(Published on the KPBS arts blog, Culture Lust, August 4, 2010)
By Dave Hampton
They’ve been at it for generations. Since 1941, members of the Lemurian Order have quietly practiced their beliefs and offered correspondence courses from a remote site high on the boulder-strewn slopes northeast of San Diego.
A hand-wrought sign along State Route 67 marks the way up the hill to the Lemurian Fellowship. There’s something about that sign. At once rustic and strangely sophisticated, it has just the right proportions and materials.
Little can be seen from the highway except a glimpse of empty road leading up into the light.
Who are these mysterious Lemurians and do they wear… robes?
Well, technically, they’re a nonprofit religious corporation, a non-denominational group formed to disseminate 12 lessons, or Lemurian teachings, all based on ancient wisdom they trace back to civilizations on the lost continents of Mu and Atlantis.
These teachings were revealed to a gold prospecting, world traveling, osteopath turned fiction writer named Dr. Robert D. Stelle, who founded the Lemurian Fellowship in 1936. After short periods in Chicago, Milwaukee and Chula Vista, the Fellowship acquired property in 1941 near Ramona, California, where they’ve resided ever since.
The Fellowship describes itself as a school of universal philosophy and “the only earthly organization authorized to work directly with those individuals who desire to embrace the Lemurian Philosophy and help fulfill the Great Work.”
The Fellowship members I’ve met are warm, good humored folks. Eccentric, perhaps, but in a banal, dress shirt and slacks way (no robes). Their karmic laws, ethical principles, spiritual evolution and far-fetched historical perspective hardly come as a big surprise. And predictably, they’re looking forward to a better world in the form of a post-Armageddon New Order (The now-forming Kingdom of God).
What is surprising – what’s really fantastic – is the Fellowship’s contribution to 20th century modern design.
It’s true. Ancient Lemurian wisdom was featured at the Museum of Modern Art and households across the US in the form of mid-century objects made by Lemurian Crafts, “an effort by a handful of students of the Lemurian Order to make artistic and useful products and market them.”
Initially, the Fellowship was supported by student fees, book sales, and early mail order products like “Flipper,” a painted wooden duck pull-toy with leather feet. Not just a pragmatic approach to economics – or “prosperity consciousness” – their products also had deeper meaning as manifestations of Lemurian philosophy in action.
But after WWII, the look of Lemurian Crafts evolved rapidly toward Modernism – an aesthetic movement that’s frequently associated with spirituality and earnest idealism.
A 1946 Desert Magazine ad suggests that sophisticated taste, materials and craftsmanship found in a Lemurian Crafts cigarette box “fashioned from Honduras Mahogany, carefully styled to the tempo and comfort of Western living” had replaced Flipper, the pull-toy.
Woodworking was their first triumph.
A line of lathe-turned dinnerware, called “Simplicity,” with plates, bowls, salad servers and “beakers” appeared in the Fall, 1949 issue of Furniture Forum Magazine, a leading trade publication dedicated to modern design. The sleek shapes created by Lemurian Crafts, in oil-finished walnut and mahogany, fit seamlessly with mid-century furniture and interiors.
They also show up repeatedly in the pages of Arts & Architecture Magazine (sponsor of the hugely influential Case Study Program) and were included in the prestigious “Good Design” shows at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).
In 1952, MOMA acquired a Lemurian Crafts beaker in black walnut for its permanent collection of Architecture and Design objects.
Another New York institution, the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, selected a lignum vitae (ironwood) vase for its 1956 “Craftsmanship in a Changing World” exhibition. That show subsequently toured the country, including a stop at the Del Mar Fair.
Curiously, this level of recognition indicates that Lemurian philosophy in action, manifest through modern design and marketed alongside the best 20th century American designers, achieved genuine prominence in the American design world.
Custom work in the 1940s and 1950s for designers like Robsjohn Gibbings and Gerald Jerome, local enamel artists Jackson and Ellamarie Woolley and Los Angeles silversmith Allan Adler involved everything from large mosaic wall plaques to mobiles and table lamps.
This variety of requests is probably what led Lemurian Crafts to develop a line of custom architectural hardware; an idea so successful that it displaced their woodworking altogether.
By the early 1960s their disc, bow tie and boomerang-shaped door handles were much sought after by modern architects such as Henry Hester (who used them for the penthouse of his Salomon Apartments) and wound up on commercial buildings across the country.
Inlaid stone, marble and ceramic tile offset the lustrous brass, bronze and aluminum push plates, door pulls and handles. These are still in use on some the Fellowship buildings, designed by prolific Palm Springs modernist William Cody. The striking designs represented the Fellowship’s abiding devotion to modernism.
By the late 1970s, demand for their architectural products ebbed and production ceased altogether, as those who brought Modernism to the Lemurian Fellowship grew old and eventually transitioned. In the last twenty years the Fellowship has returned to working exclusively with wood. They’re currently known for making elegant music stands.
Marked only by obscure glyphs, scattered over time and space, objects created by Lemurian Crafts in decades past have become modern relics, virtually impossible to find, like the lost continents and civilizations whose ancient wisdom inspired their makers.