Arts & Crafts Movement

The Arts & Crafts Movement

The principles of the Arts and Crafts movement were initially frontiered in England through the efforts of John Ruskin and William Morris. Ruskin was not a craftsman but an academic scholar at Oxford. He believed passionately that the Industrial Revolution would erode the English countryside by turning it into factory fields while relegating the skilled English craftsman to the status of a laborer. The battle cry of his movement, as expressed in his book Seven Lamps of Architecture, written in 1853, was a return to quality and affordable craftsmanship as opposed to the low grade manufactured pieces that were being mass produced. The form of a piece was to support its function in a straightforward manner utilizing quality materials. The design was to be noble, gracing the home in a practical sense, and designed by a craftsman from beginning to end.

William Morris, one of Ruskin’s students in 1853, embraced his mentor’s ideals and dedicated himself to the perpetuation of the movement. Morris, who was trained as an architect and an artist, utilized his talent to create handcrafted objects and home decorations. He was joined by Ruskin’s followers, principally Charles Robert Ashee and A.H. Mackmurdo, who decried the declining quality of merchandise being produced by the factories and challenged the manufacturers by establishing craftsmen guilds. Unfortunately, the establishment of Morris & Co. in 1875 that produced quality crafted furniture, fabrics, rugs, wallpaper, pottery, and books did not achieve one of the movement’s primary objectives – to supply affordable pricing. Making hand-crafted items was costly. Their products sold to the British elite and were not realistically priced for the lower and middle classes. Ruskin and Morris never solved the problem.

While Ruskin’s flag for reform fell in his own country, American Gustav Stickley, disgusted with the over embellished, badly-made furniture being produced in American factories during the Victorian era, began to wave Ruskin’s banner in America shortly before the turn of the century. The movement, embraced by the five Stickley brothers, began to gain popularity in large production centers such as Boston, Chicago, New York, and California. There the Stickley brothers and other industrialists utilized the factories, as opposed to creating guilds, to produce the finely crafted and articulate furniture that met the criteria of Arts and Crafts but made it affordable to the mass population. They used machinery for the non-creative elements of production and craftsmen for the aspects that called for creativity and skill.

A major figure in the American Arts and Crafts movement was architect Frank Lloyd Wright who designed Mission furniture solely for the houses he designed but had no desire to produce a line of furniture. The new furniture style was known as “Mission” because it reflected the understated furniture in the California missions. The early forms were simple and comfortable and oak was the wood of choice. This was in direct opposition to the furniture and decorative items that were being produced by the mass production factories which were inventing machines to turn out designs that were overdone in every detail – scrolled, voluted, protrusive, overly ornate and generally tasteless but inexpensive. By 1900 the McHugh Company, The Michigan Chair Company, and the Roycroft Shops were manufacturing a line of functional oak furniture. These early forms of furniture were somewhat crude and too understated in their design.

It was through Gustav Stickley’s magazine, the Craftsman, published in 1901, that the higher standard for the Arts and Crafts movement in America began to take shape. While the Americans brought the movement to life, it was the English who formulated the philosophy and it was they and the Europeans that gave it style. Scotsman Charles Mackintosh, Austrian Joseph Hoffman, and Britishers Arthur Mackmurdo, Ballie Scott and C F A Voysey provided the influence of grace and artistic expression to the craftsmanship. Their work was then, and still is, considered the benchmark for perfection for the Arts and Crafts movement. American designers Gustav Stickley, La Mont Warner, Dard Hunter, and Harvey Ellis, who worked for Stickley, began to incorporate the European artistic interpretation into their own work with the use of more expensive quartersawn oak with pegged joints, cutout designs, corbels and other finishing elements that added style to the overly simplistic patterns and created the American art form for Arts and Crafts. Gustav, who had left his brothers’ company some years earlier, was the first to provide high quality manufactured Arts and Crafts furniture that appeared to be entirely made by hand.

Another principal figure was Elbert Hubbard, a publisher who became inspired by William Morris in 1894 and wrote prolifically about the movement. He attracted many talented craftsmen and through the expansion of his print shop the Roycroft Inn and Roycroft Shops ultimately became established. Although there is little evidence that Hubbard had much to do with the actual design work, his pen brought widespread attention to the movement and raised the consciousness of many.

Arts and Crafts also included lighting fixtures, tile, and metal work. Pottery designed exclusively as Arts and Crafts was made by Teco, Grueby, Marblehead, and Hampshire. The stylistic movement went into decline during World War 1 and was generally extinguished by the late 1920′s.

reference note by p4A contributing editor Carole Deutsch; for additional information and insight, see American Arts and Crafts by David Rago and Bruce Johnson.

