The Arts and Crafts Movement

Early 20th Century Handcrafted Furniture and Decorative Arts

Gallery Featuring the Arts and Crafts Movement at the Morse Museum of American Art
Gallery featuring furniture and art from the Arts and Crafts Movement at the Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park, Florida. - Photo by Jay B. Siegel

William Morris so disliked the result of the Industrial Revolution that he sparked an entire movement resisting it. Writing The Art of the People in 1879, the book’s message moved the Arts and Crafts movement forward. He wrote, “…art made by the people, and for the people, as a happiness to the maker and the user.”

Ironically, his business founded in 1861 -- Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. -- made handcrafted decorative items that were too expensive for most of “the people” to purchase, according to Antiques 101 by Frank Farmer Loomis IV. These upscale goods of impeccable quality included wallpaper and fabrics.

In 1865, many years before he published aforementioned book, Morris introduced the first version of the recliner, which exhibited the lines and leather upholstery associated with later Mission furniture made in America that was indeed inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement. Remember that this "Morris chair" with ultra simple lines was introduced at a time when Rococo Revival and other ultra-fancy Victorian styles were all the rage, and the stark contrast comes into focus.  

It’s also ironic that the simplicity of the Morris Chair led to it being mass produced in the way that its inventor so disliked. Nevertheless, the popularity of this comfortable style did bring the Arts and Crafts movement to the masses, and inspired other craftsmen to follow his lead. Art Nouveau, the Aesthetic Movement, and Craftsman/Mission styling are all styles relating to the Arts and Crafts movement, in fact.

Other influential names in the British movement were Charles Robert Ashbee and Charles Francis Annesley Voysey.

Ashbee, according to the Victoria and Albert Museum, “designed many important pieces of jewellery and silver tableware for the Guild of Handicraft, which he established in 1888 in the East End of London. The Guild's work is characterised by plain surfaces of hammered silver, flowing wirework and coloured stones in simple settings.” 

Ansley was a “very versatile designer and produced designs for wallpaper, fabrics, tiles, ceramics, furniture and metalwork. Some of his patterns were used for objects in a wide variety of materials. Voysey had a highly original style which combined simplicity with sophistication. He became particularly famous for his wallpaper and textile designs which feature stylised bird and plant forms with bold outlines and flat colours.”

Arts & Crafts in America

Gustav Stickley, Elbert Hubbard, and Charles Limbert are several well-known names when it comes to Mission style furniture (click on each name for more information about them). The businesses run by these men also made a variety of decorative accessories including lamps. Hubbard’s Roycroft community is particularly well known for its copper wares, and these are considered to be highly collectible today. Other artisans across the country made furniture in this style as well.

But the Arts & Crafts movement didn’t stop with home furnishings and lighting. Others were influenced to pursue or continue hand crafting their products during this time, including Louis Comfort Tiffany. Pottery companies like Rookwood and Grueby hand threw and decorated pottery in Art Nouveau styles. Everything from textiles to jewelry was hand made during this period.

But like high quality hand crafted wares today, these objects usually came with a price. A single Grueby vase sold for $50 back in the early 1900s, the equivalent of more than $1,100 today. Some of the same products that sold for good sums back when they were new are still garnering high prices in the secondary marketplace today.

Characteristics of Arts & Crafts Style

“Preserving and emphasising the natural qualities of the materials used to make objects was one of the most important principles of Arts and Crafts style,” according to the Victoria and Albert Museum in Great Britain. The museum further defines this as “truth in materials” and also notes the influence of Gothic Revival style boldness in color and form.

When identifying Arts & Crafts pieces, looking at the overall style is helpful since Art Nouveau, the Aesthetic Movement, and Mission/Craftsman style fall into this period of decorative influence.

For instance, furniture pieces from the Aesthetic Movement are sometimes highlighted with gilt decoration and decorated with bamboo turning, while Mission style will be very sparingly decorated and quite simple with rectangular elements. Curves are slight and infrequent in Arts & Crafts pieces. And any floral decoration, like that carved into back splats of chairs, for instance, is usually very light.

Ceramic arts, jewelry, other decorative objects made during this period often have a definitive Art Nouveau flair incorporating elements inspired by nature like flowers, foliage, animals, and insects. Textiles from this period also tend to include flowing, swirling patterns with incorporating motifs with a natural influence.