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The Designer as Craftsman

Design, Democracy, and Reform in the Arts and Crafts Movement

GMD0000_023_002.jpgThe period 1900-1930 was a time of sweeping change in the design and production of everyday objects and environments in America, encompassing everything from home architecture and décor to clothing styles.

A design movement cloaked in an aura of reform, the American Arts and Crafts era was characterized by advocacy of hand craftsmanship using simple forms, coupled with the objective of social reform. Says Kathleen Campbell, a grant writer at the U's Goldstein Museum of Design and a former curator there, "Arts and Crafts advocates such as Britons John Ruskin and William Morris and Gustav Stickley in America sought to improve the standard of design for useful objects and make them readily accessible to all. Reformers at heart, they believed that art and design could improve quality of life."

On November 9, the two-session short course Design, Democracy, and Reform: The American Arts and Crafts Movement will take participants on a tour of the era's design and social impact. Guided by Campbell and Goldstein curator Jean McElvain, participants will examine articles from the museum's collections (decorative objects, home textiles, and clothing) and photographs (architecture) that trace the flavor, themes, and design elements of the movement.

The course will examine how the American movement developed in a more practical, democratic way than its British predecessor; how it nurtured a spirit of reform, encouraged originality, simplicity, and the use of natural materials; and how it advanced the role of designer/craftsman as a professsion.

GMD1980_005_042.jpgExplains McElvain, "After the British Arts and Crafts movement found its way to America (ca. 1880), it experienced its fullest expression and broadest adoption. Why? In part because the movement's ideals and visual expression were transformed and energized by American ingenuity, pragmatism, and American methods of production, distribution, and communication."

"And," adds Campbell, "the time was right. Americans were tired of heavy Victorian home furnishings, body-inhibiting clothing, and ornate gingerbread-encrusted homes. Designers and consumers alike welcomed the lighter color palette, freer-flowing clothing, nature-inspired textiles, and family-friendly Bungalow and Cottage-style homes."

The work and ideals of some of the prominent individuals behind the movement--Morris, Ruskin, and, in particular, Stickley also will be highlighted. The consummate interpreter of the American movement's philosophy, Stickley expounded on everything from women's dress to furniture design in his journal, The Craftsman. At the same time, he sold a variety of handcrafted products and design plans for Craftsman homes, which would became a signature of the American Arts and Crafts lifestyle.

GMD1999_068_009.jpgArchitecture buffs, fashionistas, artists, and everyone in between will find something of interest in the course, which, like good design, covers quite a cross-section. "Anyone interested in design movements and their impact, Bungalow homes, art pottery, textiles, or the relationship between women's dress and social change will enjoy this course," says McElvain.

Concludes Campbell, "Design is a hot topic today," she says. "Target Corporation uses it as a sophisticated marketing tool; design exhibitions and galleries have sprouted at art museums; and on Thursdays and Sundays, the New York Times devotes entire sections to design. [I think] the major spokespeople for the movement--such as Morris and Stickley--might be pleased to see that design is a topic spoken of with such familiarity by so many, and that today good design is available at all price points."

The two-session short course Design, Democracy, and Reform: The American Arts and Crafts Movement begins November 9 on the St. Paul campus. For complete details and registration information, visit the LearningLife website.

Vase, 1900-1915; Belleek, Willets Mfg. Co.; Gift of Helen Ludwig
Photo Courtesy of the Goldstein Museum of Design

Dress, 1910-1919; Goldstein Collection
Photo Courtesy of the Goldstein Museum of Design

Stickley Chair, 1900-1920; Gift of the Estate of Ruth Hall
Photo Courtesy of the Goldstein Museum of Design

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