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Arts and Crafts History: Origins 1830-1860

Although the beginning of the Arts and Crafts movement is often attributed to the building of William Morris' Red House in 1859, the true birth of the movement happened some 25 years earlier when a young architect named Augustus Pugin (1812-1852) publicly railed against a newly industrialized society that was increasingly separating designer from laborer.

The Industrial Revolution was based in part on an "innovative" concept called division of labor. The idea, which is the foundation of modern factory work, was simply that by dividing a job into its various tasks products could be made more quickly. Rather than depending on a small number of highly skilled craftsmen to do everything, individual skills could be taught to a variety of people who would perform that chore and pass the item to another person to perform the next task.

The may have been good for the bottom line, but from the humanist perspective, the division of labor robbed workers of the pleasure of seeing their work through from conception to completion as the traditional values of quality and beauty were being replaced by the new motto of economy and profit.

As the Industrial Revolution expanded in the 1830's, the life of simplicity and wholesomeness began to disappear. However much excitement this Revolution caused, with its time- and labor-saving machines, forward-thinking people saw its potential to change the English way of life forever. The devaluation of nature and the human touch in favor of progress and production especially worried Pugin. He saw that in striving to master the future this new era was rapidly turning its back on the simple pleasures of traditional craftsmanship and artistry. Pugin was not necessarily anti-technology, but he wanted machines to perform the tedious and repetitive tasks they were designed for and not in the creation of second-rate, mass-produced decorative objects.

Pugin's philosophy struck a chord with a host of later artists/craftsmen/thinkers, most notably John Ruskin (1819-1900). During the late 1840's, Ruskin, an art history professor at Oxford University, began a campaign to return England to a simpler way of life in tune with nature. His vision called for the elimination of machine-made decoration and clean design free from foreign influence. The English, having borrowed heavily from the French in order to furnish their Victorian lifestyle, soon began to cast its collective eye inward for inspiration and there followed a revival of English Gothic and Medieval styles.

Ruskin also preached that work was meant to be joyous -- an idea that was lost on the growing multitude of factory workers who spent long hours toiling in poor conditions. This noble idea had its roots in the past when one's work was one's life and it was to become one of the Movement's basic tenets

It is no coincidence that the Arts and Crafts movement's most important figure happened to be attending Oxford at the same time Ruskin was campaigning for reform. It is said that William Morris (1834-1896) was so moved by Ruskin's philosophy that in 1853 he dropped plans to become a minister in order to make his life's work the reformation of society through art. In 1859 he hired his friend and fellow architect Philip Webb to build Red House, which he painstakingly furnished with simple, custom-crafted furniture, wallpaper, tiles and accessories specifically designed to fit the home. It was here that the ideas of Pugin and Ruskin were made physical and thus began the architectural and design style known as British Arts and Crafts.