The Arts and Crafts movement was an international movement in the decorative and fine arts that began in Britain and flourished in Europe and North America between about 1880 and 1920, emerging in Japan (the Mingei movement) in the 1920s. It stood for traditional craftsmanship using simple forms, and often used medieval, romantic, or folk styles of decoration. It advocated economic and social reform and was essentially anti-industrial. It had a strong influence on the arts in Europe until it was displaced by Modernism in the 1930s, and its influence continued among craft makers, designers, and town planners long afterwards.
Informal movement in architecture and the decorative arts that championed the unity of the arts, the experience of the individual craftsman, and the qualities of materials and construction in the work itself The Arts and Crafts Movement developed in the second half of the 19th century and lasted well into the 20th, drawing its support from progressive artists, architects and designers, philanthropists, amateurs, and middle-class women seeking work in the home They set up small workshops apart from the world of industry, revived old techniques, and revered the humble household objects of pre-industrial times The movement was strongest in the industrializing countries of northern Europe and in the USA, and it can best be understood as an unfocused reaction against industrialization Although quixotic in its anti-industrialism, it was not unique; indeed it was only one among several late 19th-century reform movements, such as the Garden City movement, vegetarianism, and folksong revivals, that set the Romantic values of nature and folk culture against the artificiality of modern life
The term was first used by T. J. Cobden-Sanderson at a meeting of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1887, although the principles and style on which it was based had been developing in England for at least twenty years. It was inspired by the ideas of architect Augustus Pugin, writer John Ruskin, and designer William Morris.
The movement developed earliest and most fully in the British Isles, and spread across the British Empire and to the rest of Europe and North America. It was largely a reaction against the perceived impoverished state of the decorative arts at the time and the conditions in which they were produced.
Origins and influences
The Arts and Crafts movement emerged from the attempt to reform design and decoration in mid 19th century Britain. It was a reaction against a perceived decline in standards that the reformers associated with machinery and factory production. Their critique was sharpened by the items they saw in the Great Exhibition of 1851, which they considered to be excessively ornate, artificial and ignorant of the qualities of the materials used.
The art historian Nikolaus Pevsner has said that exhibits in the Great Exhibition showed “ignorance of that basic need in creating patterns, the integrity of the surface” and “vulgarity in detail”. Design reform began with the organisers of the Exhibition itself, Henry Cole (1808–1882), Owen Jones (1809–1874), Matthew Digby Wyatt (1820–1877) and Richard Redgrave (1804–1888), who deprecated excessive ornament and impractical and badly made things. The organisers were “unanimous in their condemnation of the exhibits.” Owen Jones, for example, complained that “the architect, the upholsterer, the paper-stainer, the weaver, the calico-printer, and the potter” produce “in art novelty without beauty, or beauty without intelligence.” From these criticisms of the contemporary state of manufactured goods emerged several publications which set out what the writers considered to be the correct principles of design. Richard Redgrave’s Supplementary Report on Design (1852) analysed the principles of design and ornament and pleaded for “more logic in the application of decoration.” Other works followed in a similar vein: Wyatt’s Industrial Arts of the Nineteenth Century (1853), Gottfried Semper’s Wissenschaft, Industrie und Kunst (“Science, Industry and Art”) (1852), Ralph Wornum’s Analysis of Ornament (1856), Redgrave’s Manual of Design (1876) and Jones’s Grammar of Ornament (1856). The Grammar of Ornament was particularly influential, liberally distributed as a student prize and running into nine reprints by 1910.
Jones declared that “Ornament … must be secondary to the thing decorated”, that there must be “fitness in the ornament to the thing ornamented”, and that wallpapers and carpets must not have any patterns “suggestive of anything but a level or plain”. Where a fabric or wallpaper in the Great Exhibition might be decorated with a natural motif made to look as real as possible, these writers advocated flat and simplified natural motifs. Redgrave insisted that “style” demanded sound construction before ornamentation, and a proper awareness of the quality of materials used. “Utility must have precedence over ornamentation.”
However, the design reformers of the mid 19th century did not go as far as the designers of the Arts and Crafts Movement: they were more concerned with ornamentation than construction, they had an incomplete understanding of methods of manufacture, and they did not criticise industrial methods as such. By contrast, the Arts and Crafts movement was as much a movement of social reform as design reform and its leading practitioners did not separate the two.
