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Arts and Crafts History: America 1875-1895

While the 1896 death of William Morris signaled the beginning of the end of the Arts and Crafts Movement in England, it was a banner year in America. Following the 1895 founding of The Chalk and Chisel Club, America's first Arts and Crafts society, in Minneapolis, House Beautiful began publication. The magazine became the quintessential Arts and Crafts periodical, with regular features on the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as the growing number of craftsmen and manufacturers who designed A&C furniture, tile, pottery, fabric and accessories.

In 1897, Arts and Crafts Societies were founded in Rochester, NY and Chicago. That year also saw the first Arts and Crafts Exhibition, in Boston. The success of the Exhibition and the press coverage of the manufacturers and designs inspired the formation of still more craftsman guilds and societies the next year. 1898 also heralded the founding of Gustav Stickley & Co., in Syracuse, NY, Charles Rohlfs furniture company in Buffalo, NY, and Henry Chapman Mercer's Moravian Pottery, in Doylestown, PA. All three companies were to become major players in the years to come, but it was the simple, geometric designs of Gustav Stickley that truly defined the American A&C Movement in the early 20th century.

Stickley was an ambitious man and a firm believer in the Movement's ideals. Not only did he design furniture, but homes as well. And to showcase his designs he began publishing his own monthly guide to better living. When Stickley began publication of Craftsman magazine in 1901, he had a complete vision of the perfect Arts and Crafts world. Each month, Craftsman would feature furniture and architectural plans for the ideal craftsman life. The magazine not only influenced the public at large, but the design world as well. It is no coincidence that the years 1901-1916 are often referred to as the Craftsman Movement for Craftsman magazine was the chief spokesman for a generation of designers who followed the ideas of Stickley.

Like William Morris and Frank Lloyd Wright, both of whom stressed the need for furnishings to fit the homes they were in, Stickley designed homes to fit the furniture he created. Simple "Craftsman-style" homes -- often no more than a few spacious rooms whose only ornamentation consisted of beautiful natural woodwork and room dividers along with a stone or brick hearth. An abundance of windows to let in natural light was also important since sunlight cast an entirely different light than gas and electric lights. "We have planned houses from the first that are based on the big fundamental principles of honesty, simplicity, and usefulness..." wrote Stickey in his Craftsman Homes.

These fundamental principles permeated all aspects of the Arts and Crafts Movement in America, from housing to furnishings down to a simple, unadorned terra cotta vase. Designers frowned upon the thoughtless collection and display of objects that were not useful or connected to their environment. And, after the excess of the Victorian Age, in which people crammed all manner of bric-a-brac and furnishings into their houses regardless of its style, this new "manual on living" was a breath of fresh air.

The Movement was also in step with the large-scale shift in the American standard of living. As cities thrived, life on the farm gave way to life in the suburbs. The idea of homeownership became the American dream, and the Craftsman dream was to build these homes and furnish them with objects that reflected the rural country life that fewer and fewer people experienced.

It would be naive to believe that all of the artisans, craftsmen and designers of this time were true A&C reformists. Even the ones who preached the need to return to simplicity most fervently took advantage of society's desire to consume. And, while it's inviting to think that Stickley and his contemporaries achieved the Utopian life of harmony, they tended to be anything but that. Rivalry and competition was as common then as now and their biting words were as likely to appear in the many Arts and Crafts publications as much as their advertisements.

Despite this less wholesome side of the Movement, the general mood of the times was positive. As in contemporary times, the big-name designers like Stickley, Wright and Hubbard set the trends and others followed. Originals by top designers were expensive, but there were plenty of affordable mass-produced pieces that allowed everyone to own a piece of the lifestyle. Sears Robuck & Co. sold its own popular version of the Morris chair, and its kit homes in bungalow and foursquare style could be found all across America. By 1915, though, the media was tired of the style and actively searching the the next great design trend. In addition, the social changes brought on by America's gearing up for, and eventual entry into, World War One served to wake America up from its cocooning, hearth-and-home dream.

The death of Roycroft founder Elbert Hubbard, who drown when the Germans sank the Lusitania in 1915, foreshadowed the death of the American Arts and Crafts Movement. Like a sinking ship, the A&C era was slowly, inevitably going under. Wright's studio was busy defining a new style of architecture (Prairie Style) based on the flat Midwestern landscape, and artists were again taking their cue from Europe, which was moving on to Modernism. Even Stickley was forced to jump ship; he published last edition of Craftsman in 1916 and was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1917.

Although there are many ending dates for the Arts and Crafts Movement, ranging from 1916 to 1920 and even up to 1929, it is safe to say that the period had effectively ended by 1916, and its popularity had dramatically declined by 1919. However, its design effects were still felt for some time and homes continued to be built in the style for a good decade, though they were usually modified. Whichever date one chooses to put on the end of the era, the influence of the American Arts and Crafts Movement cannot be overlooked. And its idealism, beauty and simplicity have a ring of truth that is as inspiring today as 100 years ago.