Studying the history of art and design, we’ve already discovered that art is often a reaction to what’s gone before.
The Arts and Crafts Movement was a reaction to the poor quality design during the industrial revolution.
The following images are from the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in London in 1851. This exposition was the brainchild of Prince Albert and celebrated Industry and exhibited the latest technology. What it didn’t show was the darker side of industrialisation. The Arts and Crafts advocates criticized back the production as machines replaced workers; they believed that the group of industry had destroyed traditional skills and removed the pride that the craftsman can find in his work.
Some members of the movement formed themselves into craft guilds based on medieval examples in order to encourage high standards of design and provide a secured working environment.
The Gothic revival also had a strong impact on the Arts and Crafts style. Its interest in all things medieval and the use of strong forms and colours appealed to artists. Straightforward use of material, structure and function, promoted by A.W.N. Pugin were shared principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The central figure in the movement was the British designer William Morris who was inspired by the writings of Ruskin. In 1861 he founded his first company which produced a wide range of decorative objects for the home, including furniture, fabrics, wallpaper and stained glass. He was also known as a poet and a writer, and in 1890 he became a printer setting up the Kelmscott Press, establishing a print shop at Hammersmith in January of 1891. Between 90 and 98, they produced 53 books. Kelmscott was the culmination for Morris’s life as a craftsman. He set out to prove that the high standards of the past could be repeated and even surpassed. The books he produced were medieval in design, their aesthetic of an art fluent in the fifteenth century. His golden type for example was inspired by the work of the early Venetian printer Nicolas Jenson, noteworthy for the harmony of type and illustration more as a goal which to have each book seems to have a whole and including taking painstaking care with all aspects of production.
The high standard of Kelmscott books inspired a revival of private presses all around Europe and America and impacted both typography and graphic design.
William Morris combined his artistic skills with strong political beliefs, a committed conservationist and a socialist, he dedicated his life to the idea that art should improve the lives of ordinary people. Morris believed that the machine degraded both the creator and the consumer.
Arts and crafts designs were characterized by simplicity of forms, function and decoration. American arts and crafts will be closely linked to the work of Morris along with the second generation of British designers such as Charles Robert Ashbee who will visit the United States.
Ashbee designed important pieces of jewellery and silver tableware for the Guild of Handicraft established in 1888 in the East End of London. The Guild’s work was characterized by plain surfaces of hammered silver, flowing wirework and coloured stamps in simple sets.
C.F.A. Voysey whose work was known throughout important publications such as The Studio, had a highly original style which combined simplicity and sophistication. He was known for his wallpaper and textile designs which featured stylised birds and plain forms with bold outlines and flat colours.
The vernacular or everyday domestic traditions of rural Britain were major inspirations for the Arts and Crafts Movement. Many of those embarked set up workshops in rural areas and revived old techniques. Simple forms were one of the whole marks of the style, there was no extravagant or superfluous decoration. And the actual construction of the object was often exposed.
Nature was an important source for the Arts and Crafts motives. The patterns used were inspired by the flora and the fauna of the British countryside. Unfortunately, the English Arts and Crafts came to stress the craftsmanship at the expense of mass market pricing. The result was exquisitely made in decorated pieces that could only be afforded by the very wealthy. Thus the idea of art for the people was lost and only relatively few craftsmen could be employed at making these fine pieces. The crafts guilds gave themselves names such as The Guild of Saint George, the Art Workers’ Guild and the Guild of Handicraft. Arthur McMurdo was another progressive architect and designer who influenced the movement, notably though the Century Guild. He set up a partnership with Selwyn Image. In 1884, the guild published a quarterly journal entitled Hobby Horse to promote their aims and ideals, in particular they championed the craft of printing.
In the US, the goal of design for the masses was more fully realized, abandoning with the expensive fine individualized craftsmanship typical of the English style. In New York, Gustav Stickley was trying to serve a growing market of middle-class consumers who wanted affordable easy of copy furniture. By using factory methods to produce the basic frameworks and utilizing craftsmen to finish and assemble, he was able to produce sturdy, serviceable furniture sold in mass quantities and surviving still today.
The rectilinear simpler American Arts and Crafts style went to dominate architecture, interiors and furnishing in the late 19th and early 20th century. The term Mission Style was also used to describe Arts and Crafts in the US reflecting the influence of traditional furnishing in the interiors of the American South West which had many features in common with Arts and Crafts. Charles and Henry Greene were important Mission Style architects working in California and incorporated Hispanic elements associate with early Mission and Spanish architecture in Native American design. The result was a blending of Arts and Crafts rectilinear forms with traditional Spanish colonial architecture and furnishings.
Another American, Elbert Hubbard met William Morrison in visit in England in 1894. He was unable to find a publisher for his book Little Journeys but was so inspired by Morrison’s Kelmscott Press that he decided to set up his own press and printed the book himself, founding Roycroft Press. Hubbard proved to be such a prolific and popular writer that fame and fortune soon followed. His support of the Arts and Crafts approach attracted a number of visiting craftspeople to East Aurora, New York, where they formed a community of printers, furniture makers, metal smiths, leather smiths and bookbinders. Pottery was one of the crafts not produced in abundance in the original Roycroft Community, but since the 1970s, artists in the area have marketed Arts and Crafts ceramics on the Roycroft Campus in New York.
Opposition to modern methods of production, and a tendency to look back to the medieval world rather than forward to a more progressive era of mechanization was was eventually defeated the Arts and Crafts Movement. The socialist idea of producing affordable quality hand-crafted design for the masses failed as the production costs of their designs were so high that they could only be purchased by the wealthy.