Arts and Crafts

views updated Jun 11 2018


The arts and crafts movement began in Britain in the 1850s as a reaction to what proponents saw as the consequences of rapid industrialization: worker alienation, upper-class extravagance, and artistic degradation. The movement's philosophical founder was John Ruskin (1819–1900), who argued in The Stones of Venice (1851) that working with machines alienated the worker from what he or she produced and, moreover, that the ability to mass produce objects had cheapened their value and cluttered the landscape. William Morris (1834–1896) seized on Ruskin's ideas about how art and technology impact society and translated them into a theory of design as a tool of social improvement.

Along with other reformers following Ruskin's lead, Morris sought to make the lives of artisans better by returning to a pre-industrial system where the individual artisan was both designer and manufacturer and where groups of artisans and craftspeople lived together in mutually beneficial societies. Second, Morris sought an antidote to what he saw as the ornamental excess and stylistic derivativeness of late Victorian art and design. The arts and crafts movement had several distinct goals: to create more satisfying working conditions, in part by democratizing the production of art; to develop a design style inspired by nature and in harmony with it, using materials native to a particular location; and to make the home itself a place of relief from the increasingly hectic industrial world. As Morris and other proponents of the movement's philosophy, such as Oscar Wilde, would argue, what is useful need not be distinguished from what is beautiful, if form and function are considered as an integral whole. In America the movement's ideals were disseminated in institutions such as the Cincinnati School of Design (1872), the Massachusetts Normal Art School (1873), and the Rhode Island School of Design (1878) as well as in such events as the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. The arts and crafts movement would take root in specially created artists' villages and colonies like the Craftsman organization founded by Gustave Stickley near Syracuse, New York; the Roycroft Society founded by Elbert Hubbard near Buffalo; and William L. Price's village at Rose Valley, Pennsylvania.

The philosophy of the arts and crafts movement would influence a number of different art forms. The movement was never so much a particular design "style" as it was a philosophy of producing and implementing design, which ultimately led to a unique and recognizable look in architecture, landscaping, interiors, furniture design, decorative arts, and even graphic design and bookmaking.


In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, American life changed dramatically from what it had been before the Civil War. The population grew rapidly with new waves of immigrants, and industrialization forced a movement from farm to city, where housing often proved inadequate both for families and individuals. As the industrial working classes grew, so too did the middle classes, who wanted to own their homes but who needed a style of home more modest and livable than the Victorian home had been. They wanted a home that required little maintenance and that could run smoothly without servants, and arts and crafts design principles seemed well suited to meet those needs.

Between 1901 and 1916 Gustave Stickley (1858–1942) published his magazine the Craftsman, which included articles about home building and offered plans for home and furniture designs generated in Stickley's studio. Many of Stickley's articles focused on what he called the "craftsman idea." He believed that "the influence of the home is of the first importance in the shaping of character" (p. 194). He argues, "We need to straighten out our standards and to get rid of a lot of rubbish that we have accumulated along with our wealth and commercial supremacy" (p. 195). He even believed that children raised in "large houses with many rooms elaborately decorated and furnished" might well grow up to be unhappy adults. The designs that Stickley and others shared with the American public through magazines and pattern books offered an alternative to this fate.

Arts and crafts architectural designs also often reflect an awareness of changes in American family life. Fewer people were living with large, extended families, and more single people wished to have homes of their own. The tiniest bungalows, only about 600 to 800 square feet, were often referred to as "workman's bungalows" or "bachelor's bungalows" (University of Toledo, "Midwestern Architecture," p. 2). Stickley's designs reflect an awareness of variety of specific design needs. He offers a design for "two inexpensive but charming cottages [essentially a duplex] for women who want their own homes" (p. 72), which reflects growing opportunities for women as single professionals in the 1910s and 1920s. The Craftsman also offered "a Craftsman city house designed to accommodate two families" (p. 36), reflecting the fact that in the new urban environment it might not be desirable for two or more generations to live entirely under the same roof. Stickley also had plans for country homes, farmhouses, and cabins, reflecting not only his belief that more affluent city dwellers needed an escape to nature but also his belief that everyone would be better off if he or she considered abandoning the city for a country lifestyle that would allow him or her to raise his or her own food and poultry. In addition to Stickley's home plans, Americans were exposed to "Craftsman" designs in the Ladies' Home Journal and other magazines. Sears, Roebuck; Montgomery Ward; and the Aladdin Company of Bay City, Michigan, all offered complete house kits from about 1908 until as late as 1940. Aladdin's sales of home kits peaked in 1920 at $5 million (University of Toledo, "Midwestern Architecture," p. 3).

