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The First Annual Conference of American Craftsmen was held under the auspices of the American Craftsmen’s Council on June 12-14, 1957 at the Asilomar Conference Center on the Monterey Peninsula in California. The conference was eagerly anticipated and highly attended, with 450 craftsmen who came from 30 states to meet and learn from their fellow craftsmen. Attendees were professionals and amateurs as well as craft leaders from foreign countries (Asger Fischer, director of Denmark’s Den Permanente), teachers, gallery and museum executives (Millard Sheets, director of the Los Angeles County Art Institute), design and craft students, industrial designers (Charles Eames), students of industrial design, proprietors of craft shops, collectors, and editors.
The theme of the conference was “Craftsmen Today,” and Aileen Osborn Webb, president of the ACC, said its aim was “to afford participants from all over the United States the chance to meet, communicate, and cooperate in solving problems; to formulate, through discussion and interchange of ideas, a basic understanding of the place of the craftsman in our contemporary society – the philosophical and sociological role of the crafts, the need of a creative and experimental approach to design and the craftsman’s practical problems of production, marketing, and industrial affiliation….”
Mrs. Webb and David B. Campbell, the ACC's executive vice president, designated a theme for each day. Morning meetings explored the theme as it affected all craftsmen, and afternoon breakout sessions continued the thematic discussions - broken into panels by media. Day one was the socio-economic outlook, or the craftsman’s relationship to his society in economic, social, and aesthetic terms. Day two was about design, and its importance and relation to techniques. The day also included a discussion about the jurying process. Day three was devoted to the problem of professional practices and the small businessman.
There were areas of agreement common to all the panels: All panels agreed that technique was essential to learn for design to be the most effectively expressed, that design was the creative aspect of the work, but that the craftsman knits design and technique to create well-made functional objects within the framework of his personal aesthetic; that technical secrets should not be kept secret, but should be shared by all who want to use them.
At the end of the conference, a rehashing of what had taken place was typified by the comment of panelist Jack Larsen: “The top people came and have related themselves to the American Craftsmen’s Council. Fifty years from now, we will date the beginning of a national movement to Asilomar.” David Campbell said, "…if we discovered nothing else out of this meeting, we discovered that we need all the different approaches. The field of the crafts is as broad as life itself, and it has to contain every variety and every variable. Whatever your approach to the work is, in the end the only thing that counts is the work.”
Forty years after the conference, Joyce Linman wrote an article called “Recalling Asilomar” for the June/July 1997 issue of American Craft. In it, Harvey Littleton, who working as a ceramist at the time of the conference, said: “The first ACC conference was a great breakthrough for us. It gave us a chance to meet in a national forum – a voice for the craftsman.” Of the eventual proliferation of national groups devoted to various craft media, Littleton observed, “It all started with Asilomar.” Woodworker Sam Maloof said, “Asilomar brought us all together. There was a feeling of fellowship. I’ve been to a lot of conferences since, but none have had that same magic.”
Lifelong friendships were forged, like that between young potter Toshiko Takaezu and weaver Lenore Tawney. Stories were created and shared, such as Mrs. Webb picking greens (which turned out to be poison oak) to brighten up the assembly hall. Weaver Jack Lenore Larson recalled that after treatment in Sausalito, Mrs. Webb “came back looking like a mummy, bandaged from head to toe. She didn’t let it stop her for a moment.” Clay artist Peter Voulkos played his classical guitar in his sleeping quarters in the evening, and the barbecue of the first evening concluded with fancy jitterbugging.
Larson concluded that Asilomar was, “an amazing celebration.” Its lasting legacy was framed by Takaezu this way: “The seed of the craft movement was, I felt, planted by David Campbell and Mrs. Webb. And it has blossomed.”
We have digitized the full 168-page proceedings of Asilomar: First Annual Conference of American Craftsmen (sponsored by the American Craftsmen’s Council), and made it freely available to read. It is - for the most part - a condensation of the transcript with abridgements of speeches and excerpts from panel discussions, and it constitutes a day-by-day account in the words of the conferees themselves.
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