Arts and Crafts Movement

While these developments were happening, the deskilling of the craftsman and manufacturing of mass-produced items, expansion of factories and even growing cities, a reaction emerged in the late 19th century, the Arts and Crafts movement.

Living Room from the Francis W. Little House: Windows and paneling

Arts and Crafts Movement was a reaction that grew out of the artistic and social activism of John Ruskin and William Morris. They decried the shoddy nature of factory produced wears that flooded the already over-decorated parlors of the Victorian period and called for a re-evaluation of what truly constituted a beautiful home.

The two pioneers of the Arts and Crafts Movement : John Ruskin and William Morris
The two pioneers of the Arts and Crafts Movement: John Ruskin and William Morris

“What else can we do to help to educate ourselves and others in the path of art, to be on the road to attaining an ART MADE BY THE PEOPLE AND FOR THE PEOPLE AS A JOY TO THE MAKER AND THE USER? Believe me, if we want art to begin at home, as it must, we must clear our houses of troublesome superfluities that are forever in our way: conventional comforts that are no real comforts, and do but make work for servants and doctors: if you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: HAVE NOTHING IN YOUR HOUSES THAT YOU DO NOT KNOW TO BE USEFUL OR BELIEVE TO BE BEAUTIFUL.” – William Morris


Title pages by William Morris - Arts and Crafts Movement
Title pages designed by Morris for The works of Geoffrey Chaucer – Cullen328, Kelmscott Chaucer, CC BY-SA 3.0

Morris criticized the idea that the designer and the maker were becoming so disconnected from each other which results in the decrease of quality products and directly affecting the beauty of objects created. It is interesting to note how today’s designers and makers are once again trying to close that gap and either design and make the products themselves or co-create in a multidisciplinary approach to overcome the acute problems that have roots in the 19th century.

The pioneers of this movement believed that the machines that are used to create mass-produced objects were not inherently bad, but the outcome was inhumane working environments such as factories where the workers were unhappy and working relentlessly just to survive in poor conditions. Their belief was that the objects created in this kind of environment lack the soul and beauty of the ones created by a happy craftsman.

The weaving shed in Morris & Co's factory at Merton, which opened in the 1880s - Arts and Crafts Movement
The weaving shed in Morris & Co’s factory at Merton, which opened in the 1880s

Based on these ideas, they started promoting art education and craftsmanship to revive rural economies and challenge the model of unchecked industrial capitalism. They tried to prove that they can create products which are better than the ones produced by machines in dark factories. Their efforts resonated in the art and design community and many more organizations and guilds started to emerge sharing the same principles outlined by Ruskin and Morris.

Although they were right and the quality of the products was superior compared to the mass produced ones, they had a big disadvantage when it came to the price. The pieces created could only be afforded by richer high class and this created an outrage firstly for the creators of the pieces.

The aesthetics of Arts and Crafts Movement

The principles of the movement had an effect on many artists in the late 19th century and they were applied to many different areas from pottery to architecture. For that reason, it may seem hard to pinpoint the characteristic language of the movement. Yet again, what was common to the media was an ideal of truth to materials, clean functional designs that allow the natural beauty of the components to be visible and removal of unnecessary ornamentation or surface treatment. The simplicity dominated the products as well as the lives of its practitioners by suggesting that less is more.

An electric chandelier designed by Charles Robert Ashbee - Arts and Crafts Movement
An electric chandelier designed by Charles Robert Ashbee – Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, Chandelier électrique (V&A Museum), CC BY 2.0

Nature was a dominant inspiration for the practitioners of the movement. A fascination with botany was fuelled by the discoveries of new specimens arriving from around the world. They celebrated this fascination in many of the textiles, ceramics, and metalwork featuring trees and flowers as a way to bring the beauty inherent to nature into the home.

Starting from Britain, the movement quickly spread through Europe and then North America. Following the principles of Morris and Ruskin, many more artists tried to democratize the education and creation of art and design. As a design movement, Arts and Crafts in Britain, redefined beauty as the joy found in fine craftsmanship for both the maker and the user. Although most of the guilds and educational institutions could not survive after the World War 1, the timeless principles both Ruskin, Morris, and others identified continue to have great relevance today particularly among modern economies promoting over-consumption and mass production of disposable goods. It is very hard to see the promises of industrialization fulfilled in the lives of common people when we look around the world. Living and working conditions are not improving for many people and destruction of nature reaches to unprecedented levels because of the uncontrolled mass production.

Library Table by Gustav Stickley - Arts and Crafts Movement
Library Table by Gustav Stickley – The Metropolitan Museum of Art

These concerns were at the heart of Arts and Crafts movement almost a century and a half ago and the leaders of this movement were among the first to address these critical issues. Now in the 21st century, the strong ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement still resonate and shape the worldview of many people who believe in redefining the happiness of modern culture through greater simplicity, reconnecting through local communities and the endless beauty of nature.

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