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The Arts & Crafts Movement - History and Concepts

Started: 1860
Ended: 1920
The Arts & Crafts Movement Timeline

Beginnings of The Arts & Crafts Movement

The Arts & Crafts movement grew out of several related strands of thought during the mid-19th century. It was first and foremost a response to social changes initiated by the Industrial Revolution, which began in Britain and whose ill effects were first evident there. Industrialization moved large numbers of working-class laborers into cities that were ill-prepared to deal with an influx of newcomers, crowding them into miserable ramshackle housing and subjecting them to dangerous, harsh jobs with long hours and low pay. Cities likewise became doused regularly with pollution from a bevy of new factories.

Critics such as the writer John Ruskin and architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin railed against these problems of industrialization. They contrasted its vices with the Gothic era before the Renaissance, which they viewed as an idyllic time period of piety and high moral standards as well as a healthful, green environment. For both Ruskin and Pugin, there was a strong association between the morality of a nation and the form of its architecture, and the Gothic for them symbolized the peak of human development.

The Genesis: William Morris

“Trellis” (1862) - The first, specialized wallpaper design by the firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.

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. A young and well-heeled devotee of Ruskin's commentary was William Morris, 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-Raphaelite artists, 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.

In 1859 Morris had commissioned Webb to design a house for his family in London, named appropriately "Red House" due to the deep color of its brick. Its steep roofs, L-shaped asymmetrical plan, and overhanging eaves recall the Gothic style, with the brick introducing a simple, pedestrian touch, which contribute to its general recognition as the first Arts & Crafts building. Residences, viewed by the Arts & Crafts practitioners as a bulwark against the harsh conditions of industrialization, a regenerative spiritual haven, and the locus of the traditional family unit, became the building type most associated with the movement (a rather interesting occurrence, as most people associate "Arts & Crafts" with hand-made objects).

Morris' firm grew throughout the 1860s and 1870s, especially as Morris garnered important interior design commissions, such as for St. James's Palace (1866) and the Green Dining Room at the South Kensington (now Victoria & Albert) Museum (1866-68). It also expanded in terms of the range of items that it manufactured, including furniture, such as the famous "Morris chair," textiles, and eventually stained glass. In 1875, Morris - whose relationship with Rossetti especially had deteriorated (in part due to Rossetti's affair with Morris' wife) - bought out his partners and reorganized the firm as Morris & Co.

Morris' firm emphasized the use of handcraft as opposed to machine production, creating works of very high quality that Morris ultimately hoped would inspire cottage industries among the working classes and bring pleasure to their labors, thus creating a kind of democratic art. Morris himself became involved in every step of production of the company's items, thus reviving the idea that the designer or artist should guide the entire creative process as opposed to the mechanical division of labor that was increasingly used in most factories. He also revived the use of organic natural dyes. The use of handcraft and natural sources, however, became extremely labor-intensive, and Morris was not entirely averse to the use of mechanical production. Nonetheless, the popularity of Morris' work in Britain, Continental Europe, and the United States grew considerably, especially after the opening of a new store at 449 Oxford Street in 1877 with trained, professional staff.

Morris, who had taught himself calligraphy in the 1860s, had always been interested in typography and manuscripts. In 1891 he established the Kelmscott Press to print editions of Geoffrey Chaucer, and Ruskin, among others, including 23 of his own works - such as the rambling utopian novel News From Nowhere - in exquisite carefully-designed tomes that rival the artistic merits of medieval manuscripts, though the Kelmscott Press folded the year after Morris' death in 1896.

The Arts & Crafts Movement: Concepts, Styles, and Trends

Societies, Communities, and Exhibitions

Morris' success and his emphasis on vernacular and rural imagery inspired many others to create collective associations where groups of artists and artisans collaborated on designs in a wide variety of media. In 1882 Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo founded The Century Guild, a group aimed at preserving handcraft and the authenticity of the artist, whose work included furniture, stained glass, metalwork, decorative painting, and architectural design. The guild gained recognition through several exhibitions throughout the 1880s before disbanding in 1892. Likewise, in 1884 Eglantyne Louisa Jebb founded the Home Arts and Industries Association, which funded schools and organized marketing opportunities for rural communities to sustain them through handcraft cottage industries; within five years it had grown to include 450 classes that employed 1,000 teachers instructing some 5,000 students.

