Art Movements Throughout History: Arts and Crafts

Abstract patterns such as this one are characteristic of the arts and crafts movement.


The Arts and Crafts movement started in the mid-nineteenth century with its founders having been major critics of the Industrial Revolution. Being dissatisfied with the impersonal and mechanized influence industrialization had on society, the founders sought to return to a simpler and more fulfilling way of living through art.

In 1851, The Great Exhibition was held in London sparking off the movement. William Morris, an architectural apprentice, criticized the objects on display for their ornament with little concern for utility. In 1861, Morris founded a decorative firm along with other artists. The firm specialized in wallpaper designs featuring natural imagery. In the 1860's and 1870's, the firm grew as Morris garnered important interior design commissions. As it expanded further, various items like furniture, textiles, and stained glass were also manufactured. It principally emphasized on the use of handicraft as opposed to machine production which created high quality works.

Morris' success inspired the formation of art oriented associations, with artists collaborating on designs in various media. The Century Guild was formed in 1882, gaining recognition through several exhibitions in the 1880's. In 1884, another association called the Home Arts and Industries Association was formed. The Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society was formed in London in 1887, hence the movement’s name. Its first exhibition was held at The New Gallery in November 1888.

Concepts and Styles

Arts and Crafts were integrated into almost all aspects of the decorative arts, design, and architecture. American and British architects combined the simplicity and beauty of the Arts and Crafts with various other stylistic preferences for their housing designs.

The late 1880's saw the emergence of Art Nouveau in Europe which shared many theoretical and visual aspects of the Arts and Crafts. However, Art Nouveau embraced complexity and new technology.

Spread to the US, Corporate Culture, and Politics

British Arts and Crafts were known in America from the 1860's and were shared freely through print media until the 1890's. The first American Arts and Crafts exhibition began in April 1897 in Boston and in June the Society of Arts and Crafts was born. Arts and Crafts were highly commercialized in the US.

The movement also had an influence on politics. Morris, its outstanding figure, was a staunch socialist and political activist. He formed the Socialist League in 1884. American Arts and Crafts adherents like Hubbard and Stickley opposed Morris views, openly voicing their capitalist ambitions. The US movement was also equivocal on gender issues.

Further Developments

The need for a higher production of handicrafts at cheaper rates to reach a mass audience led to the death of the movement in the twentieth century. Companies were forced to adopt machine production to stay afloat and many others went out of business. The Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society exists today as the Society of Designer Craftsmen.

The movement encouraged and inspired many different artists, designers, and collective movements in Europe and North America as it flourished. Many Art Nouveau proponents cited Morris as a major influence on their works.


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