A Brief History of the Arts and Crafts Movement

Definition of Arts and Crafts Objects
by the LA County Museum of Art

"The American Arts and Crafts object can be defined as one produced in the late 19th century or early 20th century whose conception and character resulted from its maker's awareness of some or all of the following tenets: the art value of everyday objects; handcraftsmanship; quality construction; solid, straightforward materials; design dedicated to function and environmental harmony; ornament derived from nature and subordinated to form and function; and the therapeutic influence of beauty and creativity in society."1

It could be said that the earliest origins of the Arts and Crafts movement were spawned by the industrial revolution, its dehumanizing effects, and the concentration of capital that it created. As early as 1807, William Corbett, noted that industry had generated great wealth in Coventry England, but concentrated that wealth in the hands of very few people. The result, he observed, was to create "two nations". Frederich Engels (1820-95) vividly described life among the maltreated urban poor in his writings for The Conditions of the Working Class in England. It seemed that the Social Contract, the sense of loyalty and social responsibility that was understood to have existed between classes for centuries, was now gone. Some economists of the time saw this as an unfortunate, but necessary evil. The argument went that Laissez-faire "utilitarian" capitalism could not afford to be burdened with concern for the poor and should only be influenced by the laws of supply and demand. This relieved the wealthy of any responsibility for a more equal distribution of wealth. Presumably, something like the miracle of the market place and trickle down economics was hoped to somehow provide the answer, but many in the early 18th century, two hundred years ago, saw England becoming a nation of owners and "wage slaves".2

Dissent in the late 18th and then the 19th centuries was expressed in many forms. On one end of the philosophical spectrum were those, who for all the best intentions, sought to salve the horrors of industrialism beneath a veneer of art. At the other end of the spectrum, were Marx and Engels who saw within capitalism's class struggle, the seeds of its own destruction and a workers revolution. Across this vast terrain, these dissenters were bound by the deep underlying suspicion that life in an increasingly industrial society was not getting better, it was getting worse.

John Ruskin believed that the division of labor stole the creative process from workers, reducing them to mindless cogs in a machine. Critical of mass produced goods, he saw them as monotonous and uninspiring, dissociating their users from human creativity. He viewed hand labor as an essential human right that promoted dignity and inventiveness in society. To him the designer and the craftsman should be reunited in one person, that "the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker ought often to be working". In 1871 he founded a utopian (if not authoritarian) community called the Guild of St. George to restore a preindustrial lifestyle of handcraft and fulfillment in labor. Gradually coalescing into a more coherent argument with the thoughtful writings of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) and John Ruskin (1819-1900), the philosophical groundwork for the Arts and crafts Movement, though still unnamed, reached an ever widening audience.

Beginning in the late 1850s designers, artisans, and an array of peripherally interested groups developed a network that supported reform of the arts. "The concern was not just a replacement of machines with handicraft but a revolt against an entire system of academic art and what was seen as a false distinction between the elite arts, sculpture and painting, and the so-called lesser arts, the "applied and decorative arts."3 In addition, many felt that art could be purged of much of its sophistication and refinement. For Ruskin and Morris art "became the democratic cultural expression of a community and needed no interpretation."4 In the U.S. the Arts and Crafts Movement helped establish a national identity founded on independence, the sanctity of work, and democracy. Riding a wave of popularity, Oscar Wilde in 1888 on an eighteen month U.S. speaking tour espoused this idea, albeit to an elite fashion conscious crowd, when he said, "Still the art that is frankly decorative is the art to live with. It is, of all visible arts, the one art that creates in both mood and temperament, mere colour, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways."4

It was most notably, William Morris (England 1834-96), who drew heavily from Carlyle and Ruskin's ideas, and successfully applied them in a much more democratic way. For Morris, the demise of handcraft not only assaulted the dignity of the worker, but endangered the welfare of Society as a whole. He saw the home as a necessary inner sanctum, protection from a now separate, industrial workplace, that was creating an environment that threatened the very existence of religion, morality, of beauty itself. He was the one that said "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful." Founding Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company in 1861, he abandoned plans for the ministry and sought to provide the middle and lower classes the services of art, as provided by craft; craft, which many were coming to see as not separate from "fine art".

In his Lectures in Socialism, Morris wrote, that "art is Man's experience of joy in labour". "Since all persons... must produce in some form or another it follows that under our present system most honest men must lead unhappy lives since their work... is devoid of pleasure." His conclusion was that "happiness was only possible for artists and thieves". "For Morris, art was predicated upon fulfilling work - and fulfilling work ultimately demanded vast social and economic change."5

Morris eventually stumbled upon an overreaching paradox. Work created by hand in a thoughtful way, in an industrial economy was more costly, and although intended for the common man, only the wealthy could afford it. "He came to realize that only political action had the ability to challenge capitalism and that only an open conflict with capitalism could ultimately bring about the social conditions in which art could flourish."6 Though a major influence on the movement and financially successful, in 1883 he began to step back from the company and became involved with the Democratic Federation, a Marxist organization. The following year he went on to form the Socialist League with Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling. Then after a schism with anarchists, he formed the Hammersmith Socialist Society.

William Morris died in 1896, leaving an indelible mark on the practical and intellectual principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement. From his romantic ideals of the 1860s to his revolutionary ideas of the late 1880s and 1890s, his path illuminated the contradictions facing artist/ craftspeople up to and including those of us in this new millennium. Long after Morris, many craftspeople harbored the hope that art might have the ability to challenge capitalism, but "Morris... clearly demonstrated that the conditions necessary to create a wholesome and popular, craft and architecture demanded the overthrow of industrial society."7

The term "arts and crafts" had been used for a number of years but was not formally tied to the cause until 1888, with the formation of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. Its heyday in America lasted from the mid 1890s until 1918, though still active elsewhere up until the Nazi regime of the 1930s. "The Arts and Crafts movement in America and Europe was expressed not in a specific style, but as a mood, an attitude, a sensibility. Its underlying premise was a search for a way of life that was true, contemplative"8, and real - rather than superficial.

Still nurturing this ideal of right livelihood, ArtTrek strives to provide a product of the highest quality in an economic climate that devalues anything still produced by hand. Far from a confrontation with industrial capitalism, we offer a peaceful alternative. We are able to accomplish this "gentle subversion" by efficient organization, quality materials, the judicious use of material and machinery, and most of all, keeping labor costs down by living a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity. To us, meeting new clients, practicing our art/craft, working in a humane environment, and providing an honest and honorable high quality service, all compensate for a relatively low hourly wage.



1. Bowman 1990

2. - 7. Adams 1987

8. Trapp 1984



Adams, Steven, The Arts and Crafts Movement, London 1987.

Bowman, L.G., American Arts and Crafts - Virtue in Design, Los Angeles, 1990.

Trapp, Kenneth. R., The Arts and Crafts Movement in California, New York, 1993.

Ewald, Chase Reynolds, Style and Spirit, Layton Utah, 1999

See Custom quality painting

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