Arts & Crafts: Europe 1890-1914
Across Europe, the Arts and Crafts Movement saw a revival of traditional techniques and materials and the creation of new forms that were both ageless and innovative.
Arts and Crafts ideals developed in a number of regions, including Russia, Scandinavia, Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In a period of political and social turmoil, the decorative arts were an area in which ideas of national identity, social organisation and life in an industrial society could be explored.
However, the level to which Arts and Crafts practices, in particular attitudes to industrial manufacture, were fully accepted or merely adapted was very varied. In the less industrialised regions of Europe nationalism was a more compelling factor.
As in Britain and America, the homes designed and built by artists and architects for their own use were proof of the idea that the home, as well as life within it, could become a work of art. These houses drew on national and local traditions, celebrated individual expression and provided an ideal of domesticity.
As capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Vienna held an elite position. It was a great cultural and intellectual centre, at the forefront of developments in music, psychology, the natural sciences and the visual arts.
The role of patron, more often associated with the aristocracy, was assumed by the wealthy uppermiddle class. New design reflected the sophisticated, avant-garde mood of both designers and patrons, but also benefited from the Viennese tradition of fine craftsmanship.
In 1897 progressive artists in the city turned their backs on the art establishment and joined together to form 'Secession' exhibition groups. They connected with the latest artistic developments abroad and invited artists from France, Belgium, England and Scotland to take part in the eighth Vienna Secession in 1900. The unity of arts and crafts was a constant theme and in 1903 Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser and Otto Wagner founded the Wiener Werkstätte for the production of well designed objects for the home.
In 1903 Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser founded the Wiener Werkstätte. Modelling it on C.R. Ashbee's Guild of Handicraft, which Hoffmann had visited,they set out to improve domestic design and promote a closer relationship between the patron, designer and maker. The Werkstätte produced metalwork, furniture, glass, ceramics and textiles, and it undertook two major collaborative projects for buildings and interiors.The modern geometric style of many of their designs was influenced by Japanese art and the work of the Glasgow designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
Scandanavia and Central Europe
Unlike Britain, large parts of Europe remained rural economies with little industrial development. Consequently, the key concerns that shaped the Arts and Crafts Movement in Hungary, Russia and Scandinavia were very different.
In the Scandinavian countries greater political independence created a sense of nationalism and a need for a new cultural identity. In Central Europe, severe social deprivation co-existed with a desire to preserve the many local cultures. This led to the rediscovery of peasant and vernacular architecture, as well as folk art, music and literature.
Designers, even in physically remote countries like Finland and Norway, were able to follow developments in Britain and mainstream Europe. The Arts and