The Arts and Crafts Movement was an international design movement that originated in England and flourished between 1880 and 1910. Instigated by the artist and writer William Morris (1834–1896) and inspired by the writings of John Ruskin (1819–1900), it had its earliest and fullest development in the British Isles but spread to Europe and America as a reaction against the impoverished state of the decorative arts.
The movement advocated truth to materials and traditional craftsmanship using simple forms and often medieval, romantic or folk styles of decoration. It also proposed economic and social reform.
In the United States, the Arts and Crafts Movement took on a distinctively more bourgeois flavor than in Europe. While the Europeans tried to recreate the virtuous world of craft labor that was being destroyed by industrialization, Americans tried to establish a new source of virtue to replace heroic craft production: the tasteful middle-class home. They thought that the simple but refined aesthetics of Arts and Crafts decorative arts would ennoble the new experience of industrial consumerism. In short, the American Arts and Crafts Movement was the aesthetic counterpart of its contemporary political movement, Progressivism.
The US Arts and Crafts Movement spawned a wide variety of attempts to reinterpret European Arts and Crafts ideals for Americans. These included the “Craftsman”-style architecture, furniture, and other decorative arts.
The first society that sponsored lectures and programs on Arts and Crafts ideals originated in Boston in the late 1890s. It consisted of a group of influential architects, designers, and educators determined to bring to America the design reforms begun in Britain. The first meeting was held on January 4, 1897, at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) to organize an exhibition of contemporary crafts. When craftsmen, consumers, and manufacturers realized the aesthetic and technical potential of the applied arts, the process of design reform in Boston started.
The jewelry handmade within the workshops of the Society’s members provided a marked contrast to the thousands of pieces mass-produced in the factories of Providence and Attleboro, which were more in the Edwardian style. The turn of the century also saw the continued growth of Boston’s jewelry district along Washington Street in the Downtown Crossing area. Although Boston’s oldest jewelry company Shreve, Crump, & Low was located near the Public Garden, a large number of jewelers, including the renowned Bigelow & Kennard, established their showrooms along Washington Street.
The first American Arts and Crafts Exhibition opened on April 5, 1897, at Copley Hall featuring over 1000 objects made by 160 craftsmen, half of whom were women. The success of this exhibition led to the incorporation of The Society of Arts and Crafts, on June 28, 1897, with a mandate to “develop and encourage higher standards in the handicrafts.”
Arts and Crafts objects were simple in form, without superfluous decoration, often showing the way they were put together. They followed the idea of “truth to material”, preserving and emphasizing the qualities of the materials used.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Arts and Crafts ideals had influenced architecture, painting, sculpture, graphics, illustration, book making and photography, domestic design and the decorative arts, including furniture and woodwork, stained glass, leatherwork, lace making, embroidery, rug making and weaving, jewelry and metalwork, enameling and ceramics.
Today, many Arts and Crafts groups still exist in New England, mostly in the form of Artisan Guilds. There are many examples of Arts and Crafts architecture in cities like Wolfeboro, NH, Salem, MA, Newport, RI and New Canaan, CT. If you enjoy this style, you don’t have far to go to see it!