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History of the Arts and Crafts Movement Essay

The Arts and Crafts Movement of the late nineteenth century was an attempt to improve society by creating objects and architecture of a more worthwhile nature. The movement began in England in the 1870’s and soon spread to the United States where it was widely employed in the arts and in architecture. Advocates promoted its use among the middle class. Its continued endorsement among all social classes was seen as an empowerment to the poor who had suffered so much during the previous period of industrialization.

The end of the nineteenth century had produced a huge rift in society. The benefits of the industry had resulted in the creation of an upper class with incredible financial power, and a lower class of extremely depleted means. This system was held in place by a vicious circle. The upper class held control of the factories in which the lower classes worked. These profit-minded people, driven by their desire to increase their fortunes, viewed their employees as just another one of their machines. With increased profit and efficiency as their primary goals, the owners promoted and employed policies that created working conditions that were deplorable to say the least. Work had become a listless enterprise with no other purpose than the betterment of the boss.

It held no joy or satisfaction, but was essential for the minimal wages it provided. This division of the classes is clearly indicated in Edward Bellamy’s 1888 future retrospective Looking Backward. The rich were well educated. Their life was one of leisure and dependence. They produced nothing themselves but depended on their employees for all their material goods. The affluent seemed to possess a sense of manifest destiny concerning the luxuries and privileges they enjoyed. Although they had done nothing to produce their wealth, they strongly felt they were entitled to it. Empowered by this self-serving lifestyle, the rich worked together to keep the workforce’s efforts moving in the direction of commerce and profit. This left little room in their factories for fostering such unessential elements as job satisfaction and pride in workmanship. It also produced goods of much lower quality.

Industry, under the guidance of the upper class, had developed management techniques to ensure continued efficiency inside the factories of the industrial revolution. One approach to management is Frederick Winslow Taylor’s, “A Piece-Rate System” from 1896. It had been a common practice among employers to pay their employees a fee for a position filled by the worker.

This fee was commonly based on the number of units or pieces produced or piece-work. Taylor advocated taking the system a step further by eliminating paying the employee by his position and determining his pay totally on the amount of work he produced. This system, Taylor argued, would lower inefficiency, increase profit, and give a greater incentive for the employee to increase his production. By employing this new system industry further suppressed its labor force.

The tasks of the workplace became unconnected monotonous actions without pride or purpose. Working in such a demeaning and isolated manner left the employee with no feeling of continuity or job satisfaction and was responsible for increasing class tensions. In response to the stresses experienced by the working classes, W. R. Lethaby published “Art and Workmanship.” In this short essay, Lethaby decries the methods used by industry to increase production at the expense of the lives and lifestyles of the lower classes. Not only did the morale of the workers suffer, but the quality of goods had taken a nosedive as well. Lethaby argued that art should become a part of the workplace. Not art in the classical sense, but a type of art that can be seen in a contented craftsman’s work. Work that is meaningful and provides the doer with a sense of satisfaction after a job well done. “Art is humanity put into workmanship. The rest is slavery”, writes Lethaby.

Lethaby was also against the collecting of antiques. He felt that this craving was a result of the yearning for true craftsmanship as it had once been employed. A return to quality hand made goods would produce new items just as good as those so highly prized from the past. However, the presence of antiques was severely curtailing the demand for new quality goods. Responsible citizens should continue to desire well-made, artful items but should not depend on the past to provide them. In “Art and Socialism” William Morris, a popular critic and interior designer, put forth a plan to help the imperiled, hopeless masses. He proposed a return to the kind of work which had provided more meaning to the lives of workers. His plan stated, ” It is right and necessary that all men should have work to do which shall be worth doing, and be of itself pleasant to do; and which should be done under such conditions as would make it neither over-wearisome nor over-anxious.” This plan could only work if it had the support of the middle class, since the rich had no interest in it and the poor were too suppressed to help themselves. Morris suggests that the hope of society lies in those who consume it’s products.

If the common man is more discriminating in his demands, he will be able to produce a world in which “Art” is an integral part. This discrimination will yield a higher quality of life for everyone. This inclusion of art in craftsmanship became the basis for the Arts and Crafts Movement. Its effects can be seen in much of the popular interior design of the period. For the average laborer in the late nineteenth century, there was little enjoyment or sense of self-satisfaction. Each man was a cog in the machinery that produced an end result which the worker would never see. Day after day dragged along with the same sense of hopelessness. The days when a man could carve out a living with his hands had long since passed. It was the hope of the founders of the Arts and Crafts Movement to create a style of design and process that would provide jobs and a better quality of life to these workers in the lower classes.

