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The Evolution of the Arts and Crafts Style

Although the A&C philosophy focused on "revolution through art," its principles were formed by a set a great overarching values:

  • Find joy in work
  • Create objects that are not only well-designed, but affordable to everyone
  • Live simply
  • Stay connected to nature
  • Maintain integrity of "place"

These ideals were expressed in artistic endeavors through hand-crafted objects, an uncluttered style of home decor, landscape art that was actually created on-site outdoors, and homes that were built of local materials and fit the landscape.

Even 150 years ago there was a sense that the modern way of life was separating people from the world around them.

  • People were involved in dangerous and unhealthy factory and mining jobs, performing repetitive tasks that offered no rewarding sense of satisfaction for creating things.
  • Mass production was all about churning out as many good as possible for the growing middle class. Unfortunately, these products were poorly designed, and poorly built. The best things were still hand-made, but growing ever-more expensive than shoddy mass-produced items.
  • The Victorian lifestyle was all about showing off how much money you had, and people tried to fill their houses with as many trinkets and frivolous decorative objects to show that they could afford to spend their money on non-essential things.
  • For centuries, painting was a profession few could afford to do, and so most painters were employed by royalty - kings, earls, dukes who felt that nature was to be experienced from the castle windows. The idea of actually setting up a canvas in a field of sunflowers was unheard of until the Impressionist era. Until then, Artists generally painted landscapes from memory inside their studios.
  • In England, everything French was in vogue. And in America, people looked to England and France for cultural inspiration. Popular American architecture of the time was full of English and French styles that had nothing at all in common with the history and landscape around them.

Although the A&C principles that sought to reverse these trends were created in the 1840s, and the Movement's popularity had peaked by 1910, the ideals have never truly been forgotten. They've only evolved and been incorporated into new ideas.

  • The popularity of the California bungalow was so great that it evolved into the Ranch style seen across America. Although the bungalow was a prettier style, the Ranch was more generic and so fit the landscape of more places. Frank Lloyd Wright took the bungalow concept and evolved it into the first "ranch" house. This style became popular after WWII when returning millions of soldiers needed affordable housing to begin their families, and millions of people live in these distinctly American homes.
  • The technical revolution of the 1950s and 60's was reminiscent of the Industrial Revolution 100 years earlier in that austentatous displays of wealth grew increasingly important. This time, however, the greatest status symbol was the automobile. America's quest for money and luxury lasted for over 30 years with the glitter and glitz of the 1970's, and the gluttony, greed of the 1980's. Then things began to change. First, the design trend became "less is more." And while materials emphasized the machine-world (steel, aluminum, glass, black and silver paint), things were progressing toward a reassessment of life values that aligned with the Arts and Crafts Movement. Around 1990 a new mind set began to sweep America. Partly inspired by the idea of healthy living and trends coming out of the Pacific northwest, concepts like "simple", "natural" and clean" suddenly became fashionable again, and interest in the Arts and Crafts style was reborn.
  • After the original Arts and Craft homeowners had lived in these houses their entire lives, A second generation of homeowners updated these houses with modern 1950's appliances, painted the woodwork, and stayed until the 1970's when urban decay began to set in and suburban living was booming. Additional updates were made by owners in the 1970's, but in many areas, older houses were unfashionable, or in undesirable neighborhoods, and so many were left in disrepair. Happily, things changed in the 1990's. Today's generation of Arts and Crafts homeowners are more interested in their homes' history, urban living is more popular, housing prices are low, and many are looking to retore these houses to their original state because new construction lacks the beauty and character of these old homes.
  • There are many things that the original A&C philosophers would have liked about living the Martha Stewart lifestyle. A focus on hand-made objects...from food to wreaths, joy in the process of creation -- from idea to finished product, and emphasis on a style that was uncluttered. Unfortunately, Martha made her lifestyle a symbol of snobbery... the exact opposite of what was intended. At least in the beginning, people wanted to emulate Martha because it conveyed a sense of wealth and sophistication -- if you can afford to spend the time and money doing Martha's craft projects then you must be rich.
  • As further evidence that A&C ideals continue to evolve 150 years later, walk into any Walmart or Target these days and you'll find a selection of Mission style furniture. How could this happen? Is it poor-quality, mass-produced Arts and Crafts furniture? Or is it simple furniture that is both affordable and well-designed? The lines have blurred. High-quality, hand-crafted Mission furniture is available, but is too expensive for many people. So which follows the Arts and Crafts ideals better? Is there room for both to co-exist and not contradict one another? And is it important anymore?

No matter how you consider the yin and yang of today's Arts and Crafts revival, it's apparent that the principles are evolving and adapting to life in the 21st century.