A. W. N. Pugin
Some of the ideas of the movement were anticipated by A.W.N. Pugin (1812–1852), a leader in the Gothic revival in architecture. For example, he, like the Arts and Crafts artists, advocated truth to material, structure and function. Pugin articulated the tendency of social critics to compare the faults of modern society (such as the sprawling growth of cities and the treatment of the poor) unfavorably with the Middle Ages, a tendency that became routine with Ruskin, Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. His book Contrasts (1836) drew examples of bad modern buildings and town planning in contrast with good medieval examples, and his biographer Rosemary Hill notes that in it he “reached conclusions, almost in passing, about the importance of craftsmaship and tradition in architecture that it would take the rest of the century and the combined efforts of Ruskin and Morris to work out in detail.” She describes the spare furnishings he specified for a building in 1841—”rush chairs, oak tables”—as “the Arts and Crafts interior in embryo.”
The Arts and Crafts philosophy derived in large measure from John Ruskin’s social criticism, which related the moral and social health of a nation to the qualities of its architecture and to the nature of work. Ruskin (1819–1900) considered the sort of mechanized production and division of labour that had been created in the industrial revolution to be “servile labour” and he thought that a healthy and moral society required independent workers who designed the things they made. His followers favoured craft production over industrial manufacture and were concerned about the loss of traditional skills, but they were arguably more troubled by effects of the factory system than by machinery itself and William Morris’s idea of “handicraft” was essentially work without any division of labour rather than work without any sort of machinery.
William Morris (1834–1896), the towering figure in late 19th century design, was the main influence on the Arts and Crafts movement. The aesthetic and social vision of the Arts and Crafts movement derived from ideas he developed in the 1850s with a group of students at the University of Oxford, who combined a love of Romantic literature with a commitment to social reform. By 1855 they had discovered Ruskin and, believing there to be a contrast between the barbarity of contemporary art and the painters preceding Raphael (1483-1530), they formed themselves into the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to pursue their artistic aims. The medievalism of Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur set the standard for their early style. In Edward Burne-Jones’ words, they intended to “wage Holy warfare against the age”.
Morris began experimenting with various crafts and designing furniture and interiors. He was personally involved in manufacture as well as design, which was to be the hallmark of the Arts and Crafts movement. Ruskin had argued that the separation of the intellectual act of design from the manual act of physical creation was both socially and aesthetically damaging; Morris further developed this idea, insisting that no work should be carried out in his workshops before he had personally mastered the appropriate techniques and materials, arguing that “without dignified, creative human occupation people became disconnected from life”.
In 1861 Morris began making furniture and decorative objects commercially, modeling his designs on medieval styles and using bold forms and strong colors. His patterns were based on flora and fauna and his products were inspired by the vernacular or domestic traditions of the British countryside. In order to display the beauty of the materials and the work of the craftsman, some were deliberately left unfinished, creating a rustic appearance. Truth to materials, structure and function became characteristic of the Arts and Crafts movement.
Social and design principles
Critique of industry
William Morris shared Ruskin’s critique of industrial society and at one time or another attacked the modern factory, the use of machinery, the division of labour, capitalism and the loss of traditional craft methods. But his attitude to machinery was inconsistent. He said at one point that production by machinery was “altogether an evil”, but at others he was willing to commission work from manufacturers who were able to meet his standards with the aid of machines; and he said that, in a “true society”, where neither luxuries nor cheap trash were made, machinery could be improved and used to reduce the hours of labour. Fiona MacCarthy says that “unlike later zealots like Gandhi, William Morris had no practical objections to the use of machinery per se so long as the machines produced the quality he needed.”
Morris insisted that the artist should be a craftsman-designer working by hand and advocated a society of free craftspeople, such as he believed had existed during the Middle Ages. “Because craftsmen took pleasure in their work”, he wrote, “the Middle Ages was a period of greatness the art of the common people. … The treasures in our museums now are only the common utensils used in households of that age, when hundreds of medieval churches—each one a masterpiece—were built by unsophisticated peasants.” Medieval art was the model for much Arts and Crafts design and medieval life, literature and building was idealised by the movement.
