The American Arts & Crafts movement was artistic, political and economic, arising from the sense of loss people felt as more and more household goods were mass-produced in factories. The invention of the steam engine in the 1830s instigated the Industrial Revolution, and in just a few years many skilled craftsmen saw their work supplanted by cheap assembly-line products. Factory production meant that a designer was separated from the construction of the item, and assembly line workers felt little connection to the finished products they built.
It didn’t take long for an artistic and philosophical backlash to rise up against this transformation, and many people began to question the relationship of a designer to his or her work.
The Arts & Crafts movement opposes Industrialization and Victorian aesthetics
This resistance to mechanized production was first organized in England in the 1860s. Renowned writer William Morris gathered several artists into a group, and together they began to create handmade metalwork, printed fabrics, furniture, wallpaper, stained glass and more. Their goal was loftier than merely creating beautiful and useful goods: they believed that society as a whole would be morally uplifted if the designer of a product was personally involved in hand-producing it. In London, a group of designers, architects, and painters joined forces in 1884 to create the Art Workers Guild.
Aside from the resistance against mass production of decorative items, the Arts & Crafts Movement was also fueled by a reaction against the excessive ornamentation of the Victorian aesthetic. One prominent Arts & Crafts community in New York, known as Roycroft, was founded in 1895 by an anarchist and socialist named Elbert Hubbard. Roycroft went on to become one of the movement’s most important groups, producing hammered copper items as well as hand-bound books, furniture and leather. Their designs were characterized by clean lines and flat panels, expressing a simplified aesthetic and a strong opposition to the ornate curls and embellishments of Victorian furnishings.
Handcrafting spreads across the nation
Clubs dedicated to arts and crafts, including work in various types of metals, developed rapidly across the country through the 1880s and 90s. The 1893 World's Fair in Chicago featured many exhibitions of metalsmithing and jewelry. Not long after, Chicago became a sort of locus of the new style of handmade jewelry – a style based on the integrity of raw materials. Other pioneers in the movement included Arthur J. Stone, who started a silvercrafting shop in Boston; Louis Comfort's Tiffany Studios; and Gustav Stickley.
Stickley was especially important in the ongoing development of metalwork as a part of the Arts & Crafts movement. He formed a company known as Craftsman Workshops, which unified metalworkers, cabinet makers and leather workers to create household products that would express the clean, new design ideals of this movement. Meanwhile, Florence Koehler taught metalsmithing and jewelry-making in Chicago that focused on the integrity of materials. Koehler’s student Marie Zimmerman expanded the metalwork beyond jewelry into ornamental garden and home decorations.
As the movement spread to California, it absorbed some design motifs from the California missions, and metal workers attempted to convey a fresh honesty of design that echoed the plain adobe walls and cast iron decorations of the mission architecture. Hammered copper designs were incorporated into jewelry by Anna Valentien in San Diego and sold through just a few California jewelers.
Arts & Crafts lives on in honest materials and true artisans
World War I is considered the mark of the end of the Arts & Crafts movement. Elbert Hubbard had died on the Lusitania, and Gustav Stickley went bankrupt in 1916. But the aesthetic that was cultivated by these pioneers never disappeared entirely from view – and even after 100 years, it still drives many new designs by metal artists who strive for simple lines and honest materials.
Here at Coco Architectural, we still strive to achieve these values of honest craftmanship. Contact us for more information on our materials and designs today!