July 12, 2018 — The Arts and Crafts Movement by Nancy Hiller

July 12, 2018 — The Arts and Crafts Movement by Nancy Hiller


We were delighted to have Nancy Hiller back for a second time to speak to the Guild.  You may recall her presentation last year when she demonstrated milk paint finishes.   This time around we saw a very different side of her.  Rather than yet another ‘how-to’ demo, as is the common fare at most of our meetings, Nancy treated us to glimpse inside the thinking behind the Arts and Crafts movement that occurred at the turn of the last century.  As background, this movement was an international rebellion against the industrialization of furniture, decorative and fine arts that began in the UK, then spread to Europe and North America between about 1880 and 1920, and Asia (the Mingei movement) in the 1920’s.

Nancy’s new book on the subject “English Arts & Crafts Furniture: Projects & Techniques for the Modern Maker” was release on June 26, 2018.  So, we were privileged to see it just 2 weeks hence.  This richly illustrated hardcover book features 3 construction project complete with: measured drawings, construction details, and photographs (Voysen Two Heart Chair, Harris Lebus Sideboard, and Gimson Hayrake Table).  But, it was Chapter One that was the subject of her talk; that is to answer the question “Is Arts and Crafts a Style?”

Here in the US, we associate the Arts and Crafts movement with Gustav Stickley, but the movement really starts in the UK with John Ruskin (a social thinker and leading art critic of the Victorian Industrial Age) and his contemporary William Morris (a writer, lecturer, and designer who is most often associated with the movement).   Nancy explained the conditions of the Victorian era that lead to up to the Arts and Crafts movement.   The Victorian Era which was a societal sea change.  The era starts in 1837 when most people lived in villages and worked on farms and concludes by 1901, where most people lived in towns and worked in offices, shops, and factories.

Founders of the movement saw a system that exploited both makers and consumers.   They were dishonest to consumer by producing furniture that was fancy (often ornate and gaudy) and looked good (at first), but didn’t last.   Factories subjected workers to horrible conditions.  They were dangerous (amputations were common), exploited workers (including children), and the work was repetitive and soul sucking.   This transformed work from “life affirming” to hell.    Leaders of the movement believed that makers should be able to strive for perfection, hone their skills, and have the freedom to do their best work.  What unifies all the examples is the philosophy underlying the movement which places emphasis on the people who built the items.

“John Ruskin saw Gothic as the ‘Antidote’ to the evils of the industrial revolution.”

Arts and Crafts as a style looked to the “moral” elements of the Gothic period, that is nostalgia for medieval culture, nature and material artifacts were “enchanted”, simpler and more transparent times, longing to re-enact or re-create nature in art, a reaction against mechanization.  Nancy also pointed out that the return to simpler times and longing for nature is very cyclical – as seen again in the 1960’s, and millennials (while not forgoing technology that keeps them connected) are bringing back the “crafts” movement.

Nancy went on to explain Ruskin’s “Moral Elements of Gothic”.   He listed them in order of importance: 

In Buildings:In People:
ChangefulnessLove of Change
NaturalismLove of Nature
GrotesquenessDisturbed Imagination

These terms (as understood in the day) may not mean what you think.   For example, don’t you find it really odd that “Savageness” or “Rudeness” is listed as the most important element, if at all.  She explains the word savageness is related to the Italian work selvaggio which simply means untamed.  Rudeness is derived from the Latin word rus, which simply means countryside.  Now, untamed and country are better fit our impression of the Arts and Crafts style.  The Hayrake Table project in the book is a good example of countryside.  Likewise, she went on to explain the other elements in her talk.

Joe Kunzman

Joe is a retired CPA and Sr. IT Data Storage Architect. He resides in Lake Helen, FL with his wife Marie. His woodworking interests include cabinetry and building 18th century reproduction furniture. He is also the Florida Chapter President of Society of American Period Furniture Makers. When not making sawdust, he also spends his time building embedded systems with microprocessors, such as Arduino.

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