What is the Arts and Crafts “style?”  I often hear that question. Rightfully so, that question is often followed by another query about different pieces of Arts and Crafts furniture looking quite different from one another; and that is a perfectly fair assessment, as I’ll illustrate later in this post. But before I jump into proving those folks right, let’s put this in perspective. That is before you can understand the arts & crafts style; you have to understand some things about the arts & crafts movement. That understanding begins with understanding the movement’s tenets.

The Evolution

The Arts and Crafts movement evolved in Britain from a series of complex social, aesthetic and political conditions that reformers wanted to improve. The Industrial Revolution, the contrasting treatment and segregation of decorative and fine arts, and the lack of a “national” design were elements in establishing a new mindset. These conditions, unfavorable and unwanted in the minds of many, gradually simmered to the surface-consciousness of philosophers and critics during the Romantic Period and in the Aesthetic, Design Reform, and Gothic Revival movements, as well. Each movement played a key role in shaping the tenets that coalesced into what became the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, A.W.N. Pugin, and the British Government were instrumental in the thinking that birthed the Arts and Crafts philosophy.

In her book The Arts and Crafts Movement, Rosalind Blakesley notes that historian and political philosopher, Thomas Carlyle was critical of the Industrial Revolution’s factory system and its impact on the workers mental and spiritual growth.The division-of-labor concept that evolved during that time was turning factory workers into assembly line cogs and creating an ever-growing gap between designers and craftsmen. The overuse of machinery to reduce production costs was also blamed for forcing craftsmen into the reduced role of performing mindless, repetitive tasks for hours and hours a day. These conditions and concerns evolved into the movement’s tenets of Design Unity and Joy in Labor, which called for reuniting designers and craftsman and a return to handcraftsmanship to foster a happier and more engaged worker.

The tenet of Individualism has its roots in Ruskin’s observation of Gothic age craftsmen. He noted the great variations in structure and ornamentation seen in the Gothic buildings of different periods and regions. In Gothic Revival, Megan Aldrich noted that Ruskin “…proposed that this perceived freedom resulted in an art that was vibrant and reflected the individuality of each craftsman, unlike the dull, repetitive quality of factory-produced objects after the industrial revolution.” In his book, The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture, Pugin laid out the case for Regionalism — the creation of an aesthetic style unique to a region and its indigenous materials.

In 1836, during the Design Reform, a British Parliamentary Committee on Arts and Manufacturing expressed concern that British-manufactured products had inferior quality compared to those of France, Germany and the United States. They feared that, ultimately, Britain’s export economy would suffer. To address this problem, in 1837, the Government School of Design was established, and eventually 16 additional provincial schools were opened. In addition to the Government mandate to improve design quality of decorative arts, there were also evolving household health and hygiene concerns that called for home-design changes, as well. The growing knowledge of germ theory, several cholera outbreaks, and the presence of industrial soot in homes lead to calls for cleaner more sanitary homes. In her article Design Reform, Sara J  Oshinsky summed up Architect, designer and writer Edwin W. Godwin (1833 – 1886) contribution to the design reform, noting he  “designed innovative furniture without excessive carving that could also be readily moved for easy cleaning.” The Design Reform movement never fully achieved its Government mandated goals, but it created a synergy that empowered designers, which lead to more creativity amongst designers and continued the evolution of the decorative arts.

Beautiful Variations in One Style

In their book The Arts and Crafts Movement, Elizabeth Cumming and Wendy Kaplan point out that there was strong consensus amongst philosophers and practitioners that the tenets of the Arts and Crafts Movement were Design UnityJoy in LaborIndividualism and Regionalism. However, there was not always agreement on how they were practiced and applied. This fostered three paradoxes that remain topical even today among historians.  First, as practiced in England, Arts and Crafts goods were largely only affordable to the upper middle class, as opposed to the movement’s goal of making items available to all. Second, a consensus was never reached regarding the balance between handwork and machinery. Third, the consistency with which craftsman were able to build their own designs was not achieved – and this was particularly true later in America.

