A Return to Arts and Crafts
Exploring the basic principles and finding the “Why” as outlined by the Arts and Crafts movement.
How important is the Arts and Crafts movement in terms of how we produce objects of design today? What has been its lasting legacy? Are we increasingly turning our back on mass produced soul-less objects? Do you search for something more honest and timeless in the honed skills of talented artists and craftspeople?
The Theory of Design: Arts and Craft Movement
The Arts and Crafts Movement was a revolutionary movement that swept Europe, England and the United States around the middle of the 19th century. It was a nostalgic return to the guilds and handicrafts of medieval times. Those chiefly responsible for its theoretical foundations were 19th-century writers and social critics, Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, William Morris and C. R. Ashbee. The philosophy of the Arts and crafts movement developed in reaction to what was perceived as the highly undesirable consequences of Industrialisation. They believed this ultimately led to the dehumanisation of the worker alongside the loss of pride in the finished product.
William Morris (1834-1896)
William Morris was probably the most recognised contributor to the Arts and Crafts Movement. He was also among other things a renowned textile designer, poet, novelist, and socialist activist. He has subsequently become better known for his designs such as tapestries, wallpaper, fabrics, furniture, and stained glass windows. We can see his influence on interior design is still as important today as ever.
The “Diligent Study of Nature
William Morris noted that everything made by man’s hand must be either ugly or beautiful. He believed that in order to achieve the latter, you should follow the example of nature. His inspiration came directly from his observations of the natural world. This naturalistic approach to design can be seen in his lectures “The Diligent Study of Nature” and “The Study of the Work of the Ages of Art’. For Morris, nature was the perfect example of the glory of creation. He used highly stylised graphics elements with bold outlines and deliberate accents, to create over 600 wallpaper and textile designs. Most of his work was produced using woodblock printing and organic natural dyes. This enhanced the naturalism of his recognisable flower and leaf patterns which are still popular in interiors today.
The Joy of Creation
The Arts and Crafts movement embodied the philosophy that the utility and function of an object were more important than the overall design.
“Ornament and design is essentially the assessor to and not the substitute of the useful”.
As you can see the creation of objects was developed first and foremost for their purpose. If we ask why design matters in the context of the Arts and Crafts movement, it would surely be its attempt to find fulfilment through honesty and practicality. To celebrate the joy of creation as opposed to the dehumanising onslaught of the Industrial Revolution. If we dig a bit deeper we see the real “Why” of the Arts and crafts movement was ultimately that of social purpose rather than style or aesthetics.
Ironically Morris’s ideals and that of the Arts and crafts movement failed. This was simply because the handcrafted designs for ordinary people were only affordable to the well-to-do. Inevitably the turnover of the products was a lot slower and time consuming, therefore more costly. The fact that the movement did not really accept the machine and its production values were therefore the real reason for its decline.
In turn, the modest ideals of the American movement were able to compromise with mechanised production. Frank Lloyd Wright (June 8, 1867 – April 9, 1959) maintained that properly developed machines could produce objects that were simple and truthful to their respective materials. This is ultimately what the Arts and Crafts movement aimed to achieve decades earlier. Wright in many ways renegotiated the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement from obsessive often unrealistic concerns for handmade products. He strove to produce logically designed mass produced goods with the aid of machinery.
“American society has the essential tool of its own age by the blade as lacerated fingers everywhere testify” Frank LLyod Wright
Are we increasingly turning our back on mass produced soul-less objects today? Do you search for something more honest and timeless in the honed skills of talented artists and craftspeople?
Let me know what you think!
- Interior Design of the 20th Century by Anne Massey (Thames and Hudson Ltd. 1990)
- A History of British Design 1830 -1970 by Fiona McCarthy (George Allen & Unwin Ltd 1979)
- The Arts and Craft Movement by Stephen Adams (Tiger Books 1992)
- Chicago Furniture Art, Craft & Industry 1883 -1983 by Sharon Darling (WW Norton & Company 1984)
- William Morris [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons