Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

The Arts and Crafts Movement in America

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The Arts and Crafts movement emerged during the late Victorian period in England, the most industrialized country in the world at that time. Anxieties about industrial life fueled a positive revaluation of handcraftsmanship and precapitalist forms of culture and society. Arts and Crafts designers sought to improve standards of decorative design, believed to have been debased by mechanization, and to create environments in which beautiful and fine workmanship governed. The Arts and Crafts movement did not promote a particular style, but it did advocate reform as part of its philosophy and instigated a critique of industrial labor; as modern machines replaced workers, Arts and Crafts proponents called for an end to the division of labor and advanced the designer as craftsman.


Arts and Crafts designers sought to improve standards of decorative design, believed to have been debased by mechanization, and to create environments in which beautiful and fine workmanship governed.

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The British movement derived its philosophical underpinnings from two important sources: first, the designer A. W. N. Pugin (1812–1852), whose early writings promoting the Gothic Revival presaged English apprehension about industrialization, and second, theorist and art critic John Ruskin (1819–1900), who advocated medieval architecture as a model for honest craftsmanship and quality materials. Ruskin's persuasive rhetoric influenced the movement's figurehead (and ardent socialist) William Morris (1834–1896), who believed that industrialization alienated labor and created a dehumanizing distance between the designer and manufacturer. Morris strove to unite all the arts within the decoration of the home, emphasizing nature and simplicity of form.

The American Arts and Crafts movement was inextricably linked to the British movement and closely aligned with the work of William Morris and the second generation of architect-designers, including Charles Robert Ashbee (1863–1942), who toured the United States, and Charles Francis Annesley Voysey (1857–1941), whose work was known through important publications such as The Studio. British ideals were disseminated in America through journal and newspaper writing, as well as through societies that sponsored lectures and programs. The U.S. movement was multicentered, with societies forming nationwide. Boston, historically linked to English culture, was the first city to feature a Society of Arts and Crafts, founded in June 1897. Chicago's Arts and Crafts Society began at Hull House, one of the first American settlement houses for social reform, in October 1897. Numerous societies followed in cities such as Minneapolis and New York, as well as rural towns, including Deerfield, Massachusetts.

Unlike in England, the undercurrent of socialism of the Arts and Crafts movement in the United States did not spread much beyond the formation of a few Utopian communities. Rose Valley was one of these artistic and social experiments. William Lightfoot Price (1861–1916), a Philadelphia architect, founded Rose Valley in 1901 near Moylan, Pennsylvania. The Rose Valley shops, like other Arts and Crafts communities, were committed to producing artistic handicraft, which included furnishings (1991.145), pottery, metalwork, and bookbinding. The Byrdcliffe Arts and Crafts Colony was another Utopian Arts and Crafts community. Outside of Woodstock, New York, Englishman Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead (1854–1929) and his wife Jane Byrd McCall Whitehead (1861–1955) founded Byrdcliffe, which was completed and operating by 1903. There craftspeople worked in various media, including woodwork, pottery, textiles, and metalwork. In harmony with the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement, Byrdcliffe furniture (1991.311.1) is a study in rectilinearity, simply treated materials, and minimal decoration.

In urban centers, socialist experiments were undertaken on a community level, frequently in the form of educating young women. Ideas of craftwork and simplicity manifested themselves in decorative work, including the metalwork and pottery of the Arts and Crafts movement. Schools and training programs taught quality design, a cornerstone of the Arts and Crafts movement. In Boston, the Saturday Evening Girls Club, established in 1899 as a reading group for immigrant girls, founded the Paul Revere Pottery, which began producing pottery (2000.31) in 1908 and offered the girls the ability to earn good wages within the community. Newcomb Pottery was formed in New Orleans in the winter of 1894–95 under the auspices of the H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College, an educational institution for women. Using local Southern flora and fauna as inspiration, the female designers at Newcomb made pottery (1983.26) and later also produced metalwork and textiles (2004.334).

In addition to pottery, women fashioned jewelry in the Arts and Crafts mode. Stones were chosen for their inherent artistic qualities, resulting in jewelry that promoted truth to materials. Florence Koehler (1861–1944), a charter member of the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society, taught china painting, jewelry, and metalsmithing. After studying jewelry and enamelwork in London, she referenced historic design, especially Renaissance sources (52.43.1-.3). Marie Zimmermann (1879–1972) began her artistic career as a jewelry designer and later expanded her metalsmithing to include ornamental garden and home objects. An idiosyncratic designer, Zimmermann studied foreign cultures for inspiration, including Egypt (2005.464), Greece, and China.