One could easily be tempted to say these inconsistencies explain why, visually, the Arts and Crafts style appears to be so broad. You could also say it contributed to a range in the beauty of the style.

G Stickley Columbus AVE Sideboard 150 G&G Blacker House Sideboard 150  

Gustav Stickley Columbus AVE home Sideboard            Greene & Greene Blacker House Sideboard

Shapland & Petter 150

Shapland & Petter Oak Stick Stand and Oak Wardrobe

Rohlfs Desk 150  Liberty & Co Mahogany Chair 150

Charles Rohlfs Desk  

Liberty & Co. Mahogany Chair

The images of Stickley’s sideboard, Greene & Greene’s sideboard, Shapland & Petter’s Stick Stand and wardrobe, Rohlfs’ desk, and Liberty & Co.’s chair appear quite different. One could argue they are different styles. But all are considered to be built in the Arts and Crafts style, a seeming contradiction best explained by Alan Crawford, who in his essay United Kingdom: Origins and First Flowerings, wrote:

“…what mattered in the Arts and Crafts was not what objects looked like, but the spirit in which they were made. … [O]bjects were distinguished not by a style, but by qualities that correspond to common Arts and Crafts attitudes.”

 Attitude… Tenet… Design

What are these attitudes, which evolved into tenets which, when demonstrated in a piece of furniture, define it as being in the Arts and Crafts style?

Gustav Stickley, in his essay, Chips from the Workshop, espoused these values to be “honesty of material, solidity of construction, utility, adaptability to place, and aesthetic effect.”

To be clear, Stickley did not originate these philosophies but rather learned of them in his travels to England. There he was exposed to the writings and deeds of both Ruskin, and William Morris. From these encounters, he brought the attitudes and tenets back to his American enterprise.

Honesty (or truth) of Material is the concept that material is employed in a fashion that highlights, its properties and strengths, and allows its characteristics to influence its form. Thus, wood is used in a way that highlights its strength and durability. Solid wood construction which can be highlighted by integrating chamfered ends or ingrown ebony buttons are great examples of material “honestly presenting itself,” because both elements of style allow you to see the internal grain of a piece of wood. Using finishing techniques that highlight wood’s unique grain patterns is another form of “honesty in material.”

Solidity of Construction, also referred to as structural integrity, embodies the tenet that furniture’s structural lines should reveal its reason for existence.

Stickley, in an essay titled The Structural Style in Cabinet Making written for the  December 1903 edition of The House Beautiful magazine, described structural style by writing “the structural lines should be obtrusive rather than obscured. Such lines in cabinet-making declare the purpose and use of the object which they form….”He went on to say, “the straight structural lines follow and emphasize the grain and growth of the wood. They draw attention to natural beauties.”  

When designing furniture, lines, and the proportions those lines form, are paramount to defining an objects structure. A board cut to highlight a naturally occurring concave grain-pattern on its face is perfectly suited to be an apron board on a sofa or foyer table. This is an excellent example of a board’s grain complementing an object’s structural lines – especially when you cut a subtle, following curve into the board to focus attention on the concave grain. William Varnum’s book, Industrial Arts Design (republished as Arts & Crafts Design) provides step-by-step direction on laying out the lines and proportions of a piece of furniture. A principle with multiple dimensions–design, proportion and lines, solidity of construction is sometime hard to illustrate in furniture. A “through mortise” (discussed later in this Section) is a good place to start, however, because it usually caps off a horizontally-aligned structural line, piercing a vertical line. This tends to lead your eye to notice both the line itself and its adjacent proportion.

Perhaps the simplest, and certainly the most straight-forward of the tenets that make up the Arts and Crafts style is Utility. Stickley made utility crystal clear when he wrote in Chips from the Workshop of Gustave Stickley, “Our first and leading purpose of building a cabinet, case, bed or chair is that the design shall represent, and not confuse the structural idea; in a word, that our art shall not cancel our article.” Simply stated a chair should look like a chair; and chest of drawers should look like a chest of drawers. Ornamentation, if present, should be integrated into material and joinery.