The arts and crafts movement also sought to change the ways houses were grouped together into neighborhoods. The "garden city" movement began in England as a way to counteract the grimness of factory towns. What the New York Times has called "the most successful and durable example" of this movement in America began in Queens, New York, in 1910 (Hellman, p. B1). In 1906 the financier Russell Sage left $70 million to his wife, Olivia, who decided to use part of her new fortune to build affordable housing. Mrs. Sage's lawyer, Robert de Forest, hired the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and the architect Grosvenor Atterbury and encouraged them to illustrate in their design for a new community that "suburban development geared to modest wage earners need not be haphazard." De Forest also insisted, "I believe there's money in taste." But in keeping with arts and crafts principles, "a sense of visual modesty was to rule the design." Thus the garden city movement was an attempt not only to improve the lives of working and middle-class families but also to protect American communities from those who would, in Atterbury's words, "deck out our modest villages in Paris finery and ruin their complexions with architectural cosmetics" (Hellman, p. B30).


Interior design was an important aspect of building an arts and crafts home. The goal was to create a home that was open, spacious, and functionally flexible (in contrast to the Victorian home with its smaller, more numerous, and more specialized rooms). Advocates of the style also believed that a house should be furnished simply, with well-crafted pieces and well-chosen accessories, unified in style. Readers of the Craftsman and other periodicals would have plenty of ideas for everything from lighting fixtures to textiles to art pottery.

For Stickley the most important room in the house was the living room, which replaced the formal Victorian parlor. The new American family imagined by the arts and crafts movement would have little use for formal entertaining spaces and even less use for the myriad rooms described by Edith Wharton in her 1897 book The Decoration of Houses: ballrooms, salons, music rooms, and galleries (University of Toledo, "Interior Design," p. 2). The fireplace was often the heart of the family-centered living room, with built-in bookcases and seating areas. Bookcases reflected a growing interest, even in the middle class, in owning and displaying books, and interior designs often included built-in bookcases (University of Toledo, "Interior Design," p. 2). Some of Stickley's designs for relatively modest homes even included a separate library room (p. 39). In short, interiors were designed to provide relief—perhaps especially for those in the middle classes—from urban and industrial society.

In the development of such decorative arts as pottery, glass, metalwork, furniture making, and textile design, artisans sought to create items that had an integrated sense of function and beauty. As Janet Kardon notes in The Ideal Home, "Objects created for the home were often vehicles for ideology" (p. 26). In contrast to the proliferation of objects both cheap and useless in the Victorian home, the arts and craft home contained objects that were handmade and that reflected local nature and culture. Many objects were influenced by Native American, African American, Asian American, and Hispanic American styles.


From 1890 until his death in 1896, one of William Morris's most ardent projects was the development of the Kelmscott Press. Toward the end of the nineteenth century more and more books were published but often in low-cost, cheaply made editions, which Morris and his followers abhorred. During this period the Kelmscott Press issued over fifty titles, all of which adhered to a clear philosophy of both content and design: "unity of design and manufacture, integrity of materials, and a reverence for historical idioms" (Wilson, p. 138). Morris hated "grayness" on the page and designed books made of handmade paper with beautiful illustrations and illuminations, along with small black type and wide margins (Naylor, p. 130). In America, Copeland and Day publishers of Boston were among the first to experiment with publishing books that conformed to these principles of design. Characteristics of these books included handmade, deckle-edged papers, black typeset (gothic was a popular choice), and text set in blocks with closely spaced lines (Wilson, p. 139). Two American periodicals, American Printer, published in New York, and Inland Printer, published in Chicago, helped to disseminate ideas about arts and crafts bookmaking.

The center of arts and crafts book publishing in America was the Roycroft Press, founded in East Aurora, New York, in 1895 by Elbert Hubbard (1856–1915) and later developed into a community of diverse craftspeople and artisans. At various times the community's workshops produced furniture, leatherwork, pottery, and metalwork as well as publishing limited-edition fine books. At its peak in 1910 the community had approximately five hundred workers. Hubbard had met Morris in England and sought to re-create the Kelmscott Press on American soil, and his press became both prolific and commercially successful. The success of the Roycrofters depended much on the charisma, energy, and political views of Hubbard himself, a Larkin Company soap salesman turned social activist who remained a shrewd businessman and marketing wizard. After 1915, when he and his wife were killed in the sinking of the Lusitania, the Roycroft community lost much of its focus and energy, even though the workshops stayed open under the guidance of Hubbard's son until 1938.

