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What is Arts and Crafts?

Arts & Crafts is more a philosophy of design than a set of characteristics. At the center of the Arts and Crafts Movement is something holy, a reactionary vision standing against materialism. The the spirit of Arts and Crafts is a kind of kairos, the moment when the spiritual breaks through or incarnates the spiritual into the material worlds of architecture, furnishings and the decorative arts — and it is from that center of understanding that we can trace its lineage and its future.

John Ruskin and William Morris

Although it was William Morris whose name became known as the cornerstone of the Arts and Crafts movement, it was John Ruskin’s second chapter on the Nature of the Gothic in his book, The Stones of Venice wherein he expounded the Arts and Crafts heresy against 19th century industrialization:

You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them…. — a heap of sawdust, so far its intellectual work in this world is concurred: saved only by its Heart, which cannot go into the forms of cogs and compasses, but expands, after the ten years are over, into fireside humanity.

Entering Exeter College at Oxford in 1852, William Morris intended to take holy orders. At Oxford, he met Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti and joined a group called ‘The Brotherhood’ whose members were strongly influenced by Ruskin’s praise of the creative imagination expressed by medieval artisans:

On the other hand, if you will make a man of the working creature, you cannot make a tool. Let him but begin to imagine, to think, to try to do anything worth doing: and the engine-turned precision is lost at once. Out comes all his roughness, all dullness, all his incapability; shame upon shame, failure upon failure; pause after pause: but out comes the whole majesty of him also; and we know the height of it only when we see the clouds settling upon him. And whether the clouds be bright or dark, there will be transfiguration behind and within them.

After spending a summer touring the the cathedrals of northern France, and being particularly stricken at the beauty of Reims Cathedral, Morris returned to England resolved to study architecture. He took up an apprenticeship at the architectural offices of George Edmund Street, a leading Gothic revival architect. Within a year, on the advice of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, he abandoned architecture in favor of painting. It was during this brief time as a painter that he made the acquaintance of Jane Burden, later persuaded by Rossetti to model for their small circle of painters.