More Commentary on the Arts and Crafts Period, 1888 to 1914

From the Pilgrim through the Victorian Period each time frame of American furniture design has been tied to either an historic event, an individual or simply to the period of time. The Arts and Crafts Period is the first period of design styles that comes out of a “Movement”

By the late 1880′s the Victorian Period with all its excesses was in full bloom. Prosperity, the result of the Industrial Revolution, had created a middle class that demanded more and more in goods there by fueling still more production. The design standard was more rather than less in practically every aspect of life. Every day new inventions were being offered for public consumption. It was an exciting and chaotic time to be alive.

Yet, running quietly behind all this fast paced lifestyle was a counter revolution. Many people were horrified by what they saw not only in design and quality of manufacture but in the quality (or lack thereof) in the working and living conditions of the average family.

From this level of horror and concern grew a desire to return to the simpler country life style of yesterday (of course with the current creature comforts). It is difficult to determine whether the social reformers gathered the artistic aspects of the movement around them or the artistic folk attracted the reformers. Sufficient to state, the combination which began in England at the start of the industrial revolution took strong hold in 1886 with the Century Guild and the Art Workers Guild and then formally in 1888 with the formation of the London Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. With this Society and its grand exhibitions the “movement” had arrived for full public viewing.

It was both an artistic and a social movement given credence by A.W.N. Pugin, the first architect to design both buildings and their furnishings, John Ruskin, who in his treatise “The Stones of Venice” (1851) put forth the idea of the craftsman, art and life more or less as one, and William Morris who took all these ideas as confirmation of his own thoughts that indeed artistic design coupled with quality craftsmanship could be incorporated into even the lowest of household utensil, manufactured and sold for a profit. Artistic communities sprung up all over the English countryside as it was in the country that it was thought such a combination of art, craft and lifestyle would thrive. However due to economic reality, the products of these communities generally found their way back into the cities as that was where the middle-class and the wealthy who could afford such goods lived.

The “Movement” spread quickly throughout Europe and as far as Japan. With the American penchant for anything and everything new, it was also championed throughout the United States. Like-minded artistic communities were founded in practically every state. Such names as The Roycrofters in leather, bookbinding and publishing, Van Briggel and Rookwood in pottery, Frank Lloyd Wright in architecture, Tiffany in glass and of course Stickley in furniture, come to mind when discussing this period and movement.

While many such communities were formed, it was quickly determined that due to the high cost of quality materials and craftsmanship, the harsh economics of proper business and manufacturing techniques were needed to survive. The idealism of pure art, craftsmanship and lifestyle alone would not carry the day any more in America then it did in England. Those communities that could not combine the idealism with good economics soon closed.

With Gothic Revival being the underlying design thread, coupled with the revolt against the excesses of the Victorian Period, it is no surprise that the Arts and Crafts Period features primarily linear styles but with a lightness brought forth from the desire to meld each piece into a lifestyle of grace and order.

Within the Period there are three distinct styles of design, Mission, Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Many will argue that only Mission is pure to the Movement but as to the period all three should be considered. If one assembles a similar piece of furniture in all three designs, while there are differences, the similarities are unmistakable as having come from the same period of design.

Here in America, the Arts and Crafts Period furniture style of choice was Mission with its straight lines and quarter sawn oak construction. Art Nouveau, with its curvilinear free flowing feminine lines, originating in France and very popular among the upper class in Paris never made much of an inroad here in the states. To be sure it was attempted. The Karpen Furniture Co. of Chicago put together a catalog of Art Nouveau furniture and in New York and other select metropolitan areas some folks used the style. But most Art Nouveau furniture found in the states today was imported.

On the other hand, Art Nouveau designs were quite popular when is came to decorative accessories. The lack of acceptance of the furniture style and the acceptance of all else Art Nouveau arose not so much from the population’s taste but in how the items fit into existing homes. The decorative fit nicely, the furniture did not.

Art Deco, the last of the Arts and Crafts Period styles also was popular here in the states. It incorporated both the austerity of Mission along with the flowing lines of Art Nouveau.

While most all Mission style furniture from the very highest in design quality to the basic mass-produced pieces are in current demand, Art Deco has not yet achieved a steady and substantial following. The exception being the rare singular pieces of extremely high design.

With the advent of World War I, the world’s attention was drawn elsewhere and the movement faded to be followed after the war with what today is called the Moderne Period.

Reference note by Contributing Editor Charles Wibel.

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