When you hear the phrase “arts and crafts,” you might think of grade school projects involving construction paper, crayons, glue and glitter. But Arts and Crafts is also a historical aesthetic movement that was the go-to style of some of the most respected creatives of its time.
The original movement does have one thing in common with the yarn and felt fabric of modern arts and crafts stores: namely, prioritizing handmade craft and a love of materials. This underlying philosophy is still resonant today, as designers struggle against the effects of digital mass production. But what exactly is Arts and Crafts and how can you take advantage of the iconic style? To learn the answers to that, we’ll have to walk through the Arts and Crafts movement of the past and its evolution into the present day.
What is Arts and Crafts?
Arts and Crafts was an aesthetic and philosophical movement around the turn of the 20th century that revived pre-industrial techniques into the decorative arts. The term first originated in 1887 alongside the christening of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in London, but the style itself had been developing for years beforehand.
But what exactly defines Arts and Crafts as a visual style? As the name implies, Arts and Crafts largely referred to handcraft, such as architecture, furniture, textiles, pottery, metal and glasswork. This means that its visual expression can change drastically depending on the artist and the medium, but there were a few common characteristics that emerged.
Characteristics of Arts and Crafts
- Medieval/gothic influences
- Stained glass mimicry
- Floral motifs
- Intricate patterns
- Organic shapes
- Nature as subject matter
The difference between Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau
Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau are both decorative movements that reigned around the same time, and their characteristics often look similar. For example, both were fond of arched frames, floral motifs and artisanal stained glass. In fact, many of the pioneers of the Arts and Crafts movement, like William Morris and C. F. A. Voysey, were also key players in the Art Nouveau scene.
The principal difference between the two is a subtle, philosophical one. While both styles looked to the past, Art Nouveau was a progressive movement looking to the future (hence the name, New Art). In this same vein, it took the medieval-inspired vines of the Arts and Crafts movement and developed them into abstract whiplash lines, one of Art Nouveau’s more popular features.
It also did not shun technology in the same way that Arts and Crafts did. Instead, Art Nouveau’s focus was on breaking down the barriers between fine art and design whereas Arts and Crafts was a reaction specifically against mass production. Art Nouveau was committed to creating art for the common man, and that meant finding the beauty in everything from nature to the factory floors.
The history of the Arts and Crafts movement
The initial stirrings began with the 1851 Great Exhibition in London (the very first world fair), which displayed decorative pieces from all around the world. Many of the designers who attended were appalled by the shoddy quality during what was supposed to be a celebratory exhibition of international craft. Pieces were criticized as being rushed in construction, overly focused on ornamentation without purpose, and unmindful of the materials used. The culprit was identified as mass production.
Among the attendees was British writer and designer William Morris, who is now recognized as the progenitor of the Arts and Crafts movement.
Morris was largely influenced by philosopher John Ruskin (and later Karl Marx), and he believed that factory production had enforced a division of labor which alienated designers from their art. Morris and his circle of friends were also devotees of pre-Industrial Medieval art, which was known for its reverence for the natural world. Together, they founded Morris & Co in 1861 which dealt in architecture, furniture, textiles and glassware but also produced recognizable wallpaper featuring floral patterns reminiscent of medieval manuscripts.
Morris & Co would also emphasize the use of natural materials and handcrafted labor, as workers were encouraged to be involved in every part of the design process. Morris & Co designs became the most commonly featured at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, defining the movement.
As the reputation of Morris and Co. grew, Arts and Crafts guilds started popping up all around the UK. Like the mercantile guilds of ages past, these allowed artisans (rather than profiteering capitalists) to set the quality standards and pricing. Notable names during the period included the Century Guild of Artists, Home Arts and Industries Association, and the Art Workers Guild. In 1893, The Studio magazine launched and became influential on both Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau.
The Arts and Crafts movement eventually spread to the US, where its socialist undertones fit right in with the Progressive Era of American politics, particularly resonating with female reformers in the midst of the suffrage movement. Boston’s Paul Revere Pottery and New Orlean’s Newcomb Pottery were both women-owned businesses that focused not only on producing Arts and Crafts ceramics but on providing trade education to women (many of them struggling immigrants). And a principal architect that emerged during this time was Julia Morgan, the first female architect licensed in California who would go on to build over 700 buildings there, most famously Hearst Castle.
While overall American designers took their cues from the British movement, they tended to be more driven by mass consumerism, working with machines to produce simplified Arts and Crafts pieces that could be sold more readily.
After reigning for decades, the Arts and Crafts movement began to wane around the 1920s, in favor of Art Deco and modernism. Despite its noble intentions, there was a fundamental flaw embedded in its ideology: by looking to the past, it failed to keep up with the present. The handcrafted nature of the design not only proved to be too labor intensive for 20th century demands, it also meant that the products became inaccessibly expensive—a far cry from its socialist ideals.
But the legacy of Arts and Crafts would carry on into other movements. It saw a revival in the 1920s Mingei style in Japan, and most notably the ideas of form, function, and material would go on to inspire the Bauhaus school.
Arts and Crafts in graphic design
A century later, Arts and Crafts is seeing a resurgence in modern graphic design. While the physical machinery of the Industrial Revolution is less prevalent in our day-to-day lives, the digital era has brought a new kind of mass production through software tools. And the result has been a wealth of designs that feel stale, simplistic, and soulless. It is no wonder then why many designers are looking to the past to bring the craft back into graphic design.
The appeal of Arts and Crafts lies in its ability to make design projects feel personal and handcrafted. But how does this actually work in our digital age? After all, the original Arts and Crafts movement largely concerned architecture and home decor, but what about graphic design? To answer this, let’s look at some modern examples.
Like its predecessor, modern Arts and Crafts tends to look backwards for inspiration—chiefly, at Medieval art. This means that classical themes like angelic figures, stained glass techniques, and nature symbolism are modernized for contemporary brands.
Nature motifs are especially present in illustrative patterns, reminiscent of the Morris & Co. wallpapers. These typically feature leafy vines and blooming arrangements, often used as frames for other design elements like typography or a central image.
But modern Arts and Crafts is not restricted to illustration or literal imagery. Typographic forms can take on an Arts and Crafts style through decorative strokes. While these organic curves and swirls subtly mimic hand drawn illuminated letters, a current trend isolates them within an otherwise standard letterform. This creates contrast, emphasizing the decorative stroke as if they are breaking free from uniformity.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Arts and Crafts is all about technique. Even if the design was made on the computer, it shouldn’t look like it was made by a computer. Arts and Crafts is meant to evoke an old-world style of handcrafted art, taking advantage of illustrative techniques like loose flowing lines, cross-hatching and painterly textures. Reverence for the materials was always an essential point, which is why the best way to get into the Arts and Crafts spirit might just be to create your designs by hand before bringing them onto the computer.
Don’t design, craft
Arts and Crafts was a movement that sought to place beauty front-and-center. It fought against the way industrial machines had ruined the aesthetic experience for both the artist and consumer. While it accomplished this by looking to pre-Industrial gothic styles, it is (perhaps more than any other decorative movement) more about its ethos than any particular look. To be an Arts and Crafts designer, you have to be willing to get your hands dirty, to care about the material and functionality of what you create. Arts and Crafts is more than glue and popsicle sticks—it is design with heart.