It’s arguable that no “movement” in the history of the decorative arts had so little impact on the everyday articles — tables, chairs, textiles, silverware, crockery — used by the population at large as did the Arts and Crafts movement in England. It’s equally the case that no movement has had such a resounding effect on the thinking of generations of designers and makers that came after it. Indeed, its precepts and guidelines are wholly applicable to us today in our work as small-shop furniture designers and makers, which I will explain later in the article. But to set the stage, I will briefly describe its originators, the times in which they lived and the outcome of their thinking.
Ideas Formed in Turbulent Times
Although a great many movers and shakers were involved in its development, I’m going to focus on two. The seeds of the movement were sown by the lectures and writings of John Ruskin (1819–1900), and they blossomed as a result of the lectures and writings of William Morris. Ruskin was educated at Kings College and Oxford University. He wrote some 250 papers and books, many of which were controversial. Then again, the times were controversial. Ruskin’s ideas of economics and society were bound up with the conditions of the individual worker, as can be seen in this quote from his book Unto This Last: “The false, unnatural, and destructive system is when the bad workman is allowed to offer his work at half price, and either take the place of the good, or force him by his competition to work for an inadequate sum.” As such, it’s clear that his ideas were in conflict with his contemporary Adam Smith’s notions of laissez-faire economics and the division of labor as he proposed in The Wealth of Nations. Ruskin’s ideas had a profound effect on Morris.
Imagine the turbulent times: the steam engine had become a force in Morris’s lifetime, resulting in social and working changes more radical than anything we have experienced in our own, not the least being the wrenching transformation from an agrarian society to a manufacturing society. The agrarian society had created the crafts which men had lived by and which had changed little for centuries. Indeed, it took the best part of a century to establish lasting political, economic and societal changes. The death of the handcrafts was slow and painful. In his book The Wheelwright’s Shop George Sturt writes, “the new wheels of 1884 were made more cheaply than of old, for the countryman was growing so commercial that he would not — perhaps could not — afford to have work done with a single eye to its effectiveness.”
What Sturt means by that last phrase — “a single eye to its effectiveness”— is that the old order of judging a product by its workmanship was now changed. Whereas previously there was a singular judgment, “was the wheel right?” (the right design, the right materials, the right workmanship), now the wheel had to be judged by an added standard — was it, as we would say, “commercially viable?” Such profit-motive thinking is so ingrained in our modern psyche that we find it almost impossible, if not fanciful, to imagine a time when it was not so. But it was.
William Morris (1834–1896) was educated at Oxford University and is the acknowledged guiding light of the Arts and Crafts movement. His life covered a period which saw the growth of industrial capitalism and the challenge to it by socialism. Morris believed that arts and crafts were a single entity of human existence. He supported his theories by working with his hands and inspired a wide range of people working in different crafts, which he himself took up one after another.
The Cotswold School
As it affected furniture design and making, three men came to best exemplify the canons of the Arts and Crafts movement: Ernest Gimson (1864–1919) and brothers Sidney (1865–1926) and Ernest Barnsley (1863–1926). All three were trained and practicing architects when, in the early 1890s, they gave up their work in London to move to the Cotswolds, a rural area west of London.
There can be no doubt that their architectural background was responsible for the well-proportioned furniture they made. The proportion of their furniture with its simple lines was exemplified by the absence of classical or Victorian motifs that were “emblems du jour” on contemporary furniture. Such work answered the first of the three propositions, which became the tenets of the Arts and Crafts movement. The design of the piece, as well as fulfilling its function, should be visually simple. In this regard, they were pioneering a design form which became known as the “Cotswold School.” Not a school in the four walls sense but rather of common doctrine and common working practices. Their designs were expressed by the use of native hardwoods and exposed joinery with chamfered and chip-carved edges as decorative details.
The second tenet said that the materials used should be “of the best.” Their preferred English oak and English walnut was air-dried in their own yards and conditioned in their shops after being rough-cut to size. A yard full of logs facilitated the careful selection of parts — even growth, panels and frames almost always quartersawn and color-matched. Grain aligned with the edge of the workpiece, whether a straight rail or a curved back leg of a dining chair taken from the butt of the tree.
The third tenet, “The work shall be rightfully constructed using rightful workmanship” is easy to express but difficult to describe. What they sought was a common method of working and a common vocabulary. What they arrived at was a set of hand tool techniques and working methods — methods which remain unassailable today. This was accomplished by analyzing every step down to the smallest point. How best to saw a tenon will serve as an example of a procedure that was applied to the whole of their woodworking.
Everyone in the shop gets to saw a tenon and describe the efficacy of their method. From these various methods, measured against the standards of accuracy and time, one will show itself to be superior — that’s the making method all will adopt for now. If someone subsequently comes up with a variation that improves the accuracy of the tenon, or reduces the making time with no loss of quality, then all will adopt the improved technique.
When I began my studies in 1952, I followed this pathway, but there wasn’t much about hand tools and methods of construction that hadn’t already been thought of, and so my working life was much simplified. Many years passed before I could add something to the mix, and then only in small details. The most important bonus to me was that my studies included time spent with Edward Barnsley (1900–1987), the son of Sidney. His visits and his presence were an inspiration. I knew it then, but like a few experiences in life, I sorely wish I could return to them one more time.
The American Arts and Crafts Movement
Gustav Stickley (1858–1942) is now best known for his furniture, but the scope of his energy and drive paralleled that of Morris, whom he much admired. Besides furniture, he was involved in architecture, metalwork, textiles, leatherwork, gardening, writing and publishing.
He put his own stamp on the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement, which he expounded in The Craftsman, a periodical that he published from 1901 to 1916. During its life, the periodical printed over 200 house designs as well as plans for individual pieces of furniture. This “do-it-yourself” enthusiasm is largely responsible for the subsequent widespread establishment of woodworking as a hobby for many and a vocation for others.
Whereas the English practitioners looked backward through rose-colored spectacles at the art and architecture of the Middle Ages and romanticized life in the craft guilds of that era, Stickley accepted no such restriction in the young world of the United States. Unlike, say, Gimson, who worked entirely by hand and refused to design for factory production, Stickley used machinery widely, enabling him to sell at lower cost to a broader range of customers. Very different from the English practitioners who relied on rich patrons. Even so, much labor went into stock selection and handcrafted details. Sadly, the cost of best quality materials, combined with a declining market and the approach of World War I, led to his company’s bankruptcy in 1916.
Is There Meaning Now?
Much has changed since the genesis of the Arts and Crafts movement. That change is evident in our workshops. Walls and shelves once full of hand tools now carry predominantly handheld electric and air tools. Stationary tools large and small have proliferated. Round the shop run lines carrying compressed air and waste from machines. The wood rack holds a variety of manufactured sheet materials. Furniture makers of old wouldn’t even recognize it as a workshop.
Given such radical change, it’s reasonable to ask: does the Arts and Crafts movement have anything to offer today’s furniture maker and woodworker?
My answer is a resounding: Yes! The tenets that guided Gimson and the Barnsleys resonate still:
Design, simply expressed, is always going to take a few words to say, but hours of drawing, mock-ups and rethinking to develop the best solution, which is then subjected to a rigorous critique.
Using first-rate or “rightful materials” underscores your commitment to the design and the workmanship required to make the piece. Quality material sawn straight-grained from the log will behave better: it will cut and work better on the bench as well as remaining flat; it will show off its grain and color better when it’s finished. I don’t mean wood that is necessarily exotic or expensive. Whatever the species, the best deal you can get is its top quality material.
The work should be constructed using “rightful” joinery expressed by “rightful” workmanship.
Although my own work involves using CNC industrial machines, I am a strong advocate of hand tools, especially so for amateur woodworkers. Using solid wood and hand tools allows for a simpler analysis of process than is possible with a complete reliance on power tools and industrial materials. Furniture of the best quality once was and still can be made using only hand tool methods. Unless handwork is embraced by amateur woodworkers, truly handmade furniture, which means tools skills, sharpening skills and working methods, will disappear like the craft of the wheelwright — and that would be a sad loss indeed.
Design is Key
Finally, some closing and hopefully encouraging thoughts on the critical importance of design. Design, like language, is a learned skill, not a natural gift. The seminal crafters of the Arts and Crafts movement, the men who worked with their own hands, understood that concept and applied effort and determination to all the aspects of their designs. And that is likely the key to the relevance and longevity and the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement. Regardless of the quality of William Morris’s philosophical arguments, the primary reason that Arts and Crafts furniture pieces continue to resonate with 21st century consumers, builders and designers is the simplicity and elegance of their designs, as guided by the three tenets they created.