The story of the Arts and Crafts movement epitomizes the conflicts that are continuously prevalent in history. In retrospect, we tend to think of “Arts and Crafts” as a neat category—in reality it was a movement composed of a multitude of individual agendas. However, in spite of the diversity within these viewpoints, uniting this ideology was the rejection of the bourgeois Victorian obsession with Classicism; hence, the Arts and Crafts movement unchained the designer, proliferating fresh ideas on design.
Providing the first break from Victorian Classicism is A. W. N. Pugin. In 1836, he published a book titled, Contrasts, decreeing that design is best when it has been suited to ‘the purpose for which it is intended (Cumming/Kaplan, 11).’ Revolutionary! Function, rather than classical form, became the focus of design—setting the stage for what was to come. Moreover, Pugin sought a more holistic view of design, uniting designer and craftsman while emphasizing honest use of natural materials. (Cumming/Kaplan, 12).
Meanwhile, independently of Pugin, in 1836 Samuel Wiley testified to a British government Select Committee “public taste is bad… I can sell them the worst things and the most unmeaning”. The committee recommended a benchmark collection of decorative art be established (Parissien, 154). Concerned that value was being degraded by the slew of mass produced atrocities common to the Victorian era, a group of designers was emerging, seeking to canonize high design in retaliation to the frivolous eclecticism of Victorian design.
Later, as the Arts and Crafts movement continued to grow and influence other architects and designers, its ideology progressed. Ruskin, in The Two Paths (1859), advocated nature as inspiration and freedom of expression for the designer—eschewing reliance on a set of rules (Cumming/Ruskin 13). Thus, the designer was further liberated from the vogue Classicism of the time. In slight contrast, Owen Jones, interpreted the Arts and Crafts movement in only stylistic terms. In Grammar of Ornament (1856), he promoted simplicity and less ostentatious color as guidelines, but he did not decree mass production. (Cumming/Kaplan, 12) More importantly, like Ruskin, Jones emphasized that designers could break away from Classicism.
Finally, in the 1860’s William Morris delineated the most comprehensive ideology of the Arts and Crafts movement. Drawing from the tradition of Pugin and Ruskin, Morris advocated the autonomy of the craftsman—curtailing mass production; he used natural materials, drew from nature for inspiration, and based form on function (Parissien, 154-159). Emphasizing questions regarding material, labor, and production, Morris’s designs became a statement against capitalism. Consequently, this made his designs incredibly expensive, accessible only to the wealthy upper class (Parissien, 160).
However, in tandem, many designers interpreted Morris’s style to mass produce it for the popular market (Parissien, 161). Ironically, the look of Arts and Crafts became an aesthetic in itself, not necessarily contingent on the social or moral postulates that Pugin, Ruskin, and Morris advocated.
While Arts and Crafts social imperatives of reducing mass production, enabling the craftsman, and ending capitalism’s influence on design faded with time—its rejection of Classicism changed history. Aesthetically, it freed designers to begin to draw their inspiration either from nature or sets of principles, rather than on historical precedents. Thus, Arts and Crafts inadvertently laid the foundation for the ensuing Modernism.
Parissien, Steven Interiors: The Home Since 1700. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2009.
Cumming, Elizabeth/Kaplan, Wendy The Arts and Crafts Movement. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1991.