Morris’s followers also had differing views of about machinery and the factory system. C. R. Ashbee, for example, a central figure in the Arts and Crafts Movement, said in 1888, that, “We do not reject the machine, we welcome it. But we would desire to see it mastered.” After unsuccessfully pitting his Guild and School of Handicraft guild against modern methods of manufacture, he acknowledged that “Modern civilization rests on machinery”, but he continued to criticize the deleterious effects of what he called “mechanism”, saying that “the production of certain mechanical commodities is as bad for the national health as is the production of slave-grown cane or child-sweated wares.” William Arthur Smith Benson, on the other hand, had no qualms about adapting the Arts and Crafts style to metalwork produced under industrial conditions. (See quotation box.)
Morris and his followers believed the division of labour on which modern industry depended was undesirable, but the extent to which every design should be carried out by the designer was a matter for debate and disagreement. Not all Arts and Crafts artists carried out every stage in the making of goods themselves, and it was only in the twentieth century that that became essential to the definition of craftsmanship. Although Morris was famous for getting hands-on experience himself of many crafts (including weaving, dying, printing, calligraphy and embroidery), he did not regard the separation of designer and executant in his factory as problematic. Walter Crane, a close political associate of Morris’s, took an unsympathetic view of the division of labour on both moral and artistic grounds, and strongly advocated that designing and making should come from the same hand. Lewis Foreman Day, a friend and contemporary of Crane’s, as unstinting as Crane in his admiration of Morris, disagreed strongly with Crane. He thought that the separation of design and execution was not only inevitable in the modern world, but also that only that that sort of specialisation allowed the best in design and the best in making. Few of the founders of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society insisted that the designer should also be the maker. Peter Floud, writing in the 1950s, said that “The founders of the Society … never executed their own designs, but invariably turned them over to commercial firms.” The idea that the designer should be the maker and the maker the designer derived “not from Morris or early Arts and Crafts teaching, but rather from the second-generation elaboration doctrine worked out in the first decade of [the twentieth] century by men such as W. R. Lethaby”.
Many of the Arts and Crafts Movement designers were socialists, including Morris, T. J. Cobden Sanderson, Walter Crane, C.R.Ashbee, Philip Webb, Charles Faulkner and A.H.Mackmurdo. In the early 1880s Morris was spending more of his time on socialist propaganda than on designing and making. Ashbee established a community of craftsmen, the Guild of Handicraft, in east London, later moving to Chipping Campden. Those adherents who were not socialists, for example, Alfred Hoare Powell, advocated a more humane and personal relationship between employer and employee. Lewis Foreman Day, a very successful and influential Arts and Crafts designer, was not a socialist either, despite his long friendship with Crane.
Association with other reform movements
In Britain the movement was associated with dress reform, ruralism, the garden city movement and the folk-song revival. All were linked, in some degree, by the ideal of “the Simple Life”. In continental Europe the movement was associated with the preservation of national traditions in building, the applied arts, domestic design and costume.
Morris’s designs quickly became popular, attracting interest when his company’s work was exhibited at the 1862 International Exhibition in London. Much of Morris & Co’s early work was for churches and Morris won important interior design commissions at St James’s Palace and the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum). Later his work became popular with the middle and upper classes, despite his wish to create a democratic art, and by the end of the 19th century, Arts and Crafts design in houses and domestic interiors was the dominant style in Britain, copied in products made by conventional industrial methods.
The spread of Arts and Crafts ideas during the late 19th and early 20th centuries resulted in the establishment of many associations and craft communities, although Morris had little to do with them because of his preoccupation with socialism at the time. A hundred and thirty Arts and Crafts organisations were formed in Britain, most between 1895 and 1905.
In 1881, Eglantyne Louisa Jebb, Mary Fraser Tytler and others initiated the Home Arts and Industries Association to encourage the working classes, especially those in rural areas, to take up handicrafts under supervision, not for profit, but in order to provide them with useful occupations and to improve their taste. By 1889 it had 450 classes, 1,000 teachers and 5,000 students.
In 1882, architect A.H.Mackmurdo formed the Century Guild, a partnership of designers including Selwyn Image, Herbert Horne, Clement Heaton and Benjamin Creswick.
In 1884, the Art Workers Guild was initiated by five young architects, William Lethaby, Edward Prior, Ernest Newton, Mervyn Macartney and Gerald C. Horsley, with the goal of bringing together fine and applied arts and raising the status of the latter. It was directed originally by George Blackall Simonds. By 1890 the Guild had 150 members, representing the increasing number of practitioners of the Arts and Crafts style. It still exists.
