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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 workshop conditions.

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 environment.

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 historians.

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,,,

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,,,

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

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