Arts & Crafts, in the Beginning

English Arts & Crafts Hand-Tooled Copper Plate (LEO Design)

Arts & Crafts—and its various sister movements: Jugendstil, Secessionism, Stile Liberty, and Art Nouveau—came upon the world at a very interesting time.  For some countries (like England and the United States), it was a time of great progress in science, technology and industry. World power was shifting and empires were being built.  There was a sense that the world—and mankind—was moving forward.  Modern democracy was being kindled.

And, for the first time, a durable middle class was able to survive in a world which had previously only known aristocrats and those who served them.  Middle class people could afford to buy (at least some) nice things for their homes.

But—as Dickens and other social commentators pointed out—not everyone was enjoying the party.  Many workers left their homes and families, wedged themselves into crowded city rooms, and labored in dirty, dangerous factories. On the whole, there was still a very wide gap between the “haves” and the “have nots.”  The price of “Industrial Modernity” wasn’t cheap—and the bill wasn’t being pro-rated fairly.

Some of the founders of the Arts & Crafts movement started with a noble motive: that small-scale cottage industry would provide an alternative to Dickens’s grinding, belching factories. But these ideals were mostly naive.  Sure, it would be nice if a craftsman could design a table, build it, then sit down at it and feed his family.  But handmade, craft-intensive objects are expensive to make!  And they take a long time to produce.  Before long, handcraft processes were adapted to mechanized production.  And, before you know it, we’re back in a factory!

There are other reasons—economic, social and historical—that the Arts & Crafts movement came to an end.  We’ll look at some of these reasons tomorrow.

The English Arts & Crafts plate, above, is decorated with a hand-tooled floral motif.