Rudolf Steiner’s active involvement in the debate about the effect of machines and machine production on human life and his aesthetic based on natural and organic forms greatly influenced Waldorf education.
Wherever possible, Waldorf school architecture and interior design are based on natural, non-rectilinear forms. This is not only out of aesthetic concern. Steiner said that the buildings in which we live, learn and work have a profound effect on our moral life. Also, arts and handcrafts have an important, even central, role in the Waldorf school curriculum.
According to Steiner’s aesthetic, each artistic creation should capture the vitality, fluid beauty and uniqueness that living organisms manifest. While machine-made goods are uniform, handmade things are beautiful by virtue of their irregularity. A hand-carved wooden bowl or spoon, a hand-knitted scarf or hat, a wall that has been lazured (i.e., painted with many layers of thin watercolor washes), a piece of hand-dyed cloth-each of which can be found in a typical Waldorf classroom-express this sensibility. Natural materials such as wood rather than synthetic materials such as plastic also support this aesthetic. For this reason, in a Waldorf school the children’s desks and chairs are usually made of unpainted wood so that the natural beauty of the grain can show. In their crafts and handwork, the children-beginning in the kindergarten-use natural materials such as beeswax, clay and unspun wool-and experience with their hands the living beauty of the natural world.
The importance of handwork in the Waldorf curriculum is related to the dichotomy of the machine-made and the handmade product. The very imperfection of handmade goods is a mark of dignity and bears witness to the limitations that make the artisan-and all of us, by extension-human. When the first grader finger-crochets a circular mat, or when the sixth grader learns to cut a pattern and sew together a stuffed animal, mistakes inevitably arise and corrections and revisions are made. These provide lessons in humility-in the original sense of the word-derived as it is from humus, Latin for “earth.”
The child’s experience of fallibility is an experience of her relationship to the rest of nature. It is this relationship, this connection that Steiner and other thinkers of his day realized the machine would alter.
Also, the children experience in handwork class the absolute uniqueness of each human being. Given the same materials and the same instruction and employing the same methods, a class of fifteen children will create fifteen unique pieces of work. — Article by Carmine Iannaccone, a Waldorf Handwork and Fine Arts teacher in Arizona.