accounts, I’m a difficult man.]

In a new book on the Arts & Crafts architectural heritage of England’s Lake District, I found this wonderful quote from Voysey, his “formula” for successful domestic design:

Repose, Cheerfulness, Simplicity, Breadth, Warmth, Quietness in a storm, Economy of upkeep, Evidence of protection, Harmony with surroundings, Absence of dark passages, Evenness of temperature, and making the house a frame to its inmates. Doors wide of proportion, to suggest a welcome, not standoffishly dignified like a coffin lid.

“Inmates”? Now there’s a word that distances us from both his time and place.

Since Voysey died in 1941—at the age of eighty-four, more or less—it’s tempting to pigeonhole these remarks with other quaint notions, like literacy and penmanship and deference to elders, for example. Over the last weekend I had the misfortune to watch a Kardashian marathon and now can’t imagine a band of miscreants less worthy of Voysey’s vision than Kourtney, Khloë, Kim & Kompany. Yes, his clients were among Britain’s upper class—what “percent” I’m not prepared to calculate—but he was also fully capable of applying those criteria to smaller commissions for the middle class, or what passed for it in the years before the First World War.

Fresh from a third-year design studio, I can admit that twenty-somethings have a very difficult time with one thing that Voysey handled so well: ornament. As a product myself of the Modern Movement, ornament ought to be a “four-letter word,” so my embrace of honest ornamentation defies understanding. It was only very, very late in the semester that I began to sense what I was asking students to do: something not necessarily against their nature, but certainly beyond their architectonic experience.

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Quite aside from what passes for my spirituality, soul-searching comes easily—perhaps too easily. So here are the horns of my dilemma: can I in good conscience espouse the picturesque architectural ideas of a century ago?

Which brings me to the matter of computers.


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