Rage Against the Machine: Arts & Crafts and The Industrial Revolution

The late 19th and early 20th century Decorative Arts across Britain, Europe and beyond was a progressive period that saw a flourish of new ideologies, designs and aesthetics in the wake of the industrial revolution.

Avant-garde designers and artists of the period reacted against the industrialisation of the Victorian era and culture of mass production. This transpired with the rise of the modern movement in a succession of contrasting styles including The Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, The Secession, and Art Deco.

This revolt against industrialisation was inevitably compromised. As history shows, the origins of the modern movement would not have prevailed into the 20th century without opting for the efficiency of the ‘machine’.

No one else struggled more with this notion than the British architect-designer William Morris who is regarded as the father of the modern movement. First and foremost, Morris founded the Arts and Crafts during the second half of the 19th century. His London based company Morris & Co. (formerly Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.) designed and produced Arts and Crafts wallpapers, textiles, carpets, stained glass and furniture. Although internationally renowned, their influence wasn’t so much felt in the U.K. but more so on the Continent and eventually in the U.S.A.

Morris and his followers shared a deep resentment toward the negative impacts the industrial revolution had on society and the arts. Newly industrialised cities were ill prepared for what the revolution brought as huge influxes of working-class labourers relocated to find work. Working conditions and living standards were dreadful, and an unprecedented rise in pollution choked cities. With this came the proliferation of large factories and the mechanical division of labour.

The Arts and Crafts movement despised the value of ornamentation over functionality in the Victorian age of decorative arts and were concerned with how honest craftsmanship had become lost in the production line. Morris and his followers sought to revive the involvement of the designer/artist throughout every step of the creative process. They ultimately hoped this revival would inspire cottage industries among the working classes, bringing a sense of pride to their work and thus creating a kind of democratic art. This approach was untenable from a business perspective and the course of the industrial revolution could not be countered. Over the decades Morris eventually acquiesced to the unquestionable benefits of the machine age.

Ironically, through the assistance of the machine age, the furniture and interiors of Morris and other Arts and Crafts designers like Charles Rennie Macintosh and Frank Lloyd Wright are still in production today and still timeless. So too are many iconic designs spanning the decorative arts that came after them.

“If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”. William Morris’s advice seems more relevant now than ever in a world of compulsive consumerism and throw away culture. Although his philosophies were never truly embraced by the mainstream their ideals remain something to aspire to.

– Dominic Kavanagh, Decorative Arts Specialist