Between 1896 and 1915 the Roycroft Press issued anywhere from three to ten volumes per year, all characterized by chamois binding, imported handmade paper, old-style type, hand-illuminated initials, and bordered title pages. Hubbard discovered that his books could be sold to the masses by the strategy of mail order, bringing the pleasures of the well-made book into middle-class homes. Hubbard himself authored several of the books issued by the Roycroft Press, reaching nearly 40 million readers with his Message to Garcia (1899), an inspirational pamphlet that raised questions about the nature of work and individual responsibility. It became a minor classic. In the essay Hubbard tells the story of a young man, Rowan, who is asked to carry a message to the leader of the Cuban insurgents during the Spanish-American War and does so without questioning. Hubbard notes that "civilization is one long anxious search for" people like Rowan, noting that "the man who, when given a letter for Garcia, quietly takes the missive, without asking any idiotic questions, and with no lurking intention of chucking it into the nearest sewer, or of doing aught else but deliver it, never gets 'laid off,' nor has to go on a strike for higher wages" (p. 23). Hubbard cherished the ideal of the individual who works for community goals.

Along these lines, one of the main principles of the arts and crafts book was the idea that creating a book resulted from a meticulous collaboration among writer, designer, decorator, and printer. One of the most important designers in the Roycroft community was Dard Hunter (1883–1966), whose distinctive style helped to unify the various products created in the Roycroft community and give them a distinctive look. Between 1911 and 1915 Hunter mastered the art of making handmade papers and developed his own type styles in the Roycroft workshops. In 1919 Hunter moved to his childhood home of Chillicothe, Ohio, where he produced eight limited-edition books between 1923 and 1950 under the imprint of the Mountain House Press.

While the arts and crafts movement survived in the United States for only a few short decades, it has remained influential. Arts and crafts architecture and furniture design is still highly prized, and the principles underlying the practices have been widely studied. Even in publishing, the movement has had lasting influence. As Richard Guy Wilson notes, "The legacy of this brief but intense period survives to this day . . . in the vitality of small presses dedicated to fine printing" (p. 140).

See alsoAestheticism; Art and Architecture; Book Publishing; Socialism


Primary Works

Gwynn, Alfred E. A Book of California Bungalows. 3rd ed. Los Angeles: Alfred E. Gwynn, 1900.

Hubbard, Elbert. A Message to Garcia and Other Essays. 1899. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1924.

Stickley, Gustave. Craftsman Homes: Architecture and Furnishings of the American Arts and Crafts Movement. New York: Dover, 1979.

Secondary Works

Bowman, Leslie Greene. American Arts and Crafts: Virtue in Design. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1990. A catalog of the Palevsky/Evans and Related Works at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Davey, Peter. Arts and Crafts Architecture. London: Phaidon Press, 1995.

Davey, Peter. Arts and Crafts Architecture: The Search for Earthly Paradise. London: Architectural Press, 1980.

Hellman, Peter. "In a Pocket of Queens, 'City' Meets 'Garden.'" New York Times, 15 August 2003, B1, B30.

Kardon, Janet, ed. The Ideal Home, 1900–1920: The History of Twentieth-Century American Craft. New York: Abrams, 1993.

Legler, Dixie. Prairie Style. New York: Archetype Press, 1999.

McAlester, Virginia, and Lee McAlester. A Field Guide to American Houses. New York: Knopf, 2002.

Makinson, Randell L. Greene and Greene: Architecture as Fine Art. Salt Lake City, Utah, and Santa Barbara, Calif.: Peregrine Smith, 1977.

Naylor, Gillian, et al. The Encyclopedia of Arts and Crafts: The International Movement, 1850–1920. New York: Dutton, 1989.

University of Toledo. "Midwestern Architecture" and "Interior Design." Catalogue of The Noble Craftsmen We Promote: The Arts and Crafts Movement in the American Midwest, University of Toledo, Canady Special Collections, 26 March to 30 June, 1999.

Via, Marie, and Marjorie Searle, eds. Head, Heart, and Hand: Elbert Hubbard and the Roycrofters. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 1994.

Wilson, Richard Guy. Introduction to From Architecture to Object: Masterworks of the American Arts and Crafts Movement. Edited by Sheila Schwarz. New York: Dutton, 1989.

Nancy Morrow

arts and crafts

views updated May 14 2018

arts and crafts • pl. n. decorative design and handicraft.