ARTS & CRAFTS STYLE
Reacting against industrialisation and the tyranny of the machine, the designers and craftsmen of the Arts and Crafts movement produced a body of work to a standard that makes it very collectable today. Arising out of a concern for the wellbeing of craftsmen, the Arts and Crafts movement has left a legacy of work to delight the collector.
While art nouveau and
art deco were developed by groups of like-minded individuals with distinctive new ideas on art and design, the Arts and Crafts movement grew up independently in several countries in response to a loose collection of ideas about man, society and history influenced by 19th century writers and social critics. It was essentially socialist and at times surprisingly revolutionary in tone.
In the middle of the 19th century a growing number of writers attacked the changes brought about by 100 years of industrialization. In Britain, the
philosopher Thomas Carlyle and the critic John Ruskin, among others, deplored the way that the machine had become the master of the workman, who could no longer take any satisfaction out of what he made; they contrasted the dehumanizing effects of machines with a romanticized vision of the Middle Ages, when men used their imagination and their skill to create beautiful and useful things.
The first person to follow these ideas through to a popular conclusion, and the founding father of the British Arts and Crafts movement, was William Morris. He trained as an architect, but in 1861 founded a decorating business, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. with some friends to make hand-crafted objects, including tiles, furniture, stained glass, wallpaper, tapestries, fabrics and carpets.
In 1875 the firm became Morris & Co, and in 1881 it moved from central London to Merton Abbey, south of the Thames. The company's craftsmen used machines for simple, repetitive work so as to free their time for more creative and satisfying labour but even so, what they made was necessarily very expensive. This proved a problem for the socialist Morris, who railed against 'the swinish luxury of the rich', but ran a company with fine showrooms in London's Oxford Street, where his products were sold at high prices alongside metalwork and pottery made by other independent craftsmen.
The increasing fashionability of Morris & Co inspired several other organizations of craftsmen, such as the Century Guild, the Guild of Handicraft and the Artificer's Guild, to set up between 1880 and
World War 1 when Arts and Craft was the dominant force in the British design world.
Because Arts and Crafts embraced so many different individual approaches, there was no one particular look that could be said to define it. However there were some common style points.
Furniture, for instance, usually had a rigid simplicity of structure; some of it was positively spartan, and firms such as Liberty's and Heal's produced some very severe pieces.
The reliance on traditional methods and materials, and the appreciation of the medieval past, meant that early pieces in particular owed much to the
Gothic style of old churches, with pointed arches and little carving. Oak was the wood of choice. Furniture was put together with mortise and tenon joints fixed with wooden pegs, or dowels. These were sometimes left standing proud to emphasize the hand-crafted nature of the piece.
Collaborations between craftsmen in different fields were encouraged by the workshop system. A cabinet might have been fitted with leaded stained glass doors, or an armchair covered with a block-printed fabric.
Fabrics were usually hand-woven or hand-printed and again owed much to traditional styles; many designs were inspired by medieval tapestries.
Books, too were hand-printed, and illustrated with wood-blocks. Illuminated manuscripts provided the source for the intricately patterned borders used on the limited edition publications of firms such as the Kelmscott Press, set up by Morris in 1891, five years before he died. These books featured specially imported inks, hand-made paper and fine, hand-tooled bindings.
Metalworkers used base metals as well as gold and silver. The Arts and Crafts movement revived the craft of pewtering, for instance, and copper objects found their way out of the servants' quarters for the first time. Sometimes these were beautifully made - W A S Benson, for instance, made delicate copperware as smooth and lustrous as gold - and sometimes a decorative virtue was made out of the marks left by the hammers and other tools made to shape them.
Decorative motifs were taken from medieval work and even earlier pieces; Celtic art was a great inspiration, and its interlaced patterns were something of a
cliché of Arts and Crafts.
Pottery was particularly suited to the creative workshop ideal, and the studio pottery movement went hand in glove with Arts and Crafts.
Ironically, some of the motifs and design details that came out of an adherence to traditional methods were adopted as style points by mass manufacturers of furniture, ceramics and jewellery in the early 20th century and were turned out by machine.
The influence of Arts and Crafts waned after World War 1, which ushered in an era of relentless modernity, but persisted, in a debased form, in commercial styles of the 1920s and 1930s such as