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Impact of the Birth of the Arts and Crafts Movement on Design

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Design
Wordcount: 3602 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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“Fundamental to the British Arts and Crafts philosophy was the conviction that industrialization had brought with it the total destruction of ‘purpose, sense and life’” (Naylor, 1980:8). With reference to a specific case study, give an account of the ways in which the Arts and Crafts Movement attempted to reform design.

In this essay I will give an overview of the Industrial Revolution and the birth of the Arts and Crafts Movement. An introduction about William Morris will follow with a case study analysing his wallpapers and a conclusion of my findings.


“…We shall begin with a contemporary economic fact. The worker becomes poorer the more wealth he produces and the more his production increases in power and extent…”

(Marx 1844, cited in Greenhalgh, 1993:35)

The Rise of the Industrial Revolution changed the landscape of society; it uprooted communities who once lived in rural villages, lives were centred on family, community, local production and trade. Professions were born into and would stay within the family for generations. As more factories were built, with them became more jobs; new towns were created, increasing the number of roads and canals thus giving better access to isolated communities. As jobs dwindled in the countryside and villagers struggled to survive, the lure of work in the large factories and with it the hopes of a better future saw mass migration towards the larger towns and cities. People now worked for someone, they lost their self-sufficiency; man not God now controlled their destiny. (Bland, 2018)

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As industrial techniques evolved and better machinery was designed less skilled people were needed and production increased at a faster rate. Skills and knowledge were lost, creating a workforce of unskilled, lowly paid staff. Children were employed; workers were dispensable and treated poorly, becoming just another cog in the machinery. Gill wrote in ‘The Factory System and Christianity’…“it puts…‘money before the making of goods’‘…quantity before quality…’‘…deprives the workmen of responsibility’‘…the workman becomes merely a tool.’” (Gill (British) 1918, cited in Greenhalgh, 1993:50)

Large-scale manufacturing led by the likes of Henry Ford saw an explosion of items produced and consumed leading to the loss of the smaller cottage industries with their traditional methods. (Bland, 2018) With the eruption of mass production, ‘Fordism’ was coined and the enforcement of Taylors pursuit of ‘scientific management’ to standardise everything for better efficiency. Profit was key and workers were dehumanised, the Industrial Revolution had devalued not only the worker but the work he produced, according to Eric Gill “The aim of the Arts and Crafts reformers was therefore to re-establish a harmony between architect, designer and craftsman and to bring handcraftsmanship to the production of well-designed, affordable, everyday objects.” (Cumming and Kaplan, 2004:6)

The reformers were theorists, architects and designers; they included William Morris, Charles Ashbee, Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Rossetti and William Lethaby. They “…worked towards unity in the arts, believing that all creative endeavour was of equal value. Not only did they want to reform design but to give quality once more to the work process itself.” (Cumming and Kaplan, 2004:6) They argued that the Industrial Revolution was an inhuman way of life, the pace of life too fast, people were dehumanised and so they looked to the past for the ideals of expression, vernacular design and craftsmanship to form a better future. “They sought…to foster spiritual harmony through the work process…Its leaders encouraged individualism,…hand-made goods in place of machine uniformity, and a reappraisal of design materials.” (Cumming and Kaplan, 2004:9)

Morris believed in the principle of DIY, that if you want something, you learn the skills and make it yourself, that the wares should celebrate the maker as well as quality workmanship. (Bland, 2018) “…the realization that technical progress does not necessarily coincide with the improvement of man’s lot brought with it the long campaign for social, industrial, moral and aesthetic reform…” (Naylor, 1970:sd) These ideals were also evident in Ashbee’s writings in 1908 “ ‘The arts and Crafts Movement’…‘means standards, whether of work or life; the protection of standards, whether in product or the producer, and it means that these things must be taken together.’ ” (Naylor, 1970:sd)

Many guilds were also created as Communities of Practice, including The Art Workers Guild, The Guild of St. George and Ashbee’s The Guild of Handicraft in 1888. These guilds were communities of like-minded people, living and working together. Small studios were provided and classes offered to learn new skills. (Bland, 2018)

By 1898, Sir Ebenezer Howard was creating The Garden City Movement. A self-sufficient community where residence, industry and agriculture were implemented in an urban planning development. These communities sought to bring harmony and balance to their lives by working as one to provide a sustainable living and working existence.

