Styles in homes and home décor come and go and one of the most enduring furniture styles, known as Arts and Crafts, is enjoying a huge wave of popularity right now. It is so popular that the term is often misapplied to just about anything. We all have a pretty good idea what Arts and Crafts furniture looks like; it’s usually oak, very straight lines, unadorned, somewhat medieval looking, but most of us have just a vague idea of where the style came from.
Arts and Crafts was actually a movement; a philosophy that evolved into a style. As such it encompassed everything from architecture, painting, sculpture, textiles, metal and woodwork, even printing and typography but today it mostly survives in furniture and home design.
The seeds of the movement were planted in Britain in 1851. That was the year London hosted The Great Exposition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, a very grandiose affair designed to showcase the achievements of industry. It was popular with the public but critics hated it; they found the work created by industry to be shoddy, poorly designed and overly ornamented. A number of prominent painters (known as Pre-Raphaelites) and writers began actively campaigning against the effects of industrialism, especially the fact that the people who designed things had no idea how they were constructed and the labourers who made things were just doing a job and took no pride in the final product. Many thinkers advocated a return to the medieval system where everyday household objects were made by master craftsmen who had to apprentice for years before they could join a guild and actually produce something.
William Morris, a wealthy Oxford University graduate, ardent socialist, painter and admirer of the Pre-Raphaelites is the patriarch of the Arts and Crafts movement. In 1859 he built a home based on his ideal of medieval craftsmanship. It is the basis of the still popular Arts and Crafts architectural style. With dramatically pitched roofs the homes vaguely resemble medieval thatched bungalows; they use natural, local materials throughout, stress function with things like built-in bookcases and proudly show their structure with exposed beams. The garden is an integral part of the home. Unlike standard Victorian houses, what ornamentation they have is organic, inspired by nature but flat. For instance a drawing of a flower on the wallpaper looked like a drawing of a flower, not a real flower.
In 1861 Morris and some partners set up a company to produce furniture, stained glass and metal ware based on medieval models of craftsmanship. Each piece was designed and built by hand by one person. His furniture was far superior to mass produced items but only the very rich could afford it. Morris found himself selling to people who owned factories, the very people he despised. He eventually gave up on manufacturing and went on to publishing. He founded the first private press, Kelmscott, to revive the ancient craft of bookmaking.
Everything at Kelmscott was done by hand; the press itself was hand-operated, he made the paper, the ink and even the typeface himself. He reproduced many classic books but his own writings were also very popular and his ideas soon spread across Europe and over to North America.
Over here the proponents were not so anti-capitalist or against industrialism, they were somewhat eccentric idealists who shared Morris’s desire to improve society by improving how everyday objects were designed, made and used.
Elbert Hubbert was a self-described anarchist and socialist who, in 1895 founded Roycroft, an Arts and Crafts community movement in East Aurora NY, just outside of Buffalo. From there he started a private press based on Morris’s principles and published several long-running magazines that I guess now days would be equivalent to a blog, albeit one packaged in hand-crafted paper. Actually one of them came with a cover made of butchers’ paper because, as Hubbert explained, there was meat in it. It helps to have a sense of humour when you're writing a blog.
Gustav Stickley was the most prominent American to get involved in Arts and Crafts manufacturing (the movement by then had resigned itself to using machines, as long as they were kept under control). Stickley, along with his brothers Charles and Albert formed the first Stickley Company in 1883 and started producing Arts and Crafts style furniture in 1900. He called the style American Craftsman but it is often called Mission Style.
Mission, or Mission Revival, refers to an architectural style derived from early Spanish missions in colonial California. The furniture looks similar; both styles employ a lot of plain, straight boards of quarter-cut oak which comes from logs sawn at an angle to give a better grain.
The origins are different though and Stickley despised having the term applied to his work.
True to form, Stickley wasn’t just making a fashion statement but promoting a philosophy of life. His trademark included the phrase “Simplicity, Honesty, Truth” and the Flemish phrase “Als Ik Kan” which translates as “to the best of my ability”.
Stickley’s furniture was at first very solid and plain but he continued to hire brilliant designers and it soon took on a more elegant quality. He combined modern woodworking machinery with hand-crafted finishing to efficiently produce furniture that evoked a pre-industrial era. Stickley, like Morris, also branched out to metalwork and glass and built his own home. He didn’t just build Arts and Crafts, he lived it.
One of Stickley’s most popular pieces is the Morris chair. Based on a design by William Morris it has a heavy, solid oak frame, massive, straight arms, and a reclining back controlled by a metal bar set in hooked racks behind it. Many companies made Morris chairs in varying degrees of quality but early examples of Stickley’s version (it’s still in production) are very collectable today and can fetch thousands of dollars.
Because Arts and Crafts is a style with a purpose its influence has been felt far beyond the furniture business. Some of the world’s most storied architects, including Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow and Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago, consciously followed its principles. Its clean lines made it an influence on modernists, even the German design school Bauhaus which, ironically, exalts mass production. Today the various Artisan and local food movements fit right in with William Morris’s vision.
Arts and Crafts was born at the height of the Industrial Revolution and Victorian excess in design. It’s even more popular today because we live in similar times; shoddy workmanship and poor design are all around us.
Its endurance demonstrates that while may not be able to make mass production go away, we can at least make it behave better.