In 1887, the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society, which gave the movement its name, was formed in London, with Walter Crane as its first president. It held its first exhibition there in November 1888 in the New Gallery. The aims were to "[ignore] the distinction between Fine and Decorative art" and to allow the "worker to earn the title of artist." Dominated by the decorative arts, and bolstered by a strong selection of works by Morris & Co., the first two exhibitions were financial successes. Upon switching to a three-year cycle starting in 1893, the Society's exhibitions served to keep the Arts & Crafts movement in the public eye and proved to be critical successes into the new century - though by the 1920s persistent organizational problems and the organization's antipathy towards machine production ultimately doomed its original mission.

Architecture and the Diversity in Media

In part because the Arts & Crafts constituted a comprehensive philosophy of living as opposed to a distinct aesthetic style, its scope extended to virtually every aspect of the decorative arts, design, and architecture. There were very few Arts & Crafts designers, particularly among architects, whose work did not bridge several different media. Philip Webb, Charles Francis Annesley Voysey, William Lethaby, Charles Robert Ashbee, and Richard Norman Shaw exemplify this holistic trend - furthermore, it is rare to find a progressive architect in Great Britain in the latter half of the 19th century whose career was not touched by the Arts & Crafts.

In architecture the Arts & Crafts movement did not develop into one particular building style, but could be seen in a multitude of strains. The quintessentially Arts-and-Crafts building, however, might be the classic American bungalow - the stout, boxy, single-family dwelling of one or two stories with a prominent porch, distinguished by a hipped roof with wide overhanging eaves supported by thick beams. In both Britain and the United States, the simplicity, unvarnished, and rough-hewn aesthetic of the Arts & Crafts could be seen mixed in with a variety of stylistic preferences - Queen Anne, Eastlake, Tudor Revival, Stick Style, Spanish Colonial Revival, and Gothic Revival being the most prominent. In Britain, the Garden City Movement and company towns such as Port Sunlight often made use of such "hybrid" Arts & Crafts-based styles in their designs for housing.

Relationship 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.

It is difficult to fully categorize many designers as belonging to the Arts & Crafts movement or working in the Art Nouveau style. Henry van de Velde, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Will Bradley, and a host of other artists and architects are just a few of those artists variously described as straddling this boundary, which remains rather unclear. Many Art Nouveau artists even freely acknowledged their debt to the writings and philosophy of William Morris. Where the Arts & Crafts emphasized simplicity and saw the machine as deeply problematic, however, Art Nouveau often embraced complexity and new technology, sometimes to the point of disguising the truth of materials for visual effect. Art Nouveau also drew on a much wider stylistic base than the Arts & Crafts, finding inspiration from the Baroque, Romanesque, and the Rococo and even Islamic and East Asian sources along with the Gothic. Its very name of "New Art" spoke to the international attempts to invent a style for the 20th century instead of rejecting the conditions of modern life. As such, Art Nouveau was also less associated than the Arts & Crafts with the power to completely change attitudes and social mores, but rather was often used to embellish and enchant the viewer into a dreamy world of pleasure, sometimes tinged with exoticism.

Spread to the United States

British Arts & Crafts were known in the United States from the 1860s, and their ideas were disseminated freely through newspapers, magazines, and journals throughout the 1880s and 1890s. A key date was 1897, the year the first American Arts & Crafts Exhibition began in April in Boston's Copley Hall, featuring more than 1000 objects by 160 craftsmen, half of whom were women. Its success gave birth to the Society of Arts & Crafts at the end of June, dedicating itself to "develop and encourage higher standards in the handcrafts," with an emphasis on "the necessity of sobriety and restraint" in design, along with "due regard for the relation between the form of an object and its use." Charles Eliot Norton, professor of art history at Harvard University, served as the SAC's first president. Equally as important, that same year at Hull House in Chicago under the auspices of Jane Addams the simply-named Arts & Crafts Society was organized, as an outgrowth of the Progressive Movement, functioning as a tool for teaching new immigrants useful skills to support themselves.