Every piece of furniture has a place that declares, “You belong here!” The Adaption to Place principal speaks to that place. I like to describe it this way:  your furniture is comfortable where it resides, because it compliments and harmonizes with the room’s other elements and it’s consistent with the local materials and values.

Excellent examples of Adaptation to Place can be found when touring a Frank Lloyd Wright or Greene and Greene homes. If you ever do so – and I highly recommend it – notice the compatible themes the space and furniture share. Be observant of how the various rooms’ lines and proportions integrate seamlessly between the space and furniture. For example, including vertical spindles in your furniture is a great way to connect with a vertical theme in a room.

 Gamble House Interior 150 Frank Lloyd Wright's Barnsdall Hollyhock House in Los Angeles, interior view

Frank Lloyd Wright Barnsdall Hollyhock House: Note how the chair back theme is consistent with the built in chest of drawers flanking the entrance. Greene & Greene Gamble House Dinning Room: Note how the negative space in the table pedestal integrates with the drawer pulls of the built-in hutch.

Aesthetic (or sense of beauty) Effect, as has been famously said, is in the eye of the beholder. But for our purposes, it is in the mind of the designer and craftsman.  While almost every Arts and Crafts reformer, philosopher, and critic have written about aesthetics and what they are, each has their own idea. From Stickley’s discussion of simple ornamentation in Chips from the Workshop,… Leslie G. Bowman’s discussion of superior design and unity of form and function celebrating the nature of the material and the concept of construction as decoration in American Arts and Crafts: Virtue in Design,… and back to Stickley’s plea, noted in John Freeman’s Forgotten Rebel, to get  our “color-effect largely from the wood,” variations in the concept of aesthetic abound.

I apply one simple test to determine aesthetic beauty: When someone approaches my furniture are they moved to reach out and touch it? Are they moved to run their fingers along its lines? If they do, I know they wanted to feel connected to it. And that is how I define beauty.

While honesty of material, solidity of construction, utility, adaptability to place, and aesthetic effect are the tenets that define a piece of Arts and Crafts furniture, two over-arching attitudes bind all of them together — Honesty and Joy.

The concept of Honesty is traced back to A.W.N. Pugin. Blakesley discussed how Pugin saw honesty as a litmus test for architects, one that carried over to their furniture, by asking if their objects demonstrated honest “structural fitness and propriety.”

Both Ruskin and Morris espoused the importance of Joy in craftsmanship. Does the act of building bring a sense of pride and contentment to the craftsman? Does your completed object bring a sense of bliss that caused you to reach out and touch, to be connected to your furniture? When you can answer “yes,” you have experienced the joy of building Arts and Crafts furniture.

References Used in writing this post:

  1. Blakesley, Rosalind P. (2006). The Arts and Crafts Movement. New York, New York: Phaidon Press Inc.; (pg 12)
  2. Aldrich, Megan; Gothic Revival; (Pg 12)
  3. Lefaivre, Liane & Tzonis, Alexadria (2012). Architecture of Regionalism in the Age of Globalization: Peaks and Valleys in the Flat World By Liane Lefaivre, Alexander Tzonis;  Routledge Pg 78
  4. Oshinsky, Sara J. (2006). Design Reform. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/dsrf/hd_dsrf.htm
  5. Cumming, Elizabeth & Wendy Kaplan. The Arts & Crafts Movement. Thames and Hudson, New York, 1991; Pg 7
  6. Crawford, Alan (2006) United Kingdom: Origins and First Flowerings; The Arts & Crafts Movement in Europe & American by Wendy Kaplan; Thames & Hudson; London, England
  7. Stickley, Gustav, (1903); The Structural Style in Cabinet Making, The House Beautiful, XV, I December 1903, (pg 20-25)
  8. Freeman, John (1966); Forgotten Rebel; siting the Craftsman Oct 1904; A Plea for Democratic Art; (pg 42-64)
  9. Stickley, Gustave (1901) “Chips from the Workshop of Gustave Stickley” Reprint 9
  10. Varnum, William H (1916) Industrial Arts Design,