The London department store Liberty & Co., founded in 1875, was a prominent retailer of goods in the style and of the “artistic dress” favoured by followers of the Arts and Crafts movement.
In 1887 the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, which gave its name to the movement, was formed with Walter Crane as president, holding its first exhibition in the New Gallery, London, in November 1888. It was the first show of contemporary decorative arts in London since the Grosvenor Gallery’s Winter Exhibition of 1881. Morris & Co. was well represented in the exhibition with furniture, fabrics, carpets and embroideries. Edward Burne-Jones observed, “here for the first time one can measure a bit the change that has happened in the last twenty years”. The society still exists as the Society of Designer Craftsmen.
In 1888, C.R.Ashbee, a major late practitioner of the style in England, founded the Guild and School of Handicraft in the East End of London. The guild was a craft co-operative modelled on the medieval guilds and intended to give working men satisfaction in their craftsmanship. Skilled craftsmen, working on the principles of Ruskin and Morris, were to produce hand-crafted goods and manage a school for apprentices. The idea was greeted with enthusiasm by almost everyone except Morris, who was by now involved with promoting socialism and thought Ashbee’s scheme trivial. From 1888 to 1902 the guild prospered, employing about 50 men. In 1902 Ashbee relocated the guild out of London to begin an experimental community in Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds. The guild’s work is characterized by plain surfaces of hammered silver, flowing wirework and colored stones in simple settings. Ashbee designed jewellery and silver tableware. The guild flourished at Chipping Camden but did not prosper and was liquidated in 1908. Some craftsmen stayed, contributing to the tradition of modern craftsmanship in the area.
C.F.A. Voysey (1857–1941) was an Arts and Crafts architect who also designed fabrics, tiles, ceramics, furniture and metalwork. His style combined simplicity with sophistication. His wallpapers and textiles, featuring stylised bird and plant forms in bold outlines with flat colors, were used widely.
Morris’s thought influenced the distributism of G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Arts and Crafts ideals had influenced architecture, painting, sculpture, graphics, illustration, book making and photography, domestic design and the decorative arts, including furniture and woodwork, stained glass, leatherwork, lacemaking, embroidery, rug making and weaving, jewelry and metalwork, enameling and ceramics. By 1910, there was a fashion for “Arts and Crafts” and all things hand-made. There was a proliferation of amateur handicrafts of variable quality and of incompetent imitators who caused the public to regard Arts and Crafts as “something less, instead of more, competent and fit for purpose than an ordinary mass produced article.”
The Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society held eleven exhibitions between 1888 and 1916. By the outbreak of war in 1914 it was in decline and faced a crisis. Its 1912 exhibition had been a financial failure. While designers in continental Europe were making innovations in design and alliances with industry through initiatives such as the Deutsche Werkbund and new initiatives were being taken in Britain by the Omega Workshops and the Design in Industries Association, the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, now under the control of an old guard, was withdrawing from commerce and collaboration with manufacturers into purist handwork and what Tania Harrod describes as “decommoditisation” Its rejection of a commercial role has been seen as a turning point in its fortunes. Nikolaus Pevsner in his book Pioneers of Modern Design presents the Arts and Crafts Movement as design radicals who influenced the modern movement, but failed to change and were eventually superseded by it.
The British artist potter Bernard Leach brought to England many ideas he had developed in Japan with the social critic Yanagi Soetsu about the moral and social value of simple crafts; both were enthusiastic readers of Ruskin. Leach was an active propagandist for these ideas, which struck a chord with practitioners of the crafts in the inter-war years, and he expounded them in A Potter’s Book, published in 1940, which denounced industrial society in terms as vehement as those of Ruskin and Morris. Thus the Arts and Crafts philosophy was perpetuated among British craft workers in the 1950s and 1960s, long after the demise of the Arts and Crafts movement and at the high tide of Modernism. British Utility furniture of the 1940s also derived from Arts and Crafts principles. One of its main promoters, Gordon Russell, chairman of the Utility Furniture Design Panel, was imbued with Arts and Crafts ideas. He manufactured furniture in the Cotswold Hills, a region of Arts and Crafts furniture-making since Ashbee, and he was a member of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. William Morris’s biographer, Fiona MacCarthy, detected the Arts and Crafts philosophy even behind the Festival of Britain (1951), the work of the designer Terence Conran (b. 1931) and the founding of the British Crafts Council in the 1970s.
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