Ashbee moved his London school and its community to the Cotswolds in 1902, its principle was DIY and participation, communal living for all aspects of life which included food, craft and performance. As Ashbee (1915) mentioned “The real thing is life…We have got to devise a way to employ, and keep employed, the quiet, conscientious…the man who wants to live a clean life.” There was no division of work and leisure, the two were merged – the belief was to live a full, well-rounded life where community was central.


“What set Morris apart from other socialist writers and activists was his profound moral and ethical core: his perception that a revolution is worthless unless its spirit can touch the hearts and minds of ordinary people” (Coleman 1989, cited in Harvey and Press, 1993:2)

Growing up in a medieval manor house in the countryside had created a strong impression on Morris since childhood, shaping his design beliefs throughout his life.  From a wealthy family and educated in Oxford – a place where the architecture resonated with his life long passion for medieval styling. During his studies he became deeply influenced by the writings of art critic and social philosopher Ruskin, he also met fellow student Burne-Jones who would become his life long friend and colleague. (Harvey and Press, 1993:5-37) Friendship was a vital part of Morris’ life, he lived and socialised with a community of Pre-Raphaelite painters and commissioned Philip Webb to design his medieval styled home known as the Red House. The same artistic community helped Morris to decorate and furnish the house in gothic styles. “It was originally intended that the Red House be the home of a romantic community of artists and craftsmen, although the idea seems not to be taken seriously by anyone other than Morris.” (Adam, 1992:34) Morris focused on artisan skills and craftsmanship; he used local materials and believed in the principal of the vernacular and DIY for all decorations and furnishings. The creation of the Red House influenced Morris and his colleagues to establish their own community of ‘fine art workmen’, the firm worked with a diverse array of specialisms including carving, metalwork, stained glass, furniture and embroidery. Morris believed that all art and craft was of importance, his ideas were becoming increasingly public and in a lecture given in 1877 “He maintained that it was only comparatively recently that these ‘lesser’ decorative arts had become divorced from the fine arts of painting and sculpture.” (Adam, 1992:40) There was an emphasis on honesty of materials as well as quality and craftsmanship. The shop celebrated the maker and the joy of making. Design and form was kept simple and true to its material. (Bland, 2018) Wallpaper was hand printed, items were handmade by an individual in a studio not a factory.

During the 1860s Morris  dedicated his attention to mastering the art of woodblock printing and designing patterns for wallpaper and textiles. The designs were inspired by his love of the countryside and featured nature, flowers and birds abundant in a British garden, printed using natural dyes. His designs were quietly radical, honest, flat in design and without the gaudiness of the fashionable French style patterns that were complex and elaborate in design since the Great Exhibition of 1851. (V&A, 2018)

‘Trellis’ (see fig. 1.) would become Morris’ first wallpaper design, put into production in 1864. Upon moving into the Red House and unable to find an appropriate wallpaper he designed his own and looked to his garden for inspiration, which was landscaped in a medieval style and had numerous trellises with roses. The pattern is simple in design, depicting flowers and birds (drawn by Webb as Morris believed he could not draw birds) (James, 2012) on a plain background, the pattern itself is flat and quite formalised which was in keeping with the design reform movement.


