A Craftsman remodel by Studio LH Interiors. Photograph by Teague Hunziker

Design School

The History of Arts and Crafts

By Meaghan O’Neill
February 28, 2018

The design style was nothing less than a movement, reflecting a return to craftsmanship in an era of mass production

In the mid-19th century, as the industrial revolution took hold of the British economy, a backlash against the machine-age progress began. Quantity began to win out over quality, and laborers faced horrific conditions working in factories. As a result, many designers began to embrace the decorative arts and craftsmanship of an earlier time. The father of the trend—which came to be known as the Arts and Crafts movement—was the designer, artist, and ardent socialist William Morris.

Photograph by Teague Hunziker
Photograph by Teague Hunziker

In 1861, Morris founded a successful design firm as an antidote to mass production, but lamented that only the rich could afford its products. So in 1884, he helped establish the Art Workers Guild—bringing together potters, woodworkers, metalworkers, bookbinders, and others—to champion the idea that design could be both beautiful and functional.

Arriving in America with no definitive manifesto, the Arts and Crafts movement developed regionally with vernacular interpretations and local materials. The pervading philosophy, though, remained: Nature, form, and superior craftsmanship were always emphasized.

Gustav Stickley began producing furniture that represented a major departure from the Victorian era. Simple, but finely made, it became known as “craftsman” or “mission” style. Meanwhile, Louis Comfort Tiffany was creating leaded-glass windows, lighting, and pottery that celebrated the natural world and its palette.

There is a sense of romance and nostalgia alive in these designs.

Architecture, however, may be the movement’s greatest legacy. As suburbs expanded and urban populations grew, a new type of house became relevant. “Many of these new neighborhoods were filled with Arts and Crafts homes and bungalows whose form followed function and left behind the stuffiness and excessive ornamentation of the more formal Victorian era,” explains David Kramer, an architectural photographer and founder of The Craftsman Bungalow blog.

In the early 1900s, the architect-brothers Charles and Henry Greene began designing bungalows in California that carefully considered a broad set of factors, from climate to siting to interior layout. In Chicago, architect Frank Lloyd Wright was developing his Prairie Style houses, known for their horizontal lines, natural lighting, and use of natural materials. Though bungalow styles varied greatly from coast to coast, they always featured overhanging eaves, articulated woodwork, and open-plan interiors.

Photograph by Teague Hunziker
Photograph by Teague Hunziker

“The style is incredibly approachable,” says Libby Kirwin, who operates a renovation and design consultancy in Newport, Rhode Island that has worked on several bungalows. “There is a sense of romance and nostalgia alive in these designs.”

Beautiful casework, built-in cabinetry, and cozy fireplaces tend to define bungalow interiors, but regardless of your home’s architectural style, you can infuse it with an Arts and Crafts vibe. Kirwin likes to mix in “modern elements while embracing a classic aesthetic,” and recommends starting with lighting. “There are so many excellent lighting sources in every price point,” she says.

The simplicity, comfort, and livability of these homes struck a chord with people back then, “and for the same reasons, it still does today,” says Kramer, who lives in a restored 1917 Craftsman bungalow. He suggests starting with “a color palette of warm earth tones and soft lighting.” Furnishings, he advises, should fit your needs, space, and budget. “You don’t have to be an absolute purist,” he adds, “but once you discover the Arts and Crafts aesthetic, you might fall in love with it. Just like I did.”