What is Arts and Crafts?

    An overview of the Arts & Crafts Movement:

    The Design Philosophy of John Ruskin and William Morris in
    English Arts & Crafts, Glasgow Style, and American Arts & Crafts

      The Forest Tapestry
      The Forest Tapestry, designed by William Morris, Philip
      Webb and John Henry Dearle, woven at Merton Abbey 1887

    Arts & Crafts is more a philosophy of design than a set of characteristics. At the center of the Arts and Crafts Movement is something holy, a reactionary vision standing against materialism. The the spirit of Arts and Crafts is a kind of kairos, the moment when the spiritual breaks through or incarnates the spiritual into the material worlds of architecture, furnishings and the decorative arts -- and it is from that center of understanding that we can trace its lineage and its future.

    John Ruskin and William Morris

    Although it was William Morris whose name became known as the cornerstone of the Arts and Crafts movement, it was John Ruskin's second chapter on the Nature of the Gothic in his book, The Stones of Venice wherein he expounded the Arts and Crafts heresy against 19th century industrialization:

    You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them.... -- a heap of sawdust, so far its intellectual work in this world is concurred: saved only by its Heart, which cannot go into the forms of cogs and compasses, but expands, after the ten years are over, into fireside humanity.

    Entering Exeter College at Oxford in 1852, William Morris intended to take holy orders. At Oxford, he met Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti and joined a group called 'The Brotherhood' whose members were strongly influenced by Ruskin's praise of the creative imagination expressed by medieval artisans:

    On the other hand, if you will make a man of the working creature, you cannot make a tool. Let him but begin to imagine, to think, to try to do anything worth doing: and the engine-turned precision is lost at once. Out comes all his roughness, all dullness, all his incapability; shame upon shame, failure upon failure; pause after pause: but out comes the whole majesty of him also; and we know the height of it only when we see the clouds settling upon him. And whether the clouds be bright or dark, there will be transfiguration behind and within them.

    After spending a summer touring the the cathedrals of northern France, and being particularly stricken at the beauty of Reims Cathedral, Morris returned to England resolved to study architecture. He took up an apprenticeship at the architectural offices of George Edmund Street, a leading Gothic revival architect. Within a year, on the advice of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, he abandoned architecture in favor of painting. It was during this brief time as a painter that he made the acquaintance of Jane Burden, later persuaded by Rossetti to model for their small circle of painters.

    The Birth of Arts and Crafts: Red House

    The nineteen-year-old Jane Burden agreed to marry Morris. His friend, the architect Philip Webb whose acquaintance Morris had made during his year at Street's architectural firm, was commissioned to build Red House, their first married home. Red House is distinctly medieval in appearance. Moreover, the location of Red House was no coincidence. It was built along the path the pilgrims would have taken on their way to Canterbury, in Chaucher's Canterbury Tales.

    Red House defines the early Arts & Crafts style -- with its steep roof, brock fireplaces, and ordinary materials such as stones and tiles. William and Jane were dissatisfied with the type and quality of the mass-produced furnishing they found in the shops. Morris and Burne-Jones had commissioned some pieces of furniture when they shared bachelor quarters in London, but Red House was largely unfurnished.

    And now reader, look around this English room of yours, about which you have been proud so often, because the work of it was so good and strong, and the ornaments of it so finished. Examine again all those accurate mouldings, and perfect polishing, and unerring adjustments of the seasoned wood and tempered steel. Many a time you have exulted over them, and thought how great England was, because her slightest work was done so thoroughly.

    Morris resolved to furnish Red House himself. He paid attention to every detail, designing and handpainting the tiles in the garden porch, the 'Pilgrim's Rest'. The furnishing and decoration of Red House became a usual weekend activity for the Morrises and their friends, Edward-Burne Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal, architect Philip Webb and others.

    It was one evening after a dinner at Red House that the group of friends formed the partnership of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, and Co., a business venture built on the rejection of machine-produced decorations in favor of hand-craftsmanship. The Firm initially focused on stained glass and Firm windows are still common in England's 19th century churches. The 'Morris Chair', designed by Philip Webb, is still available by catalog and online. Morris wallpaper and textile patterns are still sold in high-end shops.