Without a singular philosophy, diversity persevered within the Arts and Crafts movement as a mixture of individuals worked in diverse locations. There were regional differences due to the geographical distribution from the East Coast, to the Midwest, to California. Craftsmen used a wide range of source material to produce handwrought objects. Arthur J. Stone (1847–1938), a dedicated member of the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts, produced silver objects that were conservative in design. An Englishman who emigrated to the United States, Stone opened his silver shop in Gardner, Massachusetts, where he initially executed all pieces himself. When the business expanded, he hired additional craftsmen to make individual works (1990.49). There were also creative designers with unique vision, such as Charles Rohlfs (1853–1936), who worked in Buffalo, New York. Rohlfs eschewed industrial production methods, preferring to craft individual pieces of furniture (1985.261) utilizing a myriad of foreign sources, including Moorish, Chinese, and Scandinavian design. Gustav Stickley (1858–1942), founder of The United Crafts (later known as the Craftsman Workshops), was a proselytizer of the craftsman ideal. Emulating William Morris's production through guild manufacture of his furniture, Stickley believed that mass-produced furniture was poorly constructed and overly complicated in design. Stickley set out to improve American taste through "craftsman" or "mission" furniture with designs governed by honest construction, simple lines, and quality material (1976.389.1). He also published the highly influential The Craftsman (1901–16), a beacon for the American Arts and Crafts movement.

Publications, including The Craftsman, House Beautiful, and Ladies Home Journal, disseminated ideas about design and interiors. The ideal home that emerged had an open-planned interior shaped by a color palette that reflected the natural environment. Articles and illustrations presented decorating suggestions, including the use of colors, type of furniture, and decorative accessories, such as rugs and pottery. Period sources embraced Grueby Pottery for its innovative interpretation of nature and craftsmanship. Founded by William Grueby (1867–1925), the pottery was known for naturally shaped vessels with matte green glaze (69.91.2). In addition to pottery, lighting was also an important element that contributed to the ideal Arts and Crafts interior. The copper electric table lamp (1989.129) was the archetypal object crafted by the Dirk Van Erp Studio. Additionally, a Native American undercurrent developed during the Arts and Crafts movement, as evidenced by fashionable Indian-style baskets and textiles featured in Arts and Crafts exhibitions and publications. Many collected baskets to display in their Indian corners, which may have inspired Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933) to design a hanging shade in an Indian basket motif (69.150).

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) shaped a new way of living through his completely designed environments, encompassing architecture and all elements of interiors. He ushered in a style of architecture that became known as the Prairie School, characterized by low-pitched roofs, open interiors, and horizontal lines that reflected the prairie landscape. This architecture, which utilized natural materials such as wood, clay, and stone, sparked a revolutionary shift in the American interior (1972.60.1). Wright's "organic" architecture was indebted to nature. However, plain surfaces with minimal decorative embellishments were suited to incorporating the machine, resulting in furniture with intense rectilinearity and natural surfaces. In addition to Wright, popular Prairie School architects William Gray Purcell (1880–1965) and George Grant Elmslie (1871–1952) directed offices in Minneapolis and Chicago. Purcell, Feick and Elmslie (as the firm was known between 1910 and 1913 with the addition of George Feick Jr. [1881–1945]) remodeled the J. G. Cross House in Minneapolis in 1911 (1972.20.2). The firm specialized in residences with artistic interiors (especially for a middle-class clientele, although they certainly worked for wealthy patrons as well) using organic decorative elements. Like Wright and Purcell, Feick and Elmslie, Charles Sumner Greene (1868–1957) and Henry Mather Greene (1870–1954), California architect-designers of the period, were interested in domestic architecture incorporating the interior as a total work of art. The brothers Greene initially worked in all the popular revival styles, but after examining English and American design periodicals and Charles Greene's formative trip abroad, their style shifted by the early 1900s. They fashioned a distinctive style, heavily influenced by Asian design, that reached its zenith with the bungalow, the quintessential Arts and Crafts architectural form, characterized by broad overhanging eaves, articulated woodwork, and an open plan. For the Blacker House (1907) in Pasadena, Greene and Greene used Japanese design to meticulously craft elements in their comprehensive schemes, inside and out (1986.445; 1992.127).

The rise of urban centers and the inevitability of technology presaged the end of the Arts and Crafts movement. The search for nature and an idealist medieval era was no longer a valid approach to living. By the 1920s, machine-age modernity and the pursuit of a national identity had captured the attention of designers and consumers, bringing an end to the handcrafted nature of the Arts and Crafts movement in America.

Monica Obniski
Independent Scholar