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Arts and Crafts History: Origins 1830-1860

By 1860, Europe's Industrial Revolution was moving full steam ahead. Mass production was busy churning out affordable, but shoddy, products for a growing middle class hungry for material goods and England's Victorian style, with all of its gaudy trappings and snobbish class consciousness, was at its peak as the bourgeois sought to stake their place in society.

However, not everyone was buying into the industrial age dream. Architect/designer William Morris (1834-1896), as well as many other artists, writers, philosophers and theologians recognized that people were losing their connection with nature and so banded together to reestablishing that link. In England, as well as in mainland Europe, groups of artists and craftsmen began producing new objects that conveyed the same principles of quality and simplicity but in styles unique to each country. (Incidentally, this period also saw the birth of the Impressionist art movement in France. The Beaux Art style of the times emphasized elaborate classical and mythological themes as well as meticulously detailed still lifes painted in the studio, whereas the Impressionists focused on capturing the vitality of everyday people and objects, and more importantly, painting out-of-doors where one could observe nature free from human control.)

Having successfully built and furnished Red House in 1859, Morris continued to refine his skills and ideas. In 1861 the Arts and Crafts Movement got its biggest boost when Morris founded Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co., a furniture, design and decorative accessories company that stressed time-honored craftsmanship and natural materials. The timing was perfect for in 1862 the London International Exhibition showcased never-before-seen Japanese arts and Crafts, which had an immediate effect on design. England quickly became enamored with this new look and began shedding the layers of Victorian clutter from its homes. In 1868 Charles Lock Eastlake published Hints in Household Taste -- a bestseller that stressed a single design style based on simplicity, rather than a chaotic hodgepodge of influences. The book also became a bestseller in America where news of this design and lifestyle was beginning to spread.

From 1870 to 1900 the British Arts and Crafts movement flourished and expanded. In 1873 Martin Brothers pottery was established, followed by Liberty & Co. in 1875. Craftsman guilds sprung up, most notably the Century Guild in 1882, followed in 1888 by the Guild of Handicraft and Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, which was formed by members of the Royal Academy who were frustrated by the institution's definition of art in terms of fine art, relegating decorative arts to second-class citizenship. Together, these craftsman societies conveyed the Movement's philosophy through finely-wrought furniture, fabrics, pottery, tiles and accessories.

The guilds did much to advance the themes of clean design and clean living, but the 1896 death of William Morris foreshadowed the decline of the Movement in England. In 1900 another founder of British Arts and Crafts -- John Ruskin -- died, as did Oscar Wilde, who had championed the Movement's ideals in England and America. Although the guilds carried the spiritual and aesthetic message of these important figures, over the next decade interest would slowly decline as people looked for the next design fad and international tensions flared prior to the First World War. Finally, in 1909 the Guild of the Handicraft disbanded. It was replaced in 1915 by the Design and Industries Association (DIA), formed by many of the leading Arts and Crafts figures to promote the best of British design through exhibitions. The Association is still in existence today.