By promoting the beauty of a well made home or object, the craftsmen who helped to create the object would benefit as well the designer himself. The Movement inspired a simplicity in design and materials. It stressed natural textures and handcrafted furniture as opposed to the more ornate object d’art from the past. Basic geometric shapes are essential to the Arts and Crafts style with perpendicular edges and few curves. Simple wooden furniture and chairs in the mission style were favored. Natural colors were used in decoration. Many of these colors were displayed on tapestries and pottery, with the walls themselves painted white to emphasize the wooden molding in interiors. Tiles, stained glass, and other authentic hand-crafted materials were also frequently used in interior design. It was important to establish a connection to the surrounding geography of the region. For this reason, many of the materials used in the construction of Arts and Crafts style homes came from the surrounding area.

Gardens and natural landscaping was the order of the day. Windows were plentiful and the emphasis was placed on the horizontal to suggest a grounded feeling of open space. William Morris describes an Arts and Crafts home as, “Grown up out of the soil and lives of those that lived on it.” Beauty was a thing well made. One can get a good appreciation for the Arts and Crafts effects on architecture by comparing the prairie homes of Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the leading architects of the era, to the more elaborate beaux-art constructions in New York City. These city buildings were highly ornate complex structures with an accent on the vertical. They were heavily ornamented with Greek columns, arches, and statuary.

Their concrete facades and neoclassical designs look like temples to industry and commerce. Wright’s homes, on the other hand, have a unique connection to their locals. They were built in rural or suburban settings and seem to be a part of the landscape in which they were built. Their interiors favored open spaces which could be modified with folding screens to create a variety of living spaces with both interior and exterior featuring a composition of wood, glass, stone, and brick.

Instead of reaching to the skies they embraced the earth and are nestled among the surrounding countryside. The Arts and Crafts Movement, while an interesting experiment in social manipulation, at least on paper, did not become the savior of the lower classes. Mass production had taken such a stronghold on the American imagination and American industry, that any attempt to return to a world of motivated artisans was impossible. The expensive materials and time consuming handcrafted quality required for the true implication of the style were only affordable to the very rich.

Few members of the working class had the time to learn the extensive techniques of high-quality handmade craftsmanship. The few opportunities to learn these skills were far beyond the capabilities and fortunes of most of the workforce. In the end, the elite who eventually endorsed the Movement was simply unwilling to make it a reality despite their desire for quality.

It is somewhat ironic to note that the Arts and Crafts Movement itself became another signature of the rich and well to do. The effects of industry and modern production techniques on society can be seen elsewhere in the visual arts and architecture of the early twentieth century. One striking result was the change in building design. The form of the factory began to appear in other contemporary manifestations. Schools, which had been designed as lofty expressions of higher learning with gables and Georgian columns began to resemble more closely the industrial buildings of the era. They became squat “modern” structures stripped of little outside ornamentation. The same effect can be seen in the design for hospitals and other public buildings such as libraries and post offices. As the public began to embrace its modern destiny, the more interesting artistic expressions of the past were given over. The visual arts also underwent a transformation. Gone were the romantic landscapes of the early nineteenth century.

A sense of Realism in art arose in America. A mechanical quality with hard edges is more apparent in the painters of the period. Photography, increasingly more commonplace, was becoming a serious art form and less a technical miracle. One of the most popular painters in the period was George Bellows. Bellows came out of the Ashcan School which was inspired by life in city slums. Bellows models were working-class people shown engaged in urban pastimes.

There is an immediacy and strength about his paintings that revealed strength in the American character. The popularity of the Ash Can School reveals a fascination for the city and the common man but tended to romanticize its subject matter. American city life can also be seen in the work of Edward Hopper. Hopper’s work highlights in a more realistic way, the growing isolation which the modern lifestyle had bestowed on the country. His paintings are solitary depictions of Americans and lonely American landscapes.

Works Cited

Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward (1888) Frederick Winslow Taylor, A Piece-Rate System (1896)

W. R. Lethaby, Art and Workmanship (1913)William Morris, Art and Socialism (18William Morris, Gossip About An Old House On The UpperThames (1895)

Edward Gillon and Henry Reed, Beaux-Arts Architecture in New YorkBruce Pfeiffer and David Larkin, Frank Lloyd Wright – The Masterworks

H. W. Janson, History of Art

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History of the Arts and Crafts Movement Essay. (2021, Jan 18). Retrieved September 11, 2021, from