Why 21st century design lovers will appreciate the Arts & Crafts movement
What is the Arts & Crafts movement?
Not everyone is familiar with the Arts & Crafts genre; many could be forgiven for leaping to ideas of modern day crafting. This historical design movement actually took root during the 19th century. It sought to elevate the production of decorative arts in response to the rise of industrialism, changing the value society placed on how good were manufactured. From architecture to jewellery, the Arts & Crafts movement covered the spectrum of design. It was co-ordinated by the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society which had as its president the eminent illustrator and artist Walter Crane. With other influential creatives, he paved the way for decorative artists to assert a new public relevance.
What are the decorative arts?
The birth of Arts & Crafts redefined the way society regarded the decorative arts – examples of which include textiles, carving, ceramics, metalwork, tapestry and glassware. Critical to changing public perception was to counter the lack of interest in artisanal craftsmanship, which had until then fallen somewhat under the radar. Outshone by more traditional forms of artistry such as painting and sculpture, the Arts & Crafts movement sought to raise the public and intellectual status of crafts. The Great Exhibition of 1851 provided a chance for a handful of decorative artists to showcase their work but without regular exposure it was impossible to exert any lasting influence on the public eye.
What was happening at the time?
The Victorians were in the throes of energetically embracing machine-dominated manufacturing of goods. By 1840, it was becoming clear that the over-reliance on machinery had damaging consequences. Against the industrial backdrop of Victorian Britain, the Arts & Crafts community held a radical stance. Fearing for the impact of this change on both the quality of goods and working conditions, Arts & Crafts advocated a return to handmade craftsmanship. By the 1860s, they addressed these concerns through initiating new approaches to manufacturing.
Why was using too much machinery a problem?
The end to end process of creating goods – meaning that an item made made by just one person – was disrupted by a new assembly line approach. Deemed more efficient, the division of labour meant that a product was reduced to different components assembled by individual workers. This resulted in the worker not seeing the end result of their work, rendering the whole process much less meaningful. Two figures at the height of cultural influence in Victorian Britain were the designer William Morris and art critic John Ruskin. Whilst not totally against machinery, they were both strong advocates of protecting craftsmanship. Morris feared that a weakened relationship between the maker and finished object would damage the end quality of goods. He also opined that a fragmented approach deprived makers of a sense of purpose and gave rise to feelings of detachment from their craft. Simply, there was more fulfilment to be found in craft-based production. John Ruskin, the celebrated art critic, supported this view. He argued that the separation of the act of designing from the act of making was detrimental to all aspects of manufacturing. With the goal of liberating the working classes from the frustration of a day spent doing repetitive tasks, they encouraged returning to a system of manufacture similar to that of the medieval period which was populated by small scale workshops.
Thanks to the efforts of these individuals, the Arts and Crafts movement gathered speed throughout the end of the siècle and into the 20th century. Testament to the skill and perseverance of the craftspeople whose work found a platform through the movement is a vast collection of Arts and Crafts furniture and homeware that is going strong to this day.
Vinterior is proud to hold many of these in our own collection. You can view them here.
Title image: artsandcraftshomes.com