    Alas! if read rightly, these perfectnesses are a sign of slavery in our England a thousand times more bitter and more degrading that that of the scourged African...

    But to smother their soul with them, to blight and hew into rotting pollars the suckling branches of their human intelligence, to make the flesh and skin which, after the worm's work on it, is to see God, into leathern thongs to yoke machinery with, -- this is to be slavemasters indeed... (Ruskin, Nature of the Gothic)

    The defining characteristics of English Arts and Crafts are a return general simplicity of design and hand decoration of items with images and symbols that have a meaning for the user. For Morris, these included medieval themes and there is indeed a link to the ethos of the medieval artisan guilds, but as his interests grew, so did the subject matter. Persian designs and themes, the influence of old Iceland tapestries on his designs, drawing on the beauty of the natural surroundings and his personal history growing up as a child riding his pony through Epping Forest, mythic and fairy tale themes -- all of these were drawn into the circle of Arts and Crafts subjects.

    The Aesthetic Movement

    The Aesthetic Movement in art emphasized aesthetics over social values. Also known as Decadence on the continent, in the decorative art, it was less a proper movement than a name given to the singular failure of English Arts and Crafts to create furnishings and decorative arts "for the people and by the people, and a source of pleasure to the maker and the user" (Morris). But this was a failure of circumstance without intentionality.

    The rustic, medieval trestle tables and Jane's needlework were personal and human, just as Ruskin had enjoined. However, preparing such items for sale in this way was necessarily labor-intensive and therefore costly. Also Morris's income from investments had fallen off which may have contributed to the escalation of prices at Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. ('The Firm') and its successor, Morris & Co.

    The prices of later Morris & Co. products -- tapestries and tile offerings -- became especially prohibitive and, sadly, only the well-to-do could afford them. Wallpaper was an exception to this. Morris himself disliked wallpaper, preferring the rich texture of tapestries. To meet the popular demand, however, Morris & Co. offered somewhat more affordable wallpapers at more reasonable prices.

    Our art is the work of a small minority composed of educated persons, fully conscious of their aim of producing beauty, and distinguished from the great body of workmen by that aim. ~William Morris

    Art Nouveau

    Art Nouveau, a movement that became an overnight sensation after an exhibition in Paris in 1895, emphasizes floral and plant motifs, and stylized curves. The chair designed by Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo in 1882 (see right), appeared 13 years before Samuel Bing's Maison de l'Art Nouveau gallery opened in Paris in 1895. More interesting, he designed it for the Century Guild in 1882, "an association of artists and entrepreneurs that attempted to realize the ideals of Morris by bringing the highest levels of artistic creativity to objects for the ordinary home."

    Mackmurdo had both traveled in Italy with John Ruskin and worked with William Morris. We'll see this influence leave England for the continent, then make a reverse-turn for Scotland and finally return to Arts & Crafts in America in the paragraphs that follow.

    Scottish Arts and Crafts: The Glasgow School

    Almost 30 years after the establishment of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, and Co. in London, Charles Rennie Macintosh, Herbert Macnair, Margaret and Frances Macdonald started the movement that became known as "Glasgow Style". Mackintosh was not only a designer in the Arts and Crafts movement but also the main exponent of Art Nouveau in Scotland.

    In addition, the movement was strongly influenced by Francis Newberry, headmaster of the Glasgow School of Art, whose strong interest in Arts and Crafts and admiration of William Morris inspired him to add nontraditional crafts such as ceramics, needlework, and stained glass to the curriculum.

    Glasgow styles incorporated Celtic imagery and motifs, and often shows the influence of Aubrey Beardsley. It often has a Gothic, ethereal sense about it. "Hobgoblins by misty moonlight" as it was described by....

    Women played major roles in Glasgow Style; Besides the sisters Frances MacDonald and Margaret MacNair, Jessie, M. King's book illustrations and fashion designs, Ann MacBeth's fine embroidery wor, and the creations of metal artists Margaret and Mary Gilmour became identified with the style.

