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Arts and Crafts

01 January 2017

A style that urged for a return to craftsmanship and which rebelled against industrialisation

All Saints, Brockhampton-by-Ross, Herefordshire, 1902 (William Richard Lethaby) Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections

This was an influential movement of the late 19th century which attempted to re-establish the skills of craftsmanship threatened by mass production and industrialisation. Its main protagonist was the designer-cum-poet, William Morris who was inspired by writings of the art critic John Ruskin, notably his essay on The Nature of Gothic from his book The Stones of Venice. In which he combined praise of the Gothic architecture of northern Europe (including Venice) with a critique of 19th-century society, particularly the monotony of factory production and the deskilling of the individual worker, which destroyed any natural creativity. The solution lay in the medieval past and medieval architecture with its rich variety of ornament, embodying those individual craft skills being lost through the copying of standard forms. Morris sought to put Ruskin’s ideas into practice, by reviving medieval standards and methods of making artefacts, being true to materials, traditional constructional methods and function to the essence of design. In 1861 he set up his company Morris Marshall Faulkner & Co to promote these ideals and produce objects of beauty incorporating the craft skills that had begun to be lost.

Architecture was also to be reformed through traditional building crafts, the use of local materials, and be free of any imposed style. Function, need and simplicity (without spurious ornament) were to inform design, encapsulated in the work of Philip Webb, Richard Lethaby and Charles Voysey. Although Morris’s decorative work was rich, intricate and colourful, he preferred plain and unadorned buildings; his favourite was Great Coxwell Barn which he described as ‘beautiful as a cathedral’.

The movement declined in England after 1900 but was influential in Europe, mainly in Germany through the publication of Hermann Muthesius’s Das Englische Haus and the creation of the Deutscher Werkbund (1907). It is also seen in the United States with the work of Frank Lloyd Wright (a founder member of the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society) and Greene & Greene in California.

What to look for in an Arts and Crafts building

  • Clarity of form and structure
  • Variety of materials
  • Asymmetry
  • Traditional construction
  • Craftsmanship

Article by Suzanne Waters
British Architectural Library, RIBA

Cragside, Rothbury, Northumberland, 1885 (Richard Norman Shaw) Martin Charles / RIBA Collections
Tithe barn, Great Coxwell, Oxfordshire, 1200s Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections
Nathan G. Moore House, 1895 (Frank Lloyd Wright) John Donat / RIBA Collections

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  1. All Saints, Brockhampton-by-Ross, Herefordshire, 1902 (William Richard Lethaby) Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections RIBA24131
  2. Cragside, Rothbury, Northumberland: the entrance front, 1885 (Richard Norman Shaw) Martin Charles / RIBA Collections RIBA102206
  3. Tithe barn, Great Coxwell, Oxfordshire, 1200s. Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections RIBA42166
  4. Nathan G. Moore House, Forest Avenue, Oak Park, Illinois, 1895 (Frank Lloyd Wright) John Donat / RIBA Collections RIBA17810

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