Arts and Crafts
Article added on June 3, 2005
After its landmark exhibitions
dedicated to Art
Nouveau, Art Deco and Christopher Dresser, the Victoria and Albert Museum
(V&A) in London focuses on the international movement of Arts and Crafts
that flourished in Britain, continental Europe and the United States from the
1880s until the First World War as well as in Japan from the 1920s until the
Second World War. Arts and Crafts had a profound effect on future generations
and its influence lasts until today.
It became the first British design movement to have widespread international
influence and took its name from the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, which
was founded in London in 1887 and staged exhibitions at the New Gallery in
Regent Street from 1888.
Arts and Crafts was a reaction to the rapid industrialization and mass
manufacture which flourished in the 19th century. Critics then and now often
made no division between Arts and Crafts and other artistic developments of
the time such as Art Nouveau. Yet the two movements were different to the
point that they can be largely but not altogether described as the antithesis
of each other.
Art Nouveau was born, moulded in France and Belgium before spreading to
central and southern European cities. Art Nouveau was cosmopolitan,
sophisticated, extravagant and appealed to romantic and exotic tastes. It
looked at new ways to express emotions. Art Nouveau required up-to-date
technical equipment and skills.
Arts and Crafts emphasized the importance and benefit of practical skills. The
small workshop with its individual craftsmanship was valued above mass
manufacture. Interior design and decoration became a total work of art or Gesamtkunstwork,
art was integrated into every day life. The movement challenged the
established hierarchy of the arts and advocated social reform through improved
The amalgam of Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts is partly due to the fact that
both groups of artists and designers submitted their work to international
exhibitions. Their works were often sold together in the same fashionable
European shops and jointly described as "new art" in trade papers
such as the British Furniture Record and The Furnisher.
Karen Livingstone and Linda Parry stress that the original Arts and Crafts
artists, craftworkers, designers and architects were "altogether more
puritanical in their aims and proselytizing in their manner", following
"the well-trodden path in demanding an improvement in design and
manufacture of the decorative arts in Victorian Britain first initiated by
Henry Cole in the 1850s".
Decorative arts had been of minor importance for generations. This decline had
been reinforced by the industrial age. Based on the writings of John Ruskin
(1819-1900), the internationally renowned and commercially successful designer
and manufacturer William Morris (1834-1896) was the other key figure in the
improvement and "radical change both in the way things were made and how
the products of the industry were perceived".
Ruskin's greatest impact on the Arts and Crafts movement came from his
publication The Stones of Venice (1851-1853). More precisely from the
central chapter of volume II, "The Nature of Gothic", in which he
described that European medieval art was so admirable because it was made by
ordinary men who were masters of their own work from the beginning to the end
and not slaves to machinery or each other. Ruskin perceived the industrial
division of labor as "the degradation of the workman" and not only
of workmanship. Arts and Crafts was not only a practical design movement, but
also a philosophy of life, a new conception of the world.
The London Arts and Crafts exhibitions and a number of internationally
distributed magazines (and their international editions as well as foreign
magazines) such as The Studio helped the movement to spread in Europe.
They featured British designers including Walter Crane (1845-1915), C.F.A.
Voysey (1857-1941), C.R. Ashbee (1863-1943), M.H. Baillie Scott (1865-1945)
and C.R. Mackintosh (1868-1928), to name the most important ones, which became
synonyms of Arts and Crafts.
In Germany, the British Arts and Crafts Movement was perceived as too
anti-industrial and the revival of traditional methods of manufacturing as not
economically viable. Both machine and hand production characterized the German
movement, which became one of the longest-lasting and most influential
developments of all. In Germany, it was legitimate to use technology as a
means of achieving efficient production, but at the same time the artists,
designers and architects shared the ideals about the use of materials and
standards of craftsmanship. The concept of Gesamtkunstwerk was most
developed in the outstanding artists' colony in Darmstadt, founded in 1899 by
Ernst Ludwig, Grand Duke of Hesse (1868-1937), who wanted to raise artistic
standards and demonstrate the relationship between the designer and the
Among the best Arts and Crafts artists, designers and craftworkers are the
ones of the Wiener Werkstätte (Viennese Workshops). The Austrians applied a
purist approach and produced only handmade goods. The objects by the workshop
founders Josef Hoffmann (1870-1956) and Koloman Moser (1868-1919) are of great
refinement. Hoffmann collaborated with Jugendstil painter Gustav Klimt for
instance at Palais Stoclet in Brussels, demonstrating that the division
between Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau was not clear cut - the same can be
said of Art Nouveau and the subsequent Art Deco style. The reality is often
more complex than the conceptual borderline drawn by artists and art
Although Arts and Crafts representatives and amateurs loved the countryside
and nature, the British movement was largely urban. Works were mostly produced
in cities. The organizations and markets which sustained it were urban as was
the cultural energy driving them. Arts and Crafts was not only largely urban,
it was metropolitan since it flourished best in London, where most of its
leading designers lived. The movement had a strong commercial basis and a
desire to influence industrial design and manufacture.
The V&A exhibition displays some 300 Arts and Crafts objects, including
furniture, ceramics, textiles, stained glass, metalworks, jewellery,
photographs, architecture, paintings and sculpture. Among the original
contributions of the exhibition is the display of the first and most important
Japanese Arts and Crafts (Mingei or Folk Art) interior, which until
recently was thought to be lost in World War Two.
Get the exhibition
catalogue from Amazon.co.uk,
This article is closely based on the V&A exhibition catalogue International Arts and Crafts, edited by Karen Livingstone and Linda
Parry. Get it from Amazon.co.uk,
Exhibition, Arts and Crafts:
- Victoria & Albert Museum in London from March 17 to July 24, 2005
- Indianapolis Museum of Art from September 27, 2005 to January 22, 2006
- Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco (de Young) from March 18 to June 18, 2006.
Celebrating 100 years of Wiener Werkstätte at the MAK museum in Vienna,
Austria: Der Preis der Schönheit - 100 Jahre Wiener Werkstätte. Get
the book in German (Hatje Cantz) from Amazon.de.