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The Arts and Crafts Movement and Today’s Sustainable Design 

Posted by Elizabeth Burton on

The Arts and Crafts Movement and Today’s Sustainable Design 

sustainable furniture design

The Principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the 19th and 20th Centuries Inform Today's Sustainable Interiors

"Although mass produced products are often more convenient that handmade, the quality is often lost in the process. A local craftsman is more mindful and deliberate about each detail of the piece. From the stitching to the frame, not a single detail will be overlooked." - "6 REASONS WHY YOU SHOULD DESIGN WITH HANDMADE FURNITURE," Quatrine Furniture

We have discussed the prevalence of throwaway furniture and the growing interest in heritage pieces in recent Living Deep articles. “Personality is Back in Style: Making Eclecticism Work in Your Home” focused on renewed enthusiasm for special, bespoke pieces rather than mass-produced. “Fast Furniture Continues to Drown Our Planet in Trash” addressed the increased production and land filling of fast furniture pieces. “Healthy Organic Interiors Draw Inspiration from History" examined the relationships between current design trends and their fore bearers. The through-way of each of these articles is the need for more thoughtful, intentional consumption. Interior designers, furniture makers and decorators all expect conscious consumption to play a major part in 2021 design trends. The amount of fast furniture produced globally and purchased across the United States has skyrocketed in recent years. However, interest in bespoke, artisan furniture has also increased. Consumers seem to be searching for more meaningful, timeless pieces for their homes. This has been evidenced by renewed interest in antique and vintage furniture and design styles. We at Living Deep believe in buying quality pieces consumers can rely on for generations -- buying better so one can buy less. It appears that popular preference has begun to shift in this direction too. This shift calls to mind the tenets of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which focused on ethical creation and consumption. It also emphasized the importance of maintaining respect for nature and the craftsman. Learn more about how unique -- whether new or antique -- have taken on new life in a world more focused on sustainability than ever before.

Understanding the American Arts and Crafts Movement

sustainable furniture design

"The practitioners of the movement strongly believed that the connection forged between the artist and his work through handcraft was key." - "The Arts & Crafts Movement," The Art Story

As we explained in “Healthy Organic Interiors,” “care for the planet and desire to support local craftsmen has spurred renewed interest in the Arts and Crafts Movement.” Consumers have also revived the spirit of the Movement as fear for the future of workers’ rights ripples across the US once more. According to The Art Story’s article on the Arts and Crafts Movement, the movement began as a response to industrialization across Europe and later the United States. The movement began around the close of the 19th century. By this time, the movement’s proponents had become “disenchanted with the impersonal, mechanized direction of society.” 

The Arts and Crafts Movement represented a much-needed shift away from frivolous decoration and mass-production towards meaningful, artisan-made furniture, individualistic architecture and general functionality. The Art Story writers explain that “the practitioners of the movement strongly believed that the connection forged between the artist and his work through handcraft was key." It was essential "to producing both human fulfillment and beautiful items that would be useful on an everyday basis.” Applied aesthetics and materials of the Arts and Crafts Movement varied widely. This was because they were rooted in what was available locally and what spoke to each artist and/or craftsman. 

Basic Tenets of the Arts and Crafts Movement

Simplicity

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"Growing out of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and Aesthetic movements in England, [the Arts and Crafts Movement] offered an artistic and philosophical reaction to the florid, overdecorated, and industrialized designs of the high-Victorian era." - "The Arts and Crafts Movement: Humanity, Simplicity, Beauty," Smithsonian Associates

The Smithsonian brief “The Arts and Crafts Movement: Humanity, Simplicity, Beauty” explains that simplicity ruled design during the Arts & Crafts Movement. According to the brief, the British version of the movement emerged in direct contrast to earlier periods and ideals. It explains that the “florid, over-decorated and industrialized designs of the high-Victorian era” were considered contrived by this time. Founder of the movement William Morris and pioneering designer Gustave Stickley placed particular emphasis on simplicity. However, Morris’ work was more expensive, exclusive and luxurious than Stickley’s. As the excerpt “Arts and Crafts Movement (c.1862-1914)” from the Encyclopedia of Art History on Visual-Arts-Cork.com notes, both took inspiration from Medieval European design, producing pieces that represented the “key concepts” of the movement: “simplicity, utility and 'honest' construction.” In America, the Arts and Crafts Movement represented a shift towards the personal and the local, embracing folk traditions and indigenous materials. It was from this period that many “regional domestic” architectural programs arose -- including the charming and individualistic Craftsman style. Simple yet striking geometric and organic shapes dominated the architecture and furniture designed throughout this period in the United States. They were particularly embraced by giants like Frank Lloyd Wright and William Gray Purcell. 

