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Design Deconstructed: The Arts & Crafts Movement

by Taylor Slattery | August 31, 2021

Design Deconstructed The Arts & Crafts Movement

Red House by Philip Webb, Ethan Doyle White, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
In the 1860s, British artists and crafts makers found themselves in a world they hardly recognized. Their nation was in the swings of the industrial revolution, and the development of new machines, energy sources, and manufacturing processes had transformed the fabric of their society at a fundamental level.

Peacock and Dragon Fabric, William Morris, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The nation was experiencing unprecedented economic growth, which in turn led to surges in population and an increased need for the very objects the factories were producing. This inextricably linked cycle, having begun around a century prior, picked up pace dramatically around the turn of the century with the introduction of steam power and increased production of iron.

Despite the improvement in quality of life for the average citizen, the industrial revolution was not without its detractors. For the artisans who concerned themselves with not only the beauty of the objects they created but also their utility, the industrial revolution had transformed society for the worse. Objects once prized for their beauty and utility were now created en masse at a rushed pace for as cheaply as possible without care or attention paid to detail.

Covered Bowl by Charles Robert Ashbee, Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
The Arts and Crafts movement was developed by these artists in direct response to the inferior quality of the goods pouring out of factories and their effect upon society. Practitioners of the movement were disillusioned by the lack of connection between maker and object in a mechanized environment in which the primary concerns were those of volume and speed. They sought to return to simpler times when care and attention to detail were an implicit part of the production process.

This desire was rooted not only in the concern for the quality of the goods produced but also in the feeling of satisfaction experienced by the makers themselves. The factory means of production deprived individuals of the fulfillment handcraft had to offer in favor of the crude haste promoted by factories. This disconnect between maker and object resulted in impersonal goods that Arts and Crafts adherents believed would have an adverse effect on society as a whole.

Woodpecker Tapestry, William Morris, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
This idea and others were first espoused by famed thinkers of the time, John Ruskin and William Morris, who approached the subject from different angles. Ruskin, a writer and philosopher, was more concerned with the social ills he believed would result from mass production, while Morris, an artist and designer, championed the idea of craftsmanship in which labor was undivided. Both, however, shared a strong belief that those designing objects and those making them should be one and the same. It was through Morris’ leading by example and Ruskin’s ideas disseminated through word that the guiding principles of the movement would be established and spread throughout the world.

In direct contrast to objects produced in factories, the Arts and Crafts movement would focus on the use of high-quality materials in applications in which their nature would be honored rather than disguised. Because the objects were also being produced by their designer, there was more room for adjustment in the process leading to objects with greater utility and a more integral connection to the everyday lives of their users. This attention and care imbued the objects with more meaning and beauty which in turn, enriched the lives of their owners.

Vase by Henrietta Bailey for Newcomb Pottery, Daderot, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
This sort of connection—between maker and object, and then between object and owner, was the sort of lasting impact the movement’s practitioners sought to create. With craft as their vehicle, they sought to reshape their malformed society into one more reflective of their values, where objects were cherished and respect and attention were paid to their care and creation. Another key aspect of the movement was the use of organic forms and imagery from nature, inspired largely by gothic and medieval stylings.

While a variety of different media fall under the umbrella of Arts and Crafts, because the movement developed in response to the industrial revolution, it concerned itself primarily with applied arts and architecture. This makes the movement as a whole more utilitarian when compared with other movements with roots in high arts like painting and sculpture.

Mackintosh Window, Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
From its origins in Britain, thanks largely to the writings of Ruskin, the ideas of the Arts and Crafts movement would eventually spread to continental Europe, the United States, and Japan. Along the way, proponents of the movement would infuse the ideas of Morris and Ruskin with their own resulting in different interpretations & submovements like the Craftsman style and Prairie School in America, and the Mingei movement in Japan.

The Arts and Crafts movement sparked a line of thinking that countered the popular thought of the time and would inspire generations of future creatives leading to lasting cultural impacts well beyond its end in the 1930s. The foundations laid by Morris and Ruskin and other practitioners would later be expanded upon by the Art Nouveau movement and artists like Koloman Moser through the Wiener Werkstätte, both of which had profound stylistic impacts upon Europe and the world.

21 Yateley Road, Edgbaston by Buckland, User:Oosoom, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.


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