The Arts & Crafts Movement
Summary of The Arts & Crafts Movement
The founders of the Arts & Crafts Movement were some of the first major critics of the Industrial Revolution. Disenchanted with the impersonal, mechanized direction of society in the 19th century, they sought to return to a simpler, more fulfilling way of living. The movement is admired for its use of high quality materials and for its emphasis on utility in design. The Arts & Crafts emerged in the United Kingdom around 1860, at roughly the same time as the closely related Aesthetic Movement, but the spread of the Arts & Crafts across the Atlantic to the United States in the 1890s, enabled it to last longer - at least into the 1920s. Although the movement did not adopt its common name until 1887, in these two countries the Arts & Crafts existed in many variations, and inspired similar contemporaneous groups of artists and reformers in Europe and North America, including Art Nouveau, the Wiener Werkstatte, the Prairie School, and many others. The faith in the ability of art to reshape society exerted a powerful influence on its many successor movements in all branches of the arts.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- The Arts & Crafts movement existed under its specific name in the United Kingdom and the United States, and these two strands are often distinguished from each other by their respective attitudes towards industrialization: in Britain, Arts & Crafts artists and designers tended to be either negative or ambivalent towards the role of the machine in the creative process, while Americans tended to embrace the machine more readily.
- The practitioners of the movement strongly believed that the connection forged between the artist and his work through handcraft was the key to producing both human fulfillment and beautiful items that would be useful on an everyday basis; as a result, Arts & Crafts artists are largely associated with the vast range of the decorative arts and architecture as opposed to the "high" arts of painting and sculpture.
- The Arts & Crafts aesthetic varied greatly depending on the media and location involved, but it was influenced most prominently by both the imagery of nature and the forms of medieval art, particularly the Gothic style, which enjoyed a revival in Europe and North America during the mid-19th century.
Overview of The Arts & Crafts Movement
"Have nothing in your house you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful," William Morris said. No detail of interior design was overlooked by the pioneer of the Arts and Crafts movement.
Important Art and Artists of The Arts & Crafts Movement
Often called the first Arts & Crafts building, Red House was appropriately the residence of William Morris and his family, built within commuting distance of central London but at the time still in the countryside. It was the first house designed by Webb as an independent architect, and the only house that Morris built for himself. Its asymmetrical, L-shaped plan, pointed arches and picturesque set of masses with steep rooflines recall the Gothic style, while its tile roof and brick construction, largely devoid of ornament speak to the simplicity that Morris preached and its function as a mere residence, though the interiors were in places richly decorated with murals by Edward Burne-Jones. The house represented a sharp contrast to suburban or country Victorian residences, most of which were elaborately and pretentiously decorated. Its location allowed Morris to remain in touch with nature, away from London's dirty, polluted core. The design, which included unusually large servants' quarters, spoke to Morris and Webb's budding Socialist inclinations towards erasing class distinctions. Unfortunately, the long hours that Morris spent commuting proved too burdensome for his productivity, and after only five years in the house he sold it and moved his family into London above the shop for his firm.
The Tulip and Rose curtain exemplifies the kinds of textiles and wallpaper designs produced by Morris' firm beginning in the 1860s. The dense, precisely interlocking pattern of the wool fabric, using curved and exaggerated forms of plants, flora (and sometimes fauna) became a hallmark of Morris & Company's fabric and wallpaper products in the 1870s and '80s.
Unlike Morris' earlier designs, which featured more naturalistic imagery, this textile demonstrates his move beyond emulation towards a sense of abstraction during his mature career. The flattened forms and the emphasis on line anticipate the stylization of nature later used by Art Nouveau, and calls attention to the nature of the wool's rough surface texture, thereby revealing the honesty in materials. Furthermore, the "hanging" quality of the imagery of plants and flowers speaks to the way vines cover an entire exterior wall surface - much like the curtain is supposed to cover the entire plane of a window, creating a consonance between the natural elements and man-made articles, in effect bridging or blurring the boundary between the natural world outside and the interior, even when the curtain is completely closed.
As much as the forms here look forward towards Art Nouveau, their flattened quality also looks backwards towards the forms of plants and living elements as depicted in Gothic stained-glass windows, and the curved linearity of the plants could also be said to mimic the forms of Gothic tracery. In this sense, the textile is as much revelatory of Morris' background and love of the Gothic as it is a forward-looking formal experiment.
The tomes that William Morris produced during the last six years of his life were the epitome of the luxurious pieces manufactured by his firm. They were designed as art objects to be experienced as much as books to be perused, so much so that it is difficult to read them straight through like an ordinary text. The decoration is so lavish and elaborate, overwhelming the printed text to such a degree that one is compelled to stop at every pair of pages and examine it with care before attempting to continue with the narrative (put forth in generally small type). One is immediately struck by the sheer amount of labor involved in creating the plates for printing, the typesetting, the process of making the paper and the binding, along with the cover decoration. The Chaucer, which was the jewel of Morris' volumes made at the Kelmscott Press in an edition of only 425 copies, resembles the ancient medieval colophons with painted calligraphic script and thick binding.
The binding is secured when the book is closed with latches, suggesting that the process of reading the work is akin to opening a kind of sacred tome or a treasure chest and that what is contained inside is extremely valuable. The choice of Chaucer, a medieval English author, for the text, is representative of both the connections of the Arts & Crafts with the Middle Ages and Morris' own deep appreciation of literature (he was offered the post of Poet Laureate of Britain the following year but turned it down). Ironically, despite Morris' desire that a book like this would produce joy and pleasure in an ordinary reader, it paradoxically was never accessible to any but the wealthiest of his clients, and arguably its overwrought design renders it difficult to comfortably handle or digest for simple legibility.
Useful Resources on The Arts & Crafts Movement
- The Arts & Crafts MovementOur PickBy Rosalind P. Blakesley
- The Arts & Crafts Movement (World of Art)By Elizabeth Cumming and Wendy Kaplan
- The Arts & Crafts Movement in the Pacific NorthwestOur PickBy Lawrence Kreisman and Glenn Mason
- William Morris Full-Color Patterns and Designs (Dover Pictorial Archive)By William Morris