Functionality

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"The members of the Arts and Crafts movement believed that excess ornamentation was unnecessary, and an indicator of poor-quality design. Instead, they stated that objects should be designed with their function in mind, and that function would then determine their characteristics." - Ledys Chemin, "Arts and Crafts’ Principles in Interior Design: The Original Minimalists," Daily Art Magazine

Functionality -- or utility -- was incredibly important to those participating in the Arts and Crafts Movement. Items -- whether furniture, architectural elements, time pieces or even art pieces -- were first required to perform some sort of function. They could not be purely decorative and still conform to the spirit of the Movement. In her article “Arts and Crafts’ Principles in Interior Design: The Original Minimalists” for Daily Art Magazine, Ledys Chemin writes that the founders of the Movement demanded that all things be utilitarian and that form follow function wherever possible. She writes that founder William Morris believed there should be nothing in one’s house that is not “believed to be useful or beautiful.” Chemin writes that all things within the home should be loved and used, that each piece should “function properly and enhance your life.” However, the focus on function should never completely disregard aesthetics, warned the founders of the movement. Rather, each piece should be designed according to function. Simultaneously using the highest quality natural materials possible meant that each functional piece was also beautiful.

Craftsmanship and Aesthetic Value

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"The relationship between craftsman and object was a key idea of the Arts and Crafts movement...the Arts and Crafts aesthetic inspired by nature extended also to their color palette." - Ledys Chemin, "Arts and Crafts’ Principles in Interior Design: The Original Minimalists," Daily Art Magazine

One of the primary goals of the Arts and Crafts Movement was to turn from the mass-produced towards craftsmanship, individuality and nature. Reviving traditional methods of production and allowing natural, organic materials and motifs to shine in each design were key. As Ledys Chemin writes in her article for Daily Art Magazine, “the relationship between craftsman and object was an [important] idea of the Arts and Crafts movement [as] it promoted and celebrated activities such as wood carving, block printing, and even embroidery.” Embracing and showing off the natural beauty of these materials was exceptionally important during the movement. Any embroidery, upholstery, carving or other design was intended to “complement the beauty of natural” materials.

Ethics

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"The sense of morality in design was possibly the most revolutionary aspect of [the Arts and Crafts] movement." - Christopher Wright, “The Arts and Crafts Aesthetic in a Contemporary Setting," RIT

Christopher Wright outlines the ethical concerns of the movement in his dissertation “The Arts and Crafts Aesthetic in a Contemporary Setting” for the RIT. He writes that one of the reasons simple designs and accessible, rustic materials were used throughout was to “directly appeal to the working classes.” Such an attitude well represents the effort on part of the movement to secure more appropriate labor rights for those classes. They were particularly concerned for factory workers experiencing poor conditions due to rapid industrialization. Wright explains that “this sense of morality in design was possibly the most revolutionary aspect of this movement." According to Wright, this tenant was "chiefly expressed by the earliest and most ardent” proponents of the movement. Using safe, local and affordable materials was important to Arts and Crafts Movement makers. 

However, it should be understood that “affordable” meant something different in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, Americans consider an “affordable” piece of furniture to be disposable, one that can be thrown out after a few months of use. This might mean a fifty dollar nightstand or a two hundred dollar couch. Arts and Crafts Movement pieces were also made to be bought by and to serve working class individuals. However, they would have lived in the home of that individual for his or her entire life, potentially handed down to the next generation. 

Artisan and Antique Furniture: Part of the Sustainability Solution

sustainable furniture design

"We clearly see an increased interest from the younger generation of buyers who want unique, personal and quality items that last over time." - Amy de Klerk, “Antique furniture is becoming increasingly popular with millennials," Harper’s Bazaar

In her 2019 article “Antique furniture is becoming increasingly popular with millennials” for Harper’s Bazaar, Amy de Klerk explained the shift towards antique and vintage furniture amongst younger generations. De Klerk writes that as concern grows for the health and habitability of our planet, focus on sustainability will permeate everything. She notes that recently the sustainability “movement has hit the interiors world too, with more millennials than ever investing in second-hand, antique furniture.” The trend is three-fold, notes de Klerk. All three elements fall quite well in line with the ethos of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the 19th and 20th centuries. De Klerk explains that the first is the attraction of “having one-of-a-kind furniture.” 

The second is that “nothing needs to be produced” when purchasing antique or vintage furniture. This, writes de Klerk, “is a sure-fire way of reducing your carbon footprint.” The third is that each piece is of greater quality than that of “fast furniture.” Each is capable of “last[ing] over time” and possibly even functioning as a heritage piece passed down to others. Artisan-made furniture offers these three benefits as well. It also offers the added benefit of supporting a local craftsman and keeping that practice alive in one’s own community. Small-batch or bespoke furniture pieces are often made more sustainably -- often from local materials -- and with more care for durability, uniqueness, safety and health. They are rarely shipped from far away, reducing emissions and lowering one’s carbon footprint. At Living Deep, we hope to engage a community of thoughtful consumers who purchase less, but purchase for love and for the long-run.




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