    Early Arts and Crafts in America


    This aesthetic focus on quality and perfection was a central principle for the Roycroft community of artisans in East Aurora New York. Roycroft, founded by Elbert Hubbard in 1895, was Samuel and Thomas Roycroft, London printers of the late seventeenth century. Also, the word roycroft literally means "King's Craft". In later European history, king's craftsmen were guild members who had achieved a high degree of skill and therefore made things for the King.

    As with Ruskin and Morris, the individual artisan was valued over the thing produced and a community of artisans formed with Ruskin's words from Nature of the Gothic emblematic of the Roycroft creed:

    A belief in working with the head, hand and heart and mixing enough play with the work so that every task is pleasurable and makes for health and happiness.

    Elbert Hubbard died with the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, on a mission to encourage an end of the war. The Roycroft community dissolved over the next decade.

    Popular Arts and Crafts

    The simple, squared Arts and Crafts forms took hold in America as did the simple lines of trestle tables and the Morris Chair. Gustave Stickley's factories churned out basic components that were then assembled and finished and sold in mass markets. This style with its series of square and rectangles became characteristic of architecture and interiors in last 19th and early 20th century America.

    Craftsman vs. Mission Style

    The terms "Arts and Crafts", "Craftsman" and "Mission Style" have come to be used interchangeably, but there are some obvious differences. "Mission Style" reflects the influence of the traditional Southwest culture on the popular Arts and Crafts movement, with its history drawn from the rustic hewn furniture of the Spanish missions in California and the southwestern United States. The styles share simple design elements, but Mission Style may incorporate these Hispanic elements that Arts and Crafts does not. Mission Style may incorporate Native American elements such as rugs and baskets but not Art Nouveau elements.

    Art Nouveau influences reappear in traditional American Arts and Crafts style. Louis Comfort Tiffany was strongly influenced by the philosophical writings of John Ruskin and William Morris. The sinuous curves and assymetrical elements, as well as images from nature such as dragonflies or tulips show their English arts and crafts heritage, while abandoning its medieval and mythic elements. American Arts and Crafts made its peace with the manufacturing processes, and not unsuccessfully. Quality homes furnishings were affordable, but no longer personal.


    William Morris tile: Beauty and the Beast

Red House embroidered daisies
Daisy wallhanging designed for Red House by William Morris and embroidered by Jane Morris

Philip Webb architectural designs for the gate at Red House
Detailed designs for the gate at Red House, drawn by Philip Webb.

Red House interior staircase
Staircase at Red House.

Stained glass window at Red House with Morris's motto: Si Je Puis
Stained glass window at Red House with Morris's motto: Si Je Puis

Interior of entrance door at Red House
Restored interior of the front entrance door at Red House. William Morris designed the pattern and chose bright medieval colors.

Morris Chair
'Morris Chair', an adjustable back chair designed by Philip Webb for Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., 1866.

Ladies and Animals sideboard designed by Edward Burne-Jones, 1860
Medieval-style 'Ladies and Animals' sideboard designed and painted by Edward Burne Jones

Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo chair, 1882
Pre Art Nouveau chair designed by Arthur Heygate Macmurdo in 1882. Mackmurdo traveled with Ruskin in Italy and worked with William Morris

Philip Webb fireplace screen
Fireplace Screen designed by Philip
Webb for Morris & Co.

Stained wood, glass and textile screen by J. Herbert McNair, 1895-1897
Glasgow Style stained wood, glass and textile screen designed by J. Herbert Mcnair, 1895-1897

Reproduction fireplace panel : William De Morgan Fantastic Bird tiles in Persian colors
William De Morgan Fantastic Bird, for Morris & Co.

Charles Rennie Macintosh linen press (Glasgow style)
Glasgow Style designer Charles Rennie Macintosh's linen press, 1895

William Morris carpet: Redcar, 1881
Redcar Carpet design, William Morris, 1881. Hand-knotted at Kelmscott House, Hammersmith. Morris did eventually design some carpets for machine manufacture, his one concession to the industrialized age.

William Morris Tile

William Morris, The Soul of Arts and Crafts

Morris & Co.: Tilemaking Process

Write a Real Person

William Morris at Art Passions