The Industrial Revolution wave from the end of the 18th to 19th centuries was an epoch-making milestone in technological development affecting society, culture, industry and design. However, in the late 19th century, some British personages expressed criticism toward the products’ low quality, and in their opinion, ignorance of material usage and deprivation of creativity. This resistance gave birth to the Arts and Crafts Movement, which rested on the ideals of integrating life and art. Writer and art expert John Ruskin (1815-1900) and designer William Morris (1834-1896) were the active frontliners in advocating the promotion of handicrafts and decoration, reviving inspirations drawn from medieval styles.
An extensive documentation of the Arts and Crafts Movement from its history to its growing trends across the globe is being presented at the “Arts & Crafts and Design: From William Morris to Frank Lloyd Wright” exhibition at Sogo Museum of Art in Yokohama, Japan till November 5th this year. Around 170 wonderful works comprised of textiles, wallpaper, furniture, and metalwork by Morris, Walter Crane (who established the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1887), William de Morgan (involved in the production of tiles and stained glass), William Arthur Smith Benson, Charles Francis Annesley Voysey, Charles Robert Ashbee, Frank Lloyd Wright, and other designers and architects of the movement are on display.
Morris’s ideas and artistic practices are the prominent highlights of the exhibition. The designer manifested inclinations towards medievalism as a student of classics at Oxford University. He was a member of the Birmingham Set, which was a group of visual artists from Oxford that engaged in literary exchanges about Tennyson, Shelley, and Keats, among other noted English writers and poets. At the same time, strong influences from historians Thomas Carlyle and Ruskin prompted the group to visit English churches and medieval cities. In 1861, Morris founded the Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. (later named Morris & Co.), which primarily focused on decorative arts that escalated as a fashion trend in interior decoration, particularly tapestries, wallpaper, fabrics, furniture, and stained glass windows. Many of these works can be found in the exhibition, including the Kelmscott Press, a series of 53 books in 67 volumes published between 1891 and 1898, and designed and ornamented by Morris and some parts by painter and designer Edward Burne-Jones.
Trellis-white (1864), for example, is one of Morris’ quintessential and first wallpaper designs, depicting roses entangled in a hedge, with insects gathered around them, and birds hunting for the insects. The background is plainly colored, and the patterns are flattened in muted tones, inducing a spring-like setting. Morris drew the design after moving to his newlywed home, the Red House, which was swarmed with roses coloured over trellises in his garden.
Another famous fabric design by Morris is the Strawberry Thief (1883), made for curtains or loose covers on furniture. The pattern is inspired by strawberries in the kitchen garden of Morris’ countryside home in Oxfordshire. The deep colors and fine detail of the leaves and petals wherein the red and yellow were added to the basic blue and white background make use of the ancient indigo discharge method. The design represents Morris’ typical subjects of flora, fauna, and elements reflecting domestic traditions of the British countryside.
More gorgeous designs by Morris—Fruit or Pomegranate (1866), Pimpernel (1876), Peacock and Dragon (1878), Evenlode (1883), and Sunflower (1879), among others, fill up the gallery rooms with abundant colors, brilliance and a lively sense of nature.
Morris and many of his followers believed that craftsmanship must be carried out absolutely by hand. Morris himself was widely reputed for working with his own hands-on weaving, dying, printing, calligraphy and embroidery. There was, however, much debate on the implementation of the division of labor, especially in the modern world, wherein the designer and the actual craftsman were different people. Crane, an artist and illustrator, was quite outspoken about stressing the importance of design and execution by the same person. His design of Peacock (1860-1870s) clearly illustrates his skill in interpreting delicate feathers with lush and dense application of curved lines in blue and green. Crane worked on mural decoration, stained glass, metalwork, ceramic tiles, pottery, wallpapers and textiles. He became the first renowned artist to design children’s wallpaper.
Furniture, such as the mahogany ’Saville’ Armchair (1890s) by George Washington Jack, beautifully upholstered in a jacquard fabric of deep green foliage and rose-colored flowers, with wavy vertical rails under the armrest; the beechwood Stained Beech Music Cabinet (1890s) with flower and human figure engravings; and the oak Rocker and Desk and Chair set (both 1912-1924) by Leopold and John George Stickley reflect the traditional craftsmanship of that era. The mahogany embroidered panel frame Firescreen, "Flower Pot” (1890s) by Morris himself is equally extraordinary.
The designs of the Arts and Crafts Movement dispersed so profusely that they filled up most middle and upper-class interiors in Britain in the 19th century. Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. exhibited at the London International Exhibition in 1862, plus eleven more expositions between 1888 and 1916. The movement further propelled the establishment of numerous craft associations and communities. Globally, it flourished all over Europe and North America and it stood as the foundation of Art Nouveau, inspiring De Stijl, Vienna Succession, Bauhaus, and Modernism.
A range of stunning lamps by Tiffany Studios and W. A. S. Benson, glass bowls and vases by William Butler, John Walsh Walsh, and Harry Powell, as well as jewellery by Liberty & Co., reveal Art Nouveau styles.
As the movement disseminated quickly in the U.S. even after Morris’ death in 1896, the Arts and Crafts Society was formed in Chicago in 1897. It witnessed the success of many designers and architects, such as Gustav Stickley, Elbert Hubbard, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and more significantly, Frank Lloyd Wright, who all followed Morris’ philosophies, and ushered the Victorian Age of decoration into peoples’ homes. Like Morris, Wright absorbed himself into every production detail of his projects, designing furniture to light fixtures himself. Projecting the Arts and Crafts movement's propensity for native materials (wood, stone, stucco, and brick), Wright also utilized earth tones to preserve the quality of natural elements and, at the same time, incorporated geometric forms without excessive ornament. The exhibition features a sample of Wright’s iconic leaded glass door from the Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, New York (1903-1905), and a window from Oscar Steffen House in Chicago (1909), both in Art Deco-inspired geometric silhouettes. The original 400 stained glass windows of the Darwin Martin House, some of which contain over 750 dazzling glass pieces, intended as "light screens,” are considered to be the height of Wright’s genius craftsmanship and one of his greatest achievements in design.