The History of the Arts and Crafts Movement

Early 20th Century Handcrafted Furniture and Decorative Arts

3 antique chairs

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The Arts and Crafts movement lasted from about 1880 through 1920. It was a revolution in the decorative and fine arts that focused on clean, simple lines in furniture and other home decor items. Though the movement began in England, it quickly spread through Europe and into America. Today, it is a popular style among antique collectors and celebrates wares that are handcrafted which celebrate natural elements.

The Birth of Arts and Crafts

British textile maker 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.”

His business—Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., founded in 1861—made handcrafted decorative items. Ironically, the company's products 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.

The Morris Chair

In 1865, many years before he published the aforementioned book, Morris introduced the first version of the recliner. It exhibited the lines and leather upholstery that would later be associated with Mission furniture made in America and which was indeed inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement.

This "Morris chair", with its ultra-simple lines, was introduced at a time when Rococo Revival and other ultra-fancy Victorian styles were all the rage. It's a stark contrast that comes into focus when looking at overall design trends and transitions of the era.

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. In fact, Art Nouveau, the Aesthetic Movement, and Craftsman/Mission styling are all styles relating to the Arts and Crafts movement.

Early Influencers

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 jewelry and silver tableware for the Guild of Handicraft, which he established in 1888 in the East End of London. The Guild's work is characterized by plain surfaces of hammered silver, flowing wirework and colored 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 stylized bird and plant forms with bold outlines and flat colors.”

Arts and Crafts in America

Gustav Stickley, Elbert Hubbard, and Charles Limbert are a few of the well-known names when it comes to Mission-style furniture. 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, which are considered to be highly collectible today. Other artisans across the country made furniture in this style as well.

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

Like high-quality, handcrafted 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 continue to garner high prices in the secondary marketplace.

Characteristics of Arts and Crafts

“Preserving and emphasizing 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 the Gothic Revival style's boldness in color and form.

When identifying Arts and Crafts pieces, it's helpful to look at the overall style. Art Nouveau, the Aesthetic Movement, and Mission/Craftsman style fall into this period of decorative influence, so it can be a bit confusing.

For instance, furniture pieces from the Aesthetic Movement are sometimes highlighted with gilt decoration and decorated with bamboo turning. Mission style will be very sparingly decorated and quite simple with rectangular elements. Curves are slight and infrequent in Arts and 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. They tend to incorporate elements inspired by nature like flowers, foliage, animals, and insects. Textiles from this period also tend to include flowing, swirling patterns with incorporating motifs and a natural influence.