The Arts and Crafts Movement was an informal reformist movement in architecture, decorative arts, crafts, and cabinet making that developed in the second half of the 19th century and lasted well into the 20th, with its heyday being the 1880-1910 timeframe.
The fact that the movement coincided with the Industrial Revolution did not occur by accident. The movement came about because of the Industrial Revolution. The movement was an unfocused reaction against the industrialization taking place in northern Europe and the USA at the time. Followers of the movement believed that industrialization was removing individuality and creativity from society.
Workers who formerly were rural moved to the city and took positions in factories to provide a more dependable and better income than the farm could provide. The conditions in the factory were harsh and brutal. The product that came from the factory was not nearly as beautiful as the workmanship of the craftsmen of earlier years. In fact, it was often shoddy by comparison.
With more people living in urban conditions, the middle class began to grow. In an effort to improve the lot of the factory worker, give pride of craftsmanship, and celebrate the masses, the Arts and Craft Movement was born.
The American arts and crafts movement came a bit later than the British but both emphasized the return to a more natural style and a rejection of the stuffy, overly ornate Victorian era, celebrating the workmanship of early years and nature.
The craftsmen’s workshops and thatched bungalows of the British countryside provided examples of functionality that celebrated the return to nature in the flora and fauna portrayed in the patterns of fabric and ornamentation. The simplicity of design and a tailored look reflected the furniture of the era.
It became a time when return to virtue became important and to the founders of the arts and crafts movement, virtue meant quality work that displayed the finest efforts of the craftsman without extraneous ornamentation.
The natural qualities of the materials used to make the object were one of the primary focuses of the movement.
Charles Voysey, a prominent designer and architect during the period and proponent for the movement, receives credit for the motto, “Head, Hand, and Heart.” “Head” stood for the imagination and creativity used in design. “Heart” symbolized the love of the craft, pride and honesty of the work, and “Hand” represented the skill of the craftsmen in the creation. These words became the motto and soul for the movement.
Perhaps one of the most influential buildings and displays that promoted the movement in the United States was the Idaho Building at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Another building at the exposition, the California Building received the label of Mission Style, another name given to the architecture of the arts and crafts period. These two buildings and their furniture came before the movement in the United States and undoubtedly influenced the growth of the movement.
Ideas and designs came from several sources. Besides the craftsmen of the countryside, the aesthetics of Islam and early Japan and those of Medieval Europe were incorporated into the simplicity and functionality of the design.
The British movement focused more on having the craftsman involved with each step of the production, whereas the American movement combined the factory with the craftsman to create more reasonably priced items that fit the budget of the middle class. American craftsmen created the design, the factory produced the parts, and then the craftsmen assembled the parts and created quality furniture which, while not as individual as the British, was far more affordable.
The Mission design, another name for the period, came from the architecture and influences of the American Southwest. Native American designs in the fabric and even artifacts were part of the decor. The Spanish influence of Southwestern California Missions was an apparent element.
The elegance of its simplicity and honor to craftsmen heralded the period. It was a return to virtue and pride in workmanship, which honored the common man and shunned the ornate decor of excess previously only enjoyed by the upper class.
This era not only was a decorating and architectural style but heralded the beginning of the rise of the middle class in America.