Arts and Crafts evolved during the second half of the 19th century, concurrent with the Victorian era. It began with the Vienna Succession movement in Austria. In Great Britain, it was developed under its most notable proponents, William Morris (1834-1896), Charles Eastlake (1793-1865) and Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928).
Morris was a surface designer who produced patterns for wallpapers, fabrics and rugs. His patterns once again have become the inspiration for contemporary Arts and Crafts patterns. Morris designs often were complex, based on natural forms and in colors found readily in nature.
Eastlake is best known for his Victorian Renaissance Revival furniture, but he also was a philosopher who was perhaps the first to espouse the idea that a "man's home was his castle where he returned to a moral (Christian) environment after working in the evil world," that "a woman's dream was her home, and a child's home was his or her world."
Eastlake's strongly voiced opinions became widely accepted as they were published in his book, "Hints on Household Taste." Eastlake believed good taste was based on Medieval and Japanese influences, and he was opposed to the rapid changes in style and the machine construction so common during the Victorian era.
Eastlake's eloquent calls, joined by others of the Arts and Crafts movement during this time, were for a return to the simple quality hand craftsmanship of the Middle Ages. However, these voices were lost in the clamor of a different philosophy: "If a little is good, a lot must be better," and so did little to stem the tide of mass production. However, they did heighten the taste for Gothic design. Mackintosh is best known for his sleek, revolutionary chairs -- the Hill chair and the Argyle chair with very tall straight backs -- and for his patterned designs, especially the Mackintosh rose. This pattern was a simplified, stylized rounded rose used alone, in repetitive, all-over patterns, or as a point of emphasis at the end of long vertical lines.
Simple, straight lines, squares and rectangles and abstract or geometric compositions were hallmarks of Mackintosh's work. Once they learn about Macintosh, my university students become avid fans of his designs. Apparently they are not alone, as the chairs, the rose and other rectilinear patterns often find ways into clean-looking interiors, and today are fairly well received in high-end settings.
In America, the Arts and Crafts movement included furniture designs by Gustov Stickley (1848-1942). His solid oak furniture with flat, straight back and arm slats and leather seats -- also known as Mission style -- enjoyed great acceptance when it was first introduced. Mission furniture, with plumb lines and frank use of natural materials, was placed squarely in the mainstream of Arts and Crafts ideology.
However, the appeal of Mission furniture was short lived. In fact, the entire Arts and Crafts style was, historically, a flash in the pan among the excessive mass-production of home and non-residential furnishings. Not that the time frame was short, but it was anything but mainstream. This was, in part, because hand-crafted items took much longer to produce and, thereby, cost more than quickly obtained assembly line counterparts. People simply chose the cheaper, more convenient alternative.
Ironically, the regard for Arts and Crafts design is higher today than it was during its height of glory one hundred years ago. Perhaps there are so many more of us who have begun to rebel against the machine age unlike a century ago when there was a newness to machine-produced goods. Today there are people who are sick and tired of cheaply produced goods, often made of imitation materials. Authenticity manifested through natural materials and products lacking machine-made perfection is valued by myriad families in America today, and simple hand craftsmanship quality is highly sought after.
Arts and Crafts colors were warm-toned and earth inspired. These colors are in vogue today, as the style has been revived and adapted to our lifestyles. The colors can be faded with a rich patina, or deep and somewhat vivid. These include a healthy dose of beiges and warm browns, dull and earthy greens (light and dark), a touch of blue-green, phantom violets, very grayed and a family of coral/rose/brick colors, including charcoal.
Lest these colors become too boring, accents of medium value blue, red, gold and violet bring life and interest to the scheme. Overall, its a livable palette, full of long-lasting appeal.
Arts and Crafts window treatments always were simple. Pleated or shirred draperies, plain or printed, embellished with patterns inspired by Morris or Mackintosh, for example. Today cottage curtains such as café curtains and simple shirred valances are in keeping with the turn-of-the-century cottage look. Wood shutters or wood blinds also would be appropriate treatments in more sophisticated settings, and pleated shades or Roman shades also are simple and handsome.
Historically, windows from this era often were artistic unto themselves. The modest styles of windows were a version of the sash window where muntins and mullions (divider grids) were placed to achieve a picture-window center with a band around the outside resulting in a square in each corner. Transoms sometimes were added to the top of sash or double-hung windows, and often the wood frames were large and attractive.
Many window companies offer Arts and Crafts windows as a standard or upgrade style today. On the custom end, art glass that showed the influence of Mackintosh or Frank Lloyd Wright or even Art Nouveau make these windows interesting and beautiful.
Backgrounds and Textures
Textures are important in an Arts and Crafts setting. The tactile appeal of natural wood floors and Stickley's Mission furniture contrast pleasantly with the complex textures and patterns of printed and woven textiles and wall coverings. Very small patterns give a sense of texture to a room with a warm, cozy personalizing effect.
Floors often were wood plank and, indeed, wood floors are broadly used today. They seem to respect nature and with proper care can last indefinitely. Area rugs with patterns are great choices. Here the surface design of William Morris can be a fantastic focal point, as are Mackintosh- or Wright-inspired designs.
Walls frequently have a combination of wall coverings or stencil in authentic or inspired patterns and wall paneling. As the Arts and Crafts interiors were influenced by the Victorian era, they often evolved in a Victorian cottage- or farmhouse-like setting.
The lower paneling is known as beadboard (narrow slats with a tiny rounded beading between) was all routed and machine made. Beadboard can be chair rail height capped with a molding (dado cap), or wainscot height (2/3 or 3/4 up from the floor) and often topped with a plate rail. Often, this wood trim was stained, left natural, painted white or whitewashed and seal-coat finished. Tiny moldings around borders give greater significance to the border. Combined with wall coverings above the boarders, molding and beadboard is a charming effect.
Overall, the Arts and Crafts look is livable and inviting. Whether it is sleek and pared back, or full of nature-inspired floral or abstract patterns, it is a look that can be highly personal and unpretentious.
Karla J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at Brigham Young University. She is a practicing interior designer and has authored several books including Window Treatments and Understanding Fabrics. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education and merchandising.