                                                                                 Fig. 1. ‘Trellis’         Fig. 2. ’Fruit’      

‘Trellis’, ‘Fruit’ (see fig. 2.) and ‘Daisy’ (see fig. 3.) are the first designs of many, which Morris would design. These earlier designs are heavily influenced by Morris’ love of medieval style; an illuminated medieval manuscript, ‘Dance of the Wodehouses’ (see fig. 4.), directly influenced ‘Daisy’. Due to the unfashionable designs of these wallpapers, deemed as neither contemporary nor fashionable, decorators in London considered them ‘peculiar’ and thus early sales were rather limited in their shop. They started to gain more popularity when in 1868 in a publication of ‘Hints on Household Taste’ Charles Eastlake wrote an article about interior design that the wider public started to take an interest in Morris’s work. (V&A, 2018)


         Fig. 3. ‘Daisy’                                                   Fig. 4.  ‘Dance of the Wodehouses’                                     

It wasn’t until the 1870s that Morris truly established himself as a pattern designer; it was also during this time that his most popular and enduring wallpapers were designed. ‘Wreath’ (see fig. 5.) was designed during this time and put into production; the design is more elaborate than his earlier work and there is a degree of three-dimensionality, a design trait that Morris had once spurned for not being honest enough. The printing technique was also very complex involving many separate blocks and taking longer to produce meaning that the cost was also far higher compared to his earlier ‘Trellis’, in fact the cost was so high it was a top priced product of its type, suggesting that the wallpapers were not being designed with the ‘ordinary person’ in mind.


                  Fig. 5. ‘Wreath’                      Fig. 6. ‘St. James’                           Fig. 7. ‘Larkspur’

These more elaborate, complex wallpapers (see fig. 6 & fig. 7.) gained in popularity within artistic social circles and with those who were outside of the mainstream bourgeois society. This popularity however, did not extend to the ordinary home, in fact, a writing in the ‘Journal of Decorative Arts’ in 1892, said that “…[Morris’] patterns are palatial in scale, and whilst their colouring is very beautiful… the magnitude of the designs exclude them from ordinary work”. (V&A, s.d) This again suggests that Morris had started to lose some of his principles of ‘art for everyone’. Interestingly Morris now preferred more luxurious wall coverings such as woven textiles in his own home and once described wallpaper as “makeshift”. (V&A, s.d)


Morris’ ideals regarding design stayed strong throughout his life, nature and the medieval style were still looked to for inspiration, he believed in good quality materials, craftsmanship, the principle of DIY and the vernacular; yet these ideals and processes made production and ultimately the selling price too expensive for the less wealthy, the ‘ordinary’, and in turn made them a luxury item, something that was only attainable to the wealthy and aristocrats. “The original prospectus of Morris & Co. has promised that ‘good decoration, involving rather the luxury of taste than the luxury of costliness, will be found to be much less expensive than is generally supposed.’ But by the very nature of the elaborate processes that went into their manufacture, the firm’s products were very expensive, and their customers only the well off.” (Bradley, 1978:69)

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Morris spent his life championing his beliefs, he had once proposed a utopian future, where no money be used, only goods exchanged, and although he strived to create a better working environment for the ordinary man, and a more idealistic approach to crafts and its production, he seemed unable to rid himself and his own art from the trappings of commerciality. According to Naylor (1970:34):

“They carried their banner in the name of humanity, but the new society that they envisioned bore so little relationship to contemporary reality, that its delights were a snare and a delusion, and possession of its products confined to an appreciative, affluent and intelligent élite. Both Ruskin and Morris died frustrated men, having spent their lives proselytizing a seemingly indifferent public, and Ashbee, in his unpublished Memoirs, defined the nature of his and their dilemma. ‘We have made’, he wrote, ‘of a great social movement, a narrow and tiresome little aristocracy working with great skill for the very rich.’”

I believe this encapsulates the relentless and often fruitless efforts of Morris and his contemporaries in their struggles to create a better future for the masses; their ideals and constant efforts were not enough to change the crushing effect that the Industrial Revolution had upon the lives of so many, their communities and quality of life.

Total word count (excluding title): 2,124







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