The Arts and Crafts movement:A bridge between traditional Victorian and the modern movement

William Morris’ Red House in London designed by Philip Webb. Completed 1860, it is one of the most significant buildings of the Arts and Crafts Movement

The Arts and Crafts movement, one of the most influential of modern art movements, initially developed in England during the late 19th century. It took the name from the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, founded in London in 1887. At that time, England was the most industrialized country in the world and the manufactured items were often poor in design and quality. The Arts and Crafts style aspired to a to return to well-made, handcrafted goods and to improve standards of decorative design.

Arts and Crafts style stressed the importance of design and craftsmanship, which were sacrificed in the process of mass production. The revival of traditional handicrafts would result in beautiful objects instead of the shoddily made products. This idea was the basis of the movement; however, later on, supporters were divided over the use of machines for production.

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The Arts and Crafts Movement influenced design in architecture and decorative arts, including wallpaper, furniture, tapestry art, stained glass, mosaic, and pottery, but also jewelry and books. Workshops and guilds were formed that trained artists in many of these crafts. The style also emphasized the beauty of natural materials.

Arts and Crafts Movement, Penantkast, circa 1905.

The Arts and Crafts movement attempted to unite all the arts, emphasizing natural and simple forms with little ornamentation. Patterns were inspired by the flora and fauna of the British countryside, allegories from the Bible and literature, and Celtic motifs. The style was influenced by Medieval Europe (the Gothic Revival) and the Orient. Islamic and Japanese aesthetic ideas can also be noticed in the early period of Arts and Crafts.

Arts and Crafts stained glass in the billiards room at Broneirion. Author: Tyssul. CC BY-SA 4.0

The architect and designer Owen Jones (1809- 1874) published the book The Grammar of Ornament that included historic decorative design elements, largely of medieval and Islamic origin, which inspired other designers to use historical sources.

William Morris design for “Trellis” wallpaper, 1862

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The architecture of the movement followed the rule that new buildings should integrate with the surrounding environment, and freedom from historicist styles was crucial. Designs were dictated by function, and vernacular styles of architecture and local materials were highly regarded.

Arts and Crafts Tudor Home in the Buena Park Historic District, Uptown, Chicago. Author: Alanscottwalker. CC BY-SA 3.0

William Morris is considered the father of the Arts and Crafts movement. He was an English textile designer, poet, novelist, and socialist activist, whose works were deeply influenced by the art critic Hohn Ruskin (1819-1900), who also celebrated craftsmanship and the natural beauty of materials. Morris founded the design firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co in order to recreate manual craftsmanship in the period of mass production. His company had huge success, although only the wealthy could afford his designs.

William Morris’ Red House in London designed by Philip Webb. Completed 1860, it is one of the most significant buildings of the Arts and Crafts Movement

Morris’ home, Red House in Bexleyheath, a southeastern suburb of London, England,  marked the beginning of the movement.  The red brick house was designed by Morris’ friend, the architect Philip Webb, in a simplified Tudor Gothic style, while Morris himself designed the garden. Due to its traditional building methods, the house is a landmark in the domestic revival movement of Victorian architecture (1840-1900). It is the earliest example of the concept of a ‘total work of art’ (gesamtkunstwerk).

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The Arts and Crafts movement continued to spread in the 20th century to continental Europe, the USA, and Japan. The philosophies of the movement were adapted according to the region’s own needs. In the United States, Arts and Crafts style was also referred to as Mission style.

Arts and Crafts Movement Ceramics in storage at the Birmingham Museum Collection Centre in May 2015. Author: Victuallers. CC BY-SA 3.0

In New York, the American furniture manufacturer Gustav Stickley (1858- 1942) was making affordable and appealing furniture for the middle class. With his brother Leopold, he founded the furniture company, the Gustave Stickley Company Craftsman Workshops in 1898. The company was very successful and soon expanded its stores to Boston and Washington, DC.

The Swedish artists Carl Larsson and Karin Bergöö Larsson were inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement when designing their home

The CraftsmanHouse BeautifulLadies Home Journal, and other publications offered ideas about decorating home interiors in the Arts and Crafts style, from the color palette to the type of furniture, rugs, and pottery.

The movement is considered a bridge between traditional Victorian and the modern movement. However, the rise of urban centers and innovations in technology prevented its further development. The machine-age modernity of the 1920s brought an end to the handcrafted aesthetic of the style.