Morris And Beyond! International Arts & Crafts At The V&A

By Dianne Cutlack | 17 March 2005
Shows a photograph of a pair of embroidered linen panels. Tall and thin, each panel is gold in colour and has an elongated female figure embroidered onto it, their heads tilting inwards towards each other.

Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, pair of embroidered panels. Linen with silk braid, ribbon, silk applique and bead decoration. Britain, 1902. © Glasgow School of Art.

Dianne Cutlack headed to South Kensington in search of back to basics, quality goods...

In the late 19th century, a design movement originating in Britain shaped a new understanding and appreciation of skilled craftsmanship. In its rejection of cheap and shoddy mass-produced consumer goods, the movement advocated a back-to-basics approach, and a revival of traditional handicrafts.

The movement became known as Arts and Crafts.

In its first major exhibition of the season, the Victoria and Albert Museum presents International Arts and Crafts, a collection of over 300 Arts and Crafts objects gathered from private and public collections throughout the world. The show runs until July 24.

Shows a photograph of a brooch. It is square shaped and separated into sections with three columns of inlaid beads. Between each there is a silver flower design.

Josef Hoffman brooch. Austria, 1910. © Asenbaum Collection.

According to curator Karen Livingstone, this comprehensive exhibit is "the first to explore the design movement from a truly international perspective".

It charts the "profound, long-term effect" of the Arts and Crafts movement she said, as it influenced other countries and imparted an "improvement of everyday life through the home".

The collection is divided into four sections, covering Britain, America, Europe and Japan.

Shows a painting by John Duncan. It depicts what appear to be two angels flying above a sea bearing a female figure who is holding her hands together as if praying. Beside them there are two seagulls flying, while below them there is a seal swimming among the waves.

John Duncan, St.Bride, painting. Tempera on canvas. Britain, 1913. The National Gallery of Scotland. © Estate of John Duncan 2004. Courtesy of the Artist's Estate / Bridgeman Art Library.

Although it idealised country pursuits and a nostalgic return to a simpler way of life, the Arts and Crafts movement was commercially aware and urban-centred. In the British section of the collection, there are examples of how stores such as Liberty’s were instrumental in selling the new manufactured wares to a wider audience.

In Britain, the movement rescued fast-disappearing local traditions and revived craft skills and processes, such as enamelling and calligraphy. The collection includes a number of exquisite hand-printed volumes. There are also fine examples of textiles, jewellery, artwork, and the experimental ceramics known as Art Pottery.

Two room sets, one urban, one rural, demonstrate how Arts and Crafts furniture manufactured in Britain created a style that suggested refinement, as well as practicality and comfort.

When the Arts and Crafts movement spread to America, its cause was championed in The Craftsman magazine, published from 1901 to 1916 by Gustav Stickley.

Shows a photograph of a re-creation of a Craftsman room. The room contains various items of furniture, including armchairs and a table and chairs.

Re-creation of a Craftsman room based on drawings by Gustav Stickley. Design interpreted by Jo Hormuth, Chicago, for the V&A Museum, 2005. Furnishings (c. 1901-5) by Gustav Stickley. © Private collection.

One of the highlights of the exhibit’s American section is a reproduction of the interior of a living room in a typical Craftsman home. The room features a number of Stickley’s own furniture designs and an imposing table lamp by Tiffany.

Another highlight of the American section is a tribute to the Chicago-based Prairie School of architecture, featuring the radical, low-lying houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright as a direct rebuke to the monolithic skyscrapers of the period.

The Arts and Crafts movement developed across Russia, Scandinavia, Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire from 1880 to 1914, and drew upon the emerging theme of national identity.

Shows a photograph of an ornate silver cup. Highly polished it has the words Heal and Master raised out of it above a flower motif, which is repeated around its body. The top forms upwards into a point with semi-precious stones inlaid.

C.R. Ashbee, Painters and Stainers cup. Silver, set with semi-precious stones and enamelled decoration. Britain, 1900-1901. Made by the Guild of Handicraft. © V&A.

In the European section of the collection, a heavy wooden mock-throne chair by the Norwegian designer Lars Kinsarvik demonstrates how Scandinavian artists borrowed from Viking and medieval culture to revive the tradition of painted woodwork.

The fourth and final section of the exhibition highlights the most unusual manifestation of Arts and Crafts: the Mingei, or folk craft, movement of Japan.

Mingei, which flourished between 1926 and 1945 and had a major exponent in the English print-maker and potter Bernard Leach, promoted the idea that “humble goods could be beautiful”. Model rooms were created in Japan in an attempt to persuade the Japanese middle class to adapt a hybrid Japanese/Western style in their homes.

A striking example of this is the exhibit’s final set room, an interior reconstruction of two rooms in a traditional wooden house. First seen in a Tokyo exhibition in 1928, the set combines a Japanese reception room with a Western-style dining room.

Shows a photograph of a reconstruction of two rooms. One is a Japanese reception room, while the other is a western style dining room.

Mikuniso room set. © Morley von Sternberg.

This dramatic and at times bizarre East-meets-West design concept presented the Japanese with the notion of dining in heavy, baronial Western tradition, next door to an elegant, minimalist reception room which was completely Japanese in style.

This fascinating oddity contains the original pieces of furniture displayed in Tokyo in 1928, which were tracked down by the V&A especially for this exhibition.

Offering the visitor a definitive collection, ranging from simple folk objects to elegant and covetable showpieces, International Arts and Crafts traces both the evolution of the design movement and its legacy in the way we view objects in our homes today.

Dianne Cutlack is a freelance writer who can be contacted at jcutlack@compuserve.com.

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