The Arts and Crafts movement influenced so much of the art, design and architecture in the world around us. You’ve probably encountered it, perhaps without knowing, so we’ve created a guide to all the most iconic features of the period.
To begin, we will outline the rich and fascinating history of the movement, and some of its key players and seminal figures. The arts and crafts interior design movement began in Britain in the late 19th century, flourishing from 1880-1920. It began in reaction to the industrial revolution, which created a set of dehumanizing working conditions, and produced objects that were lower quality and had less integrity. The inception of the movement is often attributed to William Morris, who was a British textile designer, poet, preservationist, novelist and artist. These days, his prints have become iconic: here is an example of a print, often used as wallpaper.
William Morris was an apprentice to the Gothic-Revival architect George Edmund Street. Morris also moved in the same circles as the painter Edward Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaeliteartists, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, all of whom were fascinated by medieval art and nature. In 1861, Morris founded the decorative arts firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., along with Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Philip Webb, Ford Madox Brown, Charles Faulkner, and Peter Paul Marshall, which specialized in wallpaper designs featuring natural imagery.
Eventually, the movement swept across Europe and North America, and emerged in Japan in the form of the Mingei movement, with the pillar of being “ordinary people’s crafts”. What is so interesting about the design approach of both movements is their commitment to quality craftsmanship, and simultaneous rejection of ornate artificial details. The resulting aesthetic is simple, elegant, and embodies a rejection of the movement towards fast paced and overabundant production methods, and their resulting design aesthetics.
The collectivist spirit of the Arts & Crafts movement struck a vein with ambitious American reformers. In 1895, Elbert Hubbard, a bookish former soap salesman who had visited England and absorbed the ideas of William Morris, founded the reform community of craftsmen in East Aurora, New York, called Roycroft. Over the next twenty years, Hubbard’s compound of metalworkers, furniture shops, leatherworkers, and (of course) printers and bookbinders would become one of the most ardent representatives of the movement in America until his death on the Lusitania in 1915.
The Arts and Crafts movement was not just a design practice, it was also a political movement. It was tied to socialist politics and thinking in Britain, characterized by the labour party and the formation of strong trade unions. The crossover between the world of art and design and politics at the time was very strong. Then, the campaign for women’s suffrage in Britain began in the mid-nineteenth century, with many early campaigners including Eleanor Marx being socialists, but many established socialists, including Robert Blatchford and Ernest Bax opposed or ignored the movement. By the early twentieth century, the campaign had become more militant, but some of its leaders were reluctant to involve working-class women in it. Sylvia Pankhurst campaigned for enfranchisement among women in the East End of London and eventually built up the Workers Socialist Federation.
While the Arts and Crafts Movement features everything from buildings to jewelry and embroidery, there are many features that are drawn across all these different types of production. Here is a list of 25 features that characterize much of the design of the period:
1. High Quality Materials
From wood to glass, stone and iron, the arts and crafts movement emphasized working with high quality materials that would stand the test of time. The decision was directly in opposition to the progression of Victorian aesthetics with the industrial revolution, which was moving towards the cheapest possible materials, and reproducing the ornate aesthetics of earlier times. The real vital ethic of the movement was hand-craft: each item should be created from start to finish by a single craftsperson, as opposed to a production line. This meant each piece required much more time and labour, and specialized skillsets, as well as masterful technique. The
2. Rectilinear Lines
Rectilinear just means straight lines, and while there are some curving lines in different types of Arts and Crafts design, it is predominated by straight lines, often forming geometric patterns. On large scales, architecture is characterized by large exposed beams, intersecting at different points, with rectangular windows framed with wood. The overall effect is a visual geometry.
On a smaller scale, design items like lamps and furniture, as well as jewelry are built with straight lines. Even the stain glass is mostly designed with geometric shapes, as opposed to ornate depictions of fruit, people, or flowers. The result is an aesthetic that speaks to the values of the movement, and prioritizes function over form, while marrying the two through craftsmanship.
