Arts and Crafts Movement: Definition & Style

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Sometimes change in society causes reactions. Did you know this is true even in art and design? In this lesson, learn about the Arts and Crafts Movement and elements of its style.

What was the Arts and Crafts Movement?

The Arts and Crafts Movement, a design movement and philosophy, developed in England in the late Victorian era, beginning roughly in the 1860s. It got its name from an English organization called the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society that began in 1887.

At this time in England, industrialization was in full swing. People were leaving the country for the city, and larger and larger factories made an increasing number of mass-produced goods. In short, the world was changing, bringing massive shifts to all facets of society. The Art and Crafts Movement was a reaction to this societal upheaval. Its members were concerned with the growing mass-production of cheap goods and increasingly unhealthy urban environments. The Arts and Crafts Movement was as much about social reform as it was about a specific style of design.

One of the movement's leaders was William Morris (1834 - 1896), a poet, designer, and reformer. Morris tended to look back to medieval times and the tradition of guilds, or workshops, of skilled craftsmen. Using a similar system, he wanted to rekindle appreciation of craftsmanship, believing that good design could be a positive force to encourage good society. He founded an interior decorating firm, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co., that focused on beautiful, simple design for applied goods with a practical purpose in the home. He attracted many followers who adopted his beliefs and ideas, and they also became part of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Style of the Arts and Crafts Movement

Because the Arts and Crafts Movement was as much about a reform philosophy as it was a specific type of design, there isn't a single set of unifying traits that identify Arts and Crafts works. But we can look at general qualities shared in the work of those who agreed with Morris.

While some fine artists were involved in the Arts and Crafts Movement, most examples of the style can be found in areas such as architecture and decorative arts. The latter includes things such as ceramics, stained glass, textile arts, wallpaper, furniture, and household goods.

Detail of a carpet design by William Morris
textile design by Morris

Morris and those who following him believed in high-quality materials and good, but not overly-complicated, design. Those who followed the Arts and Crafts Movement borrowed from several influences, most of which looked back to earlier time periods. You can see elements of medieval art, especially Gothic and Celtic; Japanese art in a focus on linear quality and the flattened sense of space and form; and Islamic art, in a focus on ornament and patterned surfaces.

Ceramic rice dish with dragon pattern, ca. 1898. The dish was made by Willian De Morgan, a potter who was inspired by Morris and his ideas.
ceramic rice dish

Arts and Crafts works also tend to focus on nature, but in simplified and stylized ways. And those who made the furniture, ceramics, and other goods worked with traditional methods of production, such as wood carving and block printing. They rejected modern technology, seeing it as one of the elements that was negatively impacting society.

Silk bed cover with block-printed design by Charles Francis Annesley Voysey, ca. 1890
Block printed silk

Works done in the Arts and Craft style have patterns that tend toward rectilinear, or straight-lined and angular forms, but they do also include curved lines. Images are very stylized, but use many natural elements, such as flowers, vines, leaves, birds, insects, or animals. Colors tend to be natural tones, such as deep green, browns, rich reddish terra cottas, and similar earth tones.

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