The Arts and Crafts movement was an international trend in the decorative and fine arts that began in Britain and flourished in Europe and North America between about 1880 and 1920, emerging in Japan in the 1920s as the Mingei movement.
It stood for traditional craftsmanship using simple forms, and often used medieval, romantic, or folk styles of decoration. It advocated economic and social reform and was essentially anti-industrial.
It had a strong influence on the arts in Europe until it was displaced by Modernism in the 1930s, and its influence continued among craft makers, designers, and town planners long afterwards.
The term was first used by T. J. Cobden-Sanderson at a meeting of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1887, although the principles and style on which it was based had been developing in England for at least 20 years.
It was inspired by the ideas of architect Augustus Pugin, writer John Ruskin, and designer William Morris.
The movement developed earliest and most fully in the British Isles and spread across the British Empire and to the rest of Europe and America.
It was largely a reaction against the perceived impoverishment of the decorative arts at the time and the conditions in which they were produced.
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Origins and Influences Of The Arts & Crafts Movement
The Arts and Crafts movement emerged from the attempt to reform design and decoration in mid-19th century Britain.
It was a reaction against a perceived decline in standards that the reformers associated with machinery and factory production.
Their critique was sharpened by the items that they saw in the Great Exhibition of 1851 which they considered to be excessively ornate, artificial, and ignorant of the qualities of the materials used.
Art historian Nikolaus Pevsner writes that the exhibits showed "ignorance of that basic need in creating patterns, the integrity of the surface", as well as displaying "vulgarity in detail".
Design reform began with Exhibition organizers Henry Cole (1808–1882), Owen Jones (1809–1874), Matthew Digby Wyatt (1820–1877), and Richard Redgrave (1804–1888), all of whom deprecated excessive ornament and impractical or badly made things.
The organizers were "unanimous in their condemnation of the exhibits." Owen Jones, for example, complained that "the architect, the upholsterer, the paper-stainer, the weaver, the calico-printer, and the potter" produced "novelty without beauty, or beauty without intelligence."
From these criticisms of manufactured goods emerged several publications which set out what the writers considered to be the correct principles of design.
Richard Redgrave's Supplementary Report on Design (1852) analyzed the principles of design and ornament and pleaded for "more logic in the application of decoration."
Other works followed in a similar vein, such as Wyatt's Industrial Arts of the Nineteenth Century (1853), Gottfried Semper's Wissenschaft, Industrie und Kunst ("Science, Industry and Art") (1852), Ralph Wornum's Analysis of Ornament (1856), Redgrave's Manual of Design (1876), and Jones's Grammar of Ornament (1856).
The Grammar of Ornament was particularly influential, liberally distributed as a student prize and running into nine reprints by 1910.
Jones declared that ornament "must be secondary to the thing decorated", that there must be "fitness in the ornament to the thing ornamented", and that wallpapers and carpets must not have any patterns "suggestive of anything but a level or plain".
A fabric or wallpaper in the Great Exhibition might be decorated with a natural motif made to look as real as possible, whereas these writers advocated flat and simplified natural motifs.
Redgrave insisted that "style" demanded sound construction before ornamentation, and a proper awareness of the quality of materials used.
"Utility must have precedence over ornamentation."
However, the design reformers of the mid-19th century did not go as far as the designers of the Arts and Crafts Movement. They were more concerned with ornamentation than construction, they had an incomplete understanding of methods of manufacture, and they did not criticize industrial methods as such. By contrast, the Arts and Crafts movement was as much a movement of social reform as design reform, and its leading practitioners did not separate the two.
Critique of Industry
William Morris shared Ruskin's critique of industrial society and at one time or another attacked the modern factory, the use of machinery, the division of labor, capitalism and the loss of traditional craft methods.
But his attitude to machinery was inconsistent.
He said at one point that production by machinery was "altogether an evil", but at others times, he was willing to commission work from manufacturers who were able to meet his standards with the aid of machines.
Morris said that in a "true society", where neither luxuries nor cheap trash were made, machinery could be improved and used to reduce the hours of labor.
Fiona MacCarthy says that "unlike later zealots like Gandhi, William Morris had no practical objections to the use of machinery per se so long as the machines produced the quality he needed."
Morris insisted that the artist should be a craftsman-designer working by hand and advocated a society of free craftspeople, such as he believed had existed during the Middle Ages.
"Because craftsmen took pleasure in their work", he wrote, "the Middle Ages was a period of greatness in the art of the common people. ... The treasures in our museums now are only the common utensils used in households of that age, when hundreds of medieval churches – each one a masterpiece — were built by unsophisticated peasants."
Medieval art was the model for much of Arts and Crafts design, and medieval life, literature and building was idealized by the movement.
Morris's followers also had differing views about machinery and the factory system. For example, C. R. Ashbee, a central figure in the Arts and Crafts Movement, said in 1888, that, "We do not reject the machine, we welcome it. But we would desire to see it mastered."
After unsuccessfully pitting his Guild and School of Handicraft guild against modern methods of manufacture, he acknowledged that "Modern civilization rests on machinery", but he continued to criticize the deleterious effects of what he called "mechanism", saying that "the production of certain mechanical commodities is as bad for the national health as is the production of slave-grown cane or child-sweated wares."
William Arthur Smith Benson, on the other hand, had no qualms about adapting the Arts and Crafts style to metalwork produced under industrial conditions.
Morris and his followers believed the division of labor on which modern industry depended was undesirable, but the extent to which every design should be carried out by the designer was a matter for debate and disagreement.
Not all Arts and Crafts artists carried out every stage in the making of goods themselves, and it was only in the twentieth century that that became essential to the definition of craftsmanship.
Although Morris was famous for getting hands-on experience himself of many crafts (including weaving, dying, printing, calligraphy and embroidery), he did not regard the separation of designer and executant in his factory as problematic.
Walter Crane, a close political associate of Morris's, took an unsympathetic view of the division of labor on both moral and artistic grounds, and strongly advocated that designing and making should come from the same hand.
Lewis Foreman Day, a friend and contemporary of Crane's, as unstinting as Crane in his admiration of Morris, disagreed strongly with Crane. He thought that the separation of design and execution was not only inevitable in the modern world, but also that only that sort of specialization allowed the best in design and the best in making.
Few of the founders of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society insisted that the designer should also be the maker. Peter Floud, writing in the 1950s, said that "The founders of the Society ... never executed their own designs, but invariably turned them over to commercial firms."
The idea that the designer should be the maker and the maker the designer derived "not from Morris or early Arts and Crafts teaching, but rather from the second-generation elaboration doctrine worked out in the first decade of [the twentieth] century by men such as W. R. Lethaby.".