3. Earth Tones
The Arts and Crafts movement is defined in large part by a rejection of modernity, and a desire to move back towards nature. Aesthetically, this results in the use of earth tones: colours that come from the earth. They are often rich and deep, and can incorporate reds and blues, in warm deep, and muted tones that reflect real colours we see around us. This is also important because the colours themselves come from natural dyes and pigments, as opposed to synthetically produced ones.
Each component of design in the Arts and Crafts movement was created with a focus on its utilitarian function. In a movement away from Victorian style, in which design was used to represent hierarchies of class and taste, Arts and Crafts designers focused primarily on the function of the object in creating its stylistic features. The spark for the Arts & Crafts movement was the Great Exhibition of 1851, the first world’s fair, held in London. The chief criticism of the manufactured objects on display was the riot of unnecessary ornament with little concern for utility. So, the design emphasized utility and accessibility, while also striving for craftsmanship: this did prove a challenge, and the resulting price from the skilled labour necessary did make Arts and Crafts design inaccessible to most middle class people.
5. Gothic Inspiration
While the design of objects was intended to be functional, the movement also had at its core a rejection of modern forms of production, meaning that reintroducing subtly ornate features was also part of the craft. The Gothic revival began before the Arts and Crafts movement, and continued into it. Many of its most important figures, like William Morris and Gustav Stickley were inspired by Gothic design, and its history and principles. Some of the touches of the period can be seen in Arts and Crafts design in iron detailing. Interestingly enough, both these movements were a reaction to the Industrial Revolution: the idea was to reintroduce intricate decoration and conspicuous design elements into buildings and products that had become standardized thanks to mass production. Much of the crossover between Gothic revival and Arts and Crafts occurred in the realm of print publications. William Morris printed some rich, ornate books that celebrated the opulent decoration of medieval scripts.
6. Highlighting the Natural beauty of the materials
Charles Francis Annesley Voysey (1857-1941) was a leading figure in the movement, and he soon developed his own characteristic style; linear, simple and with virtually no surface decoration. His designs were published widely, exhibited at the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society from 1888 and were highly influential. This kind of attention to simple structures is also aimed at drawing attention to the natural beauty of the materials. These days, this approach has been taken to the next level, with tables made purely from tree stumps, sanded and finished to highlight the rings of the tree and its natural form. At the time, in the late 19th century, the approach was relatively simple and in comparison to victorian design it really just stood back and let the materials shine.
7. Representation of nature
In the rejection of the industrial revolution, and its modes of production, came a desire to return to nature. From neatly depicted flowers to repeating curving leaf patterns, and even wrought iron lamps shaped like large flowers, the designers of this movement were deeply inspired by the natural world around them. English countryside became particularly popular, adorning wallpapers, tapestries, hand printed tiles and stained glass panels with dense, rich patterns that seem to climb and grow into a life of their own. Reflecting on the parallels between art and nature, art critic and writer John Ruskin wrote, “Nature is always mysterious and secret in her use of means; and art is always likest her when it is most inexplicable.”
8. Crossover with Art Nouveau
One style that in particular shared many theoretical and visual qualities with the Arts & Crafts was Art Nouveau, which emerged in part from the Arts & Crafts in Europe during the late 1880s. Both the Arts & Crafts and Art Nouveau placed an emphasis on nature and claimed the Gothic style as an inspiration; both spanned the complete breadth of the various branches of the arts, with an emphasis on the decorative arts and architecture and their power to physically reshape the entire human environment; and visually, both styles made use of a rural, homely aesthetic using rough-hewn stone and wood.
9. Mission Style Furniture
The term “Mission Style” or “Mission furniture” also remains frequently used, originally meant to describe a chair made by A.J. Forbes in 1894 for San Francisco’s Swedenborgian Church, but popularized in 1898 by Joseph McHugh, a New York furniture manufacturer, in reference to the simple furnishings of Spanish missions in California. Often considerable overlap exists between a Spanish Colonial aesthetic and the Arts & Crafts, particularly in the American West.
10. Use of Natural Pigments
In line with the use of natural materials, and the earth tone hues, natural pigments were both part of the philosophical values of the movement, as well as the aesthetic principles. Natural pigments have come back into fashion lately, with people starting to hand dye fabrics using vegetables, flowers, and indigo. Although the first synthetic dye – picric acid, which produced a bright yellow on silk – was invented in 1771, the man widely regarded as responsible for the rise of synthetic dyes was William Henry Perkin. So, it was many years later, at the end of the 19th century that there was a real movement to return to natural dyes. However, it was not all natural in the end. For some greens, it seemed that the best available option involved chemicals. It was discovered later on that William Morris himself used an arsenic based green in many of his wallpapers.
11. Geometrical Stained Glass
Most people associate stained glass with the classic Tiffany lamp. The first Tiffany lamp was exhibited in 1893 and is assumed to have been made in that year. Each lamp was handmade by skilled craftsmen, not mass- or machine-produced. Its designer was not, as had been thought for over 100 years, Louis Comfort Tiffany, but a previously unrecognized artist named Clara Driscoll who was identified in 2007 by Rutgers professor Martin Eidelberg as being the master designer behind the most creative and valuable leaded glass lamps produced by Tiffany Studios. They are considered part of the Art Nouveau movement, which occurred contemporaneously to the Arts and Crafts movement. Most of the original lamps utilize lead piping to keep the glass pieces together.
12. Wood and Iron
The combination of wood and iron is also a characteristic of both furniture and architecture in the Arts and Crafts period. The iron was used as pins and handles, and for most hardware on cabinets or tables. In a home, doors would be wood with iron hinges and handles, and similarly floors would be wood with iron grates. Both materials date back to the earlier gothic and renaissance times that the Arts and Crafts movement harkens back to.
In both colour and proportions, symmetry was an important feature of Arts and Crafts design. From entire homes, to lamps, the design featured geometry that creates even proportions and a sense of balance.
14. Plentiful, Small paneled windows
The windows of an Arts and Crafts house tend to be larger rectangular windows with smaller panels breaking them up. They are generally wood-framed, but can also have the leaden piping that is used in stained glass. In some ways, the windows of this time were a radical break with tradition, as were a lot of the design features. The transition from tall and vertical (Second Empire, Queen Anne) to ground-hugging and horizontal (the Arts & Crafts Bungalow) marked the tradition. On even modest storey-and-a-half bungalows, the living room’s large square or rectangular window is usually flanked by narrow three-over-one sash windows. Another variation is a large pane with a transom-like row of fixed, rectangular lights above.
15. Sheltering Roof
A low pitched, gabled roof is very common to the Arts and Crafts and Craftsman movements (the latter being the American version). A low pitched roof means the slant of the angles are lower, so it appears more flat and has less of a peak at the top. They often also have deep overhangs that shelter the balcony. Typically, this style is more suited to warmer climates with less snowfall, but you will also see many homes of this design in Canada.
16. Low to the ground buildings
Artistic naturalism was associated with bungalows back when the Arts and Crafts movement started using this style for many homes. Gustav Stickley sang the praises of the bungalow in his magazine The Craftsman. Another feature of these low to the ground buildings was the use of indigenous materials. Thus, it combined the natural inclination of the designers of the period with the working class and socialist ideologies many of them held, in the modest size and economical design.
17. Fireplaces & Multiple Chimneys
The fireplace was a large feature of the Arts and Crafts home, so naturally there was always a fireplace, if not two. Gustav Stickley was a seminal figure in the Arts and Crafts movement in the United States, Stickley’s new furniture reflected his ideals of simplicity, honesty in construction, and truth to materials. Unadorned, plain surfaces were enlivened by the careful application of colorants so as not to obscure the grain of the wood and mortise and tenon joinery was exposed to emphasize the structural qualities of the works. Hammered metal hardware, in armor-bright polished iron or patinated copper emphasized the handmade qualities of furniture which was fabricated using both handworking techniques and modern woodworking machinery within Stickley’s Eastwood, New York, factory. On his Craftsman Farms, his own family’s abode, multiple fireplaces are famously clad in iridescent Grueby tiles, or feature hand-hammered copper hoods inscribed with uplifting mottoes. The fireplace was for some an important part of the home, and therefore the chimneys remain a steady feature of an Arts and Crafts building.
18. Exposed Beams
Most Arts and Crafts style homes will have exposed beams in the main living area of the home. This adds to the linear lines of the house, and the emphasis on natural materials. They could also be in any other room of the house. Before modernism, this was a very common feature, to have the ceiling of a home be adorned with wallpaper, painting, beams, ornate trim, or anything else. In some rooms, the ceiling treatment played off the frieze, picking up its colors or repeating a motif. Complementary ceiling fill papers were light in tone and favored “natural” hues, such as limestone and sand colors, accented with eggplant, amber, and olive green.
One of William Morris’s greatest and most popular creations were wallpaper designs. He was not the only Arts and Crafts designer creating wallpapers, and they were very common in many homes of the style. His have gone on to be printed on H&M tops and dresses, and become ubiquitous across the world. Morris had his wallpapers printed by hand, using carved, pear woodblocks loaded with natural, mineral-based dyes, and pressed down with the aid of a foot-operated weight. Each design was made by carefully lining up and printing the woodblock motifs again and again to create a seamless repeat.
While most of the designers who get credit for the Arts and Crafts movement are men, there were many significant and brilliant female designers and artisans who moved it forward both aesthetically and politically. The Movement in the United States was also equivocal on gender issues: while it counted many women among its practitioners and advocates, including a few prominent ones such as Jane Addams and the architect Julia Morgan, few women Arts & Crafts artists received significant recognition during their lifetimes, and some were even limited to the type of labor that they were allowed to perform in the creative process. In England, William Morris’s wife, named Jane Morris was in fact a prolific embroiderer in the movement.
21. Silver Jewelry, Semi-Precious Stones
Silver was and is less expensive than gold, and less of a status symbol. So, for Arts and Crafts jewelers, it was the material of choice. In order to further stay away from the opulence of the Victorian period, they mostly stayed away from precious stones, veering more towards Baroque pearls, mother-of-pearl and odd “toothy” freshwater pearls were used often. Stones such as moonstone, turquoise, garnet, opal, and amethyst were usually cut en cabochon (Ruskin had an objection to faceted gems) and generally collet-set. A hammered texture in the silver was popular for its softer luster and its departure from smooth, shiny, machine-made counterparts. Today, jewelers have taken the handmade approach to the next level, molding out of soft wax molten creations that then get turned into silver and gold. Back then, more craftsman technique-based approaches were signs of the hand-made. Hand-painted enamel as a decorative element was an important mechanism for separating the handmade from machine-made. The use of leaves was an often employed distinguishing design element. The leaf design of some artisans was so unique that now historians will use this as a sign to mark their handiwork. Medieval and Renaissance styling were the overwhelming design motif with necklaces, pendants, clasps, and buckles the most popular and useful items produced. The melding of Gothic and Renaissance Revival, Art Nouveau, and Edwardian styles all happening concurrently was combined with the hand-made approach and the downscale materials.
The Arts and Crafts movement has a deep, rich history of both politics and art, and was an integral part of the social movement at the time of the turn of the century. It produced many styles that have lasted till today, and the ideas have continued on into many different stylistic iterations. The rejection of modernity, and desire to return to a slower way of life that is connected to nature is something I think a lot of us can relate to. COVID has brought out this desire especially, and with it, we can see the re-emergence of many difference types of crafts. People are pulling out their knitting needles, their nail guns, and creating many unique and wonderful things.
Looking back to Arts and Crafts for inspiration, we can see the attention to detail, the quality materials, and the beauty of the mimesis of nature. Maybe now you’ll be able to identify the Arts and Crafts design details in the world around you, or maybe you’ll start integrating some of the design elements into your craft work.