Craftsman Farms in Parsippany, New Jersey - the building first served as an Arts-and-Crafts school for boys. Photo by Daniel Case

Even before then, the collectivist spirit of the Arts & Crafts had struck a vein with ambitious American reformers. In 1895, Elbert Hubbard, a bookish, loquacious former soap salesman who had visited England and drunk deeply from 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 May 1915. Similar notable utopian communities centered around the Arts & Crafts sprang up in places such as Rose Valley, Pennsylvania and the Byrdcliffe Colony in Woodstock, New York. In 1907 the furniture manufacturer Gustav Stickley founded a manual-labor school for boys called Craftsman Farms in Parsippany, New Jersey, as an experimental, immersive Arts & Crafts environment, but it soon turned out to be a financial failure and Stickley ended up moving his family into the buildings instead.

Corporate Culture

Unlike their counterparts in Britain, many of the American practitioners and advocates of the Arts & Crafts Movement were motivated by a distinctly capitalist drive, viewing the simple aesthetic of the Arts & Crafts as a way to ennoble the new consumerist mass society created by industrialization of the late-19th century with a kind of moral influence that would create a sense of social harmony. Hubbard and Stickley, whose furniture designs were sold both by mail order and through his showroom in New York City, did much to promote this idea - Hubbard through his magazine The Fra and Stickley through his, titled The Craftsman, which eventually gave the Arts & Crafts the popular alternative moniker "Craftsman Style." Such publications were ostensibly founded with the intention of promoting a simple lifestyle, the honest use of materials in handcraft, and an independent spirit in design and construction for the common man, but their clear purpose was to market the products of their respective publishers. Concomitant with such attitudes, the major figures of the American Arts & Crafts Movement fully embraced the machine as an advantage for mass production and therefore fatter profits, not a hindrance to quality.

Postcard with image of Rookwood Factory for Studio Pottery, Cincinnati, Ohio

The commercialization of the Arts & Crafts in the United States might best be seen in the large corporate bodies that manufactured and marketed their crafts in mass quantities, though this aspect has not diminished their value on the collectors' market even today. Studio pottery operations such as Rookwood, Greuby Faience, Marblehead, Teco, and Overbeck are some of the best-known names in this respect, whose pieces are often known solely by their company monikers, thus diminishing - at least until recently - the identity and credit given to the designers and individual makers and decorators. Such was also initially the case at the for-profit Newcomb Pottery, part of the art school in the eponymous women's college at Tulane University in New Orleans. Other smaller pottery operations, such as Eagle in Arkansas (producers of Niloak) and Bybee in Kentucky, represent the sometimes highly regional character of Arts & Crafts design. Nonetheless, some individuals' skills with their own practices, such as the metalworker Dirk van Erp and ceramicist Ernest Batchfelder, both in California, demonstrate the diverse nature of the Arts & Crafts in the United States.


As a reactionary artistic movement that grew specifically out of social commentary and advocated reform, the Arts & Crafts Movement was destined to be tied to politics. Morris himself was the most significant Arts & Crafts figure as a staunch socialist and anti-imperialist, founding the Socialist League in 1884 and advocating worldwide workers' revolution, giving public lectures around the UK and editing the League's newspaper, the Commonweal. Morris spent more time in the 1880s as a political activist than he did as a designer, though his reputation as a poet preceded him during his lifetime, which at least in part explains why his obituaries from 1896 barely mentioned his political views. Many of Morris' fellow artists, such as William Lethaby and Walter Crane, were also prominent socialists.

While they admired and promoted Morris' desire to restore joy to both artistic and manual labor, American Arts & Crafts adherents largely ignored or rejected Morris' political views. Hubbard and Stickley, for example, made no secret of their capitalist ambitions, and marketed their work expressly to a growing middle-class audience as a complement to, not a reaction against, the economic system wrought by industrialization. Hubbard's professed praise of Morris, Ruskin, Leo Tolstoy, and others, which by the 1910s had evolved into an ardent defense of free enterprise and American ingenuity, earned him much criticism for "selling out." 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. At the Newcomb Pottery in New Orleans, specifically dedicated to female artistic education, only the male potter (usually Joseph Meyer) was permitted to throw the vessels that the women students painted.

