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Arts & Crafts:
From William Morris to Frank Lloyd Wright

by Arnold Schwartzman

The author focuses on a British craftsmen, such as William Morris and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who turned their backs on the mass production of the Industrial Revolution to form a ‘Round Table’ in order to establish a means of returning to hand-crafted products.

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How Was It Made? Block Printing William Morris Wallpaper

This video recreates the painstaking reproduction of a William Morris wallpaper design from 1875, a process that can take up to 4 weeks, using 30 different blocks and 15 separate colors.

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The Arts & Crafts Movement—
The Beginnings

by Bob Brooke


Unlike many other style Movements through the centuries, the Arts & Crafts Movement grew out of the dissatisfaction with the effects the Industrial Revolution had on the lives of working class people. More than an art Movement, it was a social one, spear-headed by British artists and social reformers William Morris, John Ruskin, and Edward Burne-Jones. Of the three, William Morris is the one most associated with it.

All of these men mourned the rise of mechanized society and the lessening role of the artist/craftsman in meeting the needs of the middle class. John Ruskin railed against the problems of industrialization. He compared its vices with the Gothic era before the Renaissance, a time which he viewed as an idyllic time period of piety and high moral standards.

The founders of the Arts & Crafts Movement sought to return to a simpler, more fulfilling way of living. The Arts & Crafts emerged in the United Kingdom around 1860, at roughly the same time as the closely related Aesthetic Movement, but the spread of the Arts & Crafts across the Atlantic to the United States in the 1890s, enabled it to last longer - at least into the 1920s.

The Arts & Crafts Movement existed under the same name in both the United Kingdom and the United States, and these two branches differed from each other by their respective attitudes towards industrialization: in Britain, Arts & Crafts artists and designers tended to be either negative or ambivalent towards the role of the machine in the creative process, while Americans tended to embrace the machine more readily.

The practitioners of the Movement strongly believed that the connection forged between the artist and his or her work through handcraft was the key to producing both human fulfillment and beautiful items that would be useful.

It all began with the Great Exhibition of London in 1851—the first world’s fair. The exhibition’s goal was to present ornamentation as secondary to the object being decorated. Items displayed, though innovative, were ornate and artificial.

Morris was an idealist and a romantic who believed in the important of the individual craftsman and a vision of harmony that looked back to the medieval guild system for inspiration. The Movement was a reaction to the impoverished state of everything from furniture and textiles, jewelry to ceramics architecture.

Working in various media, the Movement’s founders strove to bring a greater unity to the arts. To this end they fostered an interest in the vernacular, using local materials and traditional styles to produce things that wouldn’t jar their surroundings while appearing modern and distinctive.

The proponents and designers of Arts and Crafts looked to nature for inspiration—from the construction of a piece of furniture to the inherent beauty of the wood used to build it. They also embraced the luxurious colors and decorative motifs based on flowers and birds to embellish their creations. Using simple forms, they often applied medieval, romantic and folk decoration. Their primary intention was to express the beauty of craft by deliberately leaving parts unfinished, resulting in a rustic effect.

Unfortunately, Britain’s dogmatic approach to hand craftsmanship meant that pieces were very expensive to produce, so only the very rich could afford them.

Morris and his disciples sought to revive traditional craft techniques and restore the dignity and prestige of the artisan. He based his social and aesthetic philosophy on the medieval ideal, celebrating the role of the craftsman and the establishment of workers’ guilds. Morris and his followers believed that bringing artistic integrity to everyday household objects would improve the quality of everyday life. Morris wondered how anyone could live a fulfilled life surrounded by cheaply made furniture, mass-produced ceramics, tawdry textiles, and general clutter that typified the Victorian home.

The Arts & Crafts aesthetic varied greatly depending on the media and location involved. Both the imagery of nature and the forms of medieval art, particularly the Gothic style, which enjoyed a revival in Europe and North America during the mid-19th century, influenced it greatly.

Wallpapers, carpets, furniture, ceramics, metalware, and glass lamps, as well as room fittings and structural decoration were created as part of a cohesive design concept that often depended for unity upon a recurring decorative motifs. The goal of Arts & Crafts designers and architects was to create warm interiors, with the fireplace as focus of a long room with a low-beamed ceiling, leaded windows, and an abundance of finely crafted wood that included paneling and built-in multipurpose furniture.

Morris & Company
Medieval art and nature fascinated both Morris and Burne-Jones. In 1861, Morris founded the decorative arts firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company, along with Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Philip Webb, Ford Madox Brown, Charles Faulkner, and Peter Paul Marshall, which specialized in wallpaper designs featuring natural imagery.

Morris' firm grew throughout the 1860s and 1870s, especially as Morris garnered important interior design commissions, such as for St. James's Palace in 1866. It also expanded the range of items it produced, including furniture, such as the famous "Morris chair," textiles, and eventually stained glass. Morris bought out his partners in 1875 and reorganized the firm as Morris & Company.

Morris' firm emphasized the use of handcraft as opposed to machine production, creating works of very high quality that Morris ultimately hoped would inspire cottage industries among the working classes and bring pleasure to their labors, thus creating a kind of democratic art. Morris himself became involved in every step of production of the company's items, thus reviving the idea that the designer or artist should guide the entire creative process as opposed to the mechanical division of labor that was increasingly used in most factories. He also revived the use of organic natural dyes.

The use of handcraft and natural sources, however, became extremely labor-intensive, and Morris wasn’t entirely against the use of mechanical production. Nonetheless, the popularity of Morris' work in Britain, Continental Europe, and the United States grew considerably, especially after the opening of a new store at 449 Oxford Street in 1877 with trained, professional staff.

Morris pioneered his new interior decorative style at Morris & Company which produced distinctive textiles, wallpapers, and ceramic tiles with stylized repeat patterns inspired by nature. He wasn’t afraid to use large patterns, believing that if they were properly designed, they would be more restful to the eye than small ones

Watch a Video: The Arts & Crafts Movement

Arts & Crafts Societies
In 1882 Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo founded The Century Guild, a group aimed at preserving handcraft and the authenticity of the artist, whose work included furniture, stained glass, metalwork, decorative painting, and architectural design. The guild gained recognition through several exhibitions throughout the 1880s before disbanding in 1892.

In 1887, the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society, which gave the Movement its name, was formed in London, with Walter Crane as its first president. It held its first exhibition there in November 1888 in the New Gallery. The aims were to "[ignore] the distinction between Fine and Decorative art" and to allow the "worker to earn the title of artist." Dominated by the decorative arts, and bolstered by a strong selection of works by Morris & Co., the first two exhibitions were financial successes.

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