The Arts & Crafts Movement began in England in the 1860s as a reform movement. Its foundation was the ideas of John Ruskin (1819-1900) and William Morris (1834-1896). During the Industrial Revolution, design was subjugated for machine-made work. A factory would produce something, and then slap some grill work on it and call it design, which it wasn’t. Morris also felt that people couldn’t even dream of creating beauty in the industrialized conditions of the Victorian age — that they had to change society to create beautiful things. Like Ruskin, Morris believed that improved design led to a better craftsperson, which led to a richer society. This is socialism, by the way — and Ruskin became increasingly strident in his pro-labor, reformist ideology. Morris, who was a practitioner while Ruskin was a theorist, saw the terrible working conditions of the factories, their environmental consequences and the exploitation of cheap labor that led to shoddy products. He believed a return to the pre-industrial revolution days where craftsmen were both the designers and the manufacturers of products would improve society. Succinctly put, Morris sought to reunite “head and hand” or as the name of the era stats, the Art with the Craft(sman). Later, Morris joined the Social Democratic Federation. Walter Crane, Charles Ashbee, Mackmurdo and Lethaby were also involved. He was a huge believer in education for everyone. He saw the machine at best as a tool, an extension of the hand. He saw the gloom of the Industrial Revolution, but he also saw that society needed mechanization and the machine might be a tool towards liberty.
Ruskin established the philosophy of Arts & Crafts, but William Morris became its leader. Morris took Ruskin’s ideas about nature, art, morality and the degradation of human labor and translated them into a unified theory of design. Morris was appalled by the over-the-top ornamentation of Victorian design, especially its eclectic mix of styles. He was particularly disturbed by decorative arts produced by machines in mass quantity with no function but to decorate. This manufactured look was epitomized by furniture design known as “Eastlake.” It was named after Charles Eastlake, who became synonymous with furnishings that copied ornate designs of earlier periods, but which were actually produced cheaply by machines.
Morris grew up rich in the gorgeous English countryside. He studied at Oxford College, where he planned to become a minister. He read and wrote throughout his life: 24 volumes of his work were published at his death. Morris went from studying ministry to architecture to painting. He spent a year supervising the construction and the design of his manor, Red House. This focus on furniture and decoration had also interested the Pre-Raphaelites, who also wanted design reform. It wasn’t considered a “lesser art.”
Morris started an architectural firm, then went on to create over 500 2-dimensional patterns for wallpapers, carpets, tapestries, etc. His mission was to reunite Art with Craft. He formed The Firm, which made furniture, glassware and especially stained glass. The style of the stained glass was thick bars between the windows. The Firm was very successful. They decorated a room at St. James’s Place and South Kensington.
Like Ruskin, Morris had a deep affection for the Middle Ages, especially the medieval idea of craftsmen’s guilds. Along with architect Philip Webb, painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti and others, he founded Morris & Co. in 1875. The guild was to create simple furniture, stained glass, and even wallpaper that united beauty, craftsmanship and utility.
The Kelmscott Press was Morris’ lasting — and last — achievement. He founded it in 1890-1, the year he broke with the Socialist League.
It was a small book printing and binding company that became known for its outstanding examples of the book arts. The Kelmscott Press issued 53 works in six years, mostly by Romance poets like Coleridge and Shelley, medieval authors, and himself. They were brilliant pieces of work. He considered the paper, ink, typefaces, leading and kerning, margins, illustration and decoration in detail. The paper was handmade in Kent. Morris designed his own typefaces: Golden, Troy and Chaucer. Burne-Jones drew most of the illustrations on woodblocks. Walter Crane and Arthur Gaskin did some, too. Morris did the title pages. The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer was its masterpiece. Burne-Jones spent every Sunday for three years on the illustrations. It revolutionized book production in Europe and US. A slew of private presses were established in the wake of Kelmscott Press.
Morris was not wholly successful in translating the Arts and Crafts philosophy into a practical application. The built-in flaw was that only the elite could afford his handmade work. He never successfully overcame this problem, and most British Arts and Crafts items remained the luxury of the upper classes. The new society that Morris and Ruskin tried to create was quixotic. It was out of touch with reality and the times they lived in. Morris and company hated machines. There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal, of him delivering his products to market in a horse-drawn coach alongside the railway, standing up in the cart, long white beard waving in the wind, raising his arm and shaking his fist at the Iron Horse as it went by.
Elbert Hubbard may have met Morris when he traveled to England in 1894 and toured the Kelmscott Press. He established the Roycroft Printing Shop in East Aurora, New York in 1895. The successful shop published over 100 titles and periodicals. So many people came to visit Hubbard that he built an inn to accommodate them. To furnish the inn, the shop began producing metalwork, lighting fixtures, picture frames, rugs and furniture.
Gustav Stickley also settled in upstate New York. In 1901, he founded his own magazine,The Craftsman, to espouse the ideals of the Arts & Crafts Movement. Stickley also talked about how the pride of achievement by the individual craftsman would improve society. Stickley’s lasting achievement was his furniture. It features simple, clean lines. Unlike Morris, however, Stickley used steam-powered tools to make the furniture, and used handcrafted finishing techniques to evoke craftsmanship in the end product.
Those involved with Jane Addams’s Hull House in Chicago saw what was going on. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who was affiliated with the Hull House, lectured on the movement. Midwesterners best integrated the machine into their Arts & Crafts designs. Builders copied Wright’s Prairie School home designs and bungalow styles from Stickley’s The Craftsmanand began selling them through catalogs like Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. The growing middle class could buy a house kit for under $1000 that copied these famous architects’ styles.
Factories in Grand Rapids, Michigan, cranked out Arts & Crafts furniture on their machines. Gustav Stickley’s brother Albert even opened a factory in Grand Rapids to produce Stickley furniture. Cheaper production methods also helped popularize Arts & Crafts pottery, tapestries, metalwork and other decorative arts. Midwestern Arts & Crafts leaders’ use of mass production made their products affordable to the working classes. The philosophical elements of the movement may have been lost on them, but consumers loved the products.
Morris and Ruskin both died frustrated men. However, they set standards and laid down theories that dozens of leaders throughout the world followed. Their design-within-society philosophy influenced the founders of modernism, such as van de Velde and Gropius, who extended Arts & Crafts philosophies into machine production.