Later Developments - After The Arts & Crafts Movement

Alternative Names

Particularly in the United States, the Arts & Crafts Movement is known by several other names, the most prominent being the Craftsman Style, popularized by Gustav Stickley (and, by extension the furniture produced by his brothers' rival furniture firms), as advertised in his magazine The Craftsman, published between 1901 and 1916. "American Craftsman" is often colloquially used for bungalows and related Arts-and-Crafts-inspired houses. 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. On the other hand, it should be noted that the colloquial use of the term "Arts & Crafts" in reference to personal hobby-centered activities and retailing bears no relationship to the formal Arts & Crafts Movement.

Decline and Dissemination

Several factors contributed to the Arts & Crafts movement's demise in the 20th century. Fundamental to its decline was the inherent problem of handcraft - which is labor-intensive - to be easily produced in great quantities and cheaply enough to reach a mass audience. Morris was never able to solve this paradox, since his goal was to create a democratic art for the masses, and as time went on, he grumbled frequently that his firm catered to wealthy clients almost exclusively. The problems were not unique to his company, as many other Arts & Crafts practitioners on both sides of the Atlantic were forced to adopt machine production, often with a decrease in quality in order to stay afloat, and several simply went out of business. Many cooperative art colonies, particularly in the USA, discovered that such a collective enterprise built on handcraft was no longer sustainable on a long-term basis. Finally, like many other movements, the Arts & Crafts fell victim to changing tastes: at the dawn of the new century, a newfound respect for a traditional Neoclassicism emerged - the Edwardian Baroque Revival in Britain and the City Beautiful Movement in the USA - both of which largely spelled the end of the Arts & Crafts Movement as a mainstream phenomenon after World War I.

Pockets of the Arts & Crafts Movement managed to survive among individuals and collective artistic enterprises well into the middle of the 20th century. The Eagle Pottery that produced Bybee potteries in the American South enjoyed their best years during the 1930s, and the Newcomb College and Teco potteries continued production into the early 1940s. The Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society still exists in modified form as the Society of Designer Craftsmen and holds periodic exhibitions. As with many movements of design and architecture - and even more so than most - the Arts & Crafts aesthetic continues to influence cheap, highly commercialized lines of products - particularly using faux and synthetic materials - frequently marketed today in department stores and by other retailers.


The notion of craft and the visibility of the artist's hand as a central tenet of creative production, as the Arts & Crafts Movement encouraged, proved inspirational for many different artists, designers, and collective movements in Europe and North America, often at the same time as the Arts & Crafts itself flourished. In Scotland, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow School are sometimes grouped in with other Arts & Crafts designers. Many proponents of Art Nouveau cited William Morris as a major influence on their work, and the movement was especially admired in Austria and Germany, where design schools based in handcraft, artists' colonies like that at Darmstadt, and planned garden cities echoed the tenets of the Arts & Crafts and claimed it as their direct ancestor. Such was the case with the Bauhaus as founded by Walter Gropius in 1919, which perhaps went further and exhibited distinctly socialist tendencies that forced the school to relocate multiple times before its closure in 1933.

Do Not Miss

  • Art Nouveau was a movement that swept through the decorative arts and architecture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Generating enthusiasts throughout Europe, it was aimed at modernizing design and escaping the eclectic historical styles that had previously been popular. It drew inspiration from both organic and geometric forms, evolving elegant designs that united flowing, natural forms with more angular contours.
  • Rising to prominence in Germany in the late nineteenth century, Jugendstil, which means "youth style" in German, influenced the visual arts (particularly graphic design and typography), decorative arts, and architecture.
  • The Vienna Secession was a group of Austrian painters, sculptors and architects, who in 1897 resigned from the main Association of Austrian Artists with the mission of bringing modern European art to culturally-insulated Austria. Among the Secession's founding members were Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser, Josef Hoffmann and Joseph Maria Olbrich.
  • The Wiener Werkstätte was an early-twentieth-century production company of artists, founded in Vienna in 1903, by architect Josef Hoffmann. It developed largely in response to the Vienna Secession, inspiring others to found a company that catered to artists working in all variety of media, from jewelry and ceramics to metalworks and furniture making. The Wiener Werkstätte was quite successful, opening branches into Karlsbad, Zurich, Berlin and New York, but eventually had to shut down due to financial constraints.

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Content compiled and written by Peter Clericuzio

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"The Arts & Crafts Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Peter Clericuzio
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 25 Feb 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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