The Arts and Crafts Movement was a British, Canadian, and American aesthetic movement occurring in the last years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century. Inspired by the writings of John Ruskin and a romantic idealization of the craftsman taking pride in his personal handiwork, it was at its height between approximately 1880 and 1910.
It was a reformist movement that influenced British, Canadian, and American architecture, decorative arts, cabinet making, crafts, and even the "cottage" garden designs of William Robinson or Gertrude Jekyll. Its best-known practitioners were William Morris, Charles Robert Ashbee, T. J. Cobden Sanderson, Walter Crane, Nelson Dawson, Phoebe Anna Traquair, Herbert Tudor Buckland, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Christopher Dresser, Edwin Lutyens, William De Morgan, Ernest Gimson, William Lethaby, Edward Schroeder Prior, Frank Lloyd Wright, Gustav Stickley, Greene & Greene, Charles Voysey, Christopher Whall and artists in the Pre-Raphaelite movement.
In the United States, the terms American Craftsman, or Craftsman style are often used to denote the style of architecture, interior design, and decorative arts that prevailed between the dominant eras of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, or roughly the period from 1910 to 1925.
In Canada, the term Arts and Crafts predominates, but the term Craftsman is also recognized.
Yet, while the Arts and Crafts movement was in large part a reaction to industrialization, if looked at on the whole, it was neither anti-industrial nor anti-modern. Some of the European factions believed that machines were in fact necessary, but they should only be used to relieve the tedium of mundane, repetitive tasks. At the same time, some Arts and Crafts leaders felt that objects should also be affordable. The conflict between quality production and 'demo' design, and the attempt to reconcile the two, dominated design debate at the turn of the twentieth century.
Those who sought compromise between the efficiency of the machine and the skill of the craftsman thought it a useful endeavour to seek the means through which a true craftsman could master a machine to do his bidding, in opposition to what many believed to be the reality during the Industrial Age, i.e., that humans had become slaves to the industrial machine.
The need to reverse the human subservience to the unquenchable machine was a point that everyone agreed on. Yet the extent to which the machine was ostracised from the process was a point of contention debated by many different factions within the Arts and Crafts movement throughout Europe.
(This conflict was exemplified in the German Arts and Crafts movement, by the clash between two leading figures of the Deutscher Werkbund (DWB), Hermann Muthesius and Henry Van de Velde. Muthesius, also head of design education for German Government, was a champion of standardization. He believed in mass production, in affordable democratic art. Van de Velde, on the other hand, saw mass production as threat to creativity and individuality.)
Though the spontaneous personality of the designer became more central than the historical "style" of a design, certain tendencies stood out: reformist neo-gothic influences, rustic and "cottagey" surfaces, repeating designs, vertical and elongated forms. In order to express the beauty inherent in craft, some products were deliberately left slightly unfinished, resulting in a certain rustic and robust effect. There were also socialist undertones to this movement — most explicitly, and primarily, in Great Britain — in that another primary aim was for craftspeople to derive satisfaction from what they did. This satisfaction, the proponents of this movement felt, was totally denied in the industrialised processes inherent in compartmentalised machine production.
In fact, the proponents of the Arts and Crafts movement were against the principle of a division of labour, which in some cases could be independent of the presence or absence of machines. They were in favour of the idea of the master craftsman, creating all the parts of an item of furniture, for instance, and also taking a part in its assembly and finishing, with some possible help by apprentices. This was in contrast to work environments such as the French Manufactories, where everything was oriented towards the fastest production possible. (For example, one person or team would handle all the legs of a piece of furniture, another all the panels, another assembled the parts and yet another painted and varnished or handled other finishing work, all according to a plan laid out by a furniture designer who would never actually work on the item during its creation.) The Arts and Crafts movement sought to reunite what had been ripped asunder in the nature of human work, having the designer work with his hands at every step of creation. Some of the most famous apostles of the movement, such as Morris, were more than willing to design products for machine production, when this did not involve the wretched division of labour and loss of craft talent, which they denounced. Morris designed numerous carpets for machine production in series.
In America in the late 1890s, a group of Boston's most influential architects, designers, and educators, determined to bring to America the design reforms begun in Britain by William Morris, met to organize an exhibition of contemporary craft objects. The first meeting was held on January 4, 1897, at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) to organize an exhibition of contemporary crafts. When craftsmen, consumers, and manufacturers realized the aesthetic and technical potential of the applied arts, the process of design reform in Boston started. Present at this meeting were General Charles Loring, Chairman of the Trustees of the MFA; William Sturgis Bigelow and Denman Ross, collectors, writers and MFA trustees; Ross Turner, painter; Sylvester Baxter, art critic for the Boston Transcript; Howard Baker, A.W. Longfellow Jr.; and Ralph Clipson Sturgis, architect.
The first American Arts and Crafts Exhibition opened on April 5, 1897, at Copley Hall featuring over 1000 objects made by 160 craftsmen, half of whom were women. Some of the supporters for the exhibit were Langford Warren, founder of Harvard's School of Architecture; Mrs. Richard Morris Hunt; Arthur Astor Carey and Edwin Mead, social reformers; and Will Bradley, graphic designer.
The huge success of this exhibition led to the incorporation of The Society of Arts and Crafts, on June 28, 1897, with a mandate to "develop and encourage higher standards in the handicrafts." The 21 founders were interested in more than sales, and focused on the relationship of designers within the commercial world, encouraging artists to produce work with the highest quality of workmanship and design.
This mandate was soon expanded into a credo, possibly written by the SAC's first president, Charles Eliot Norton, which read:
This Society was incorporated for the purpose of promoting artistic work in all branches of handicraft. It hopes to bring Designers and Workmen into mutually helpful relations, and to encourage workmen to execute designs of their own. It endeavors to stimulate in workmen an appreciation of the dignity and value of good design; to counteract the popular impatience of Law and Form, and the desire for over-ornamentation and specious originality. It will insist upon the necessity of sobriety and restraint, or ordered arrangement, of due regard for the relation between the form of an object and its use, and of harmony and fitness in the decoration put upon it.
In Russia, Viktor Hartmann, Viktor Vasnetsov and other artists associated with Abramtsevo Colony sought to revive the spirit and quality of medieval Russian decorative arts in the movement quite independent from that flourishing in Great Britain.
The British Utility furniture of World War II was simple in design and based on Arts and Crafts ideas.
In the United States, the Arts and Crafts Movement spawned a wide variety of attempts to reinterpret European Arts and Crafts ideals for Americans. These included the "Craftsman"-style architecture, furniture, and other decorative arts such as the designs promoted by Gustav Stickley in his magazine, The Craftsman. A host of imitators of Stickley's furniture (the designs of which are often mislabeled the "Mission Style") included three companies formed by his brothers, the Roycroft community founded by Elbert Hubbard, the "Prairie School" of Frank Lloyd Wright, the Country Day School movement, the bungalow style of houses popularized by Greene and Greene, utopian communities like Byrdcliffe and Rose Valley, and the contemporary studio craft movement. Studio pottery — exemplified by Grueby, Newcomb, Teco, Overbeck and Rookwood pottery, Bernard Leach in Britain, and Mary Chase Perry Stratton's Pewabic Pottery in Detroit — as well as the art tiles by Ernest A. Batchelder in Pasadena, California, and idiosyncratic furniture of Charles Rohlfs also demonstrate the clear influence of Arts and Crafts Movement. Mission, Prairie, and the 'California bungalow' styles of homebuilding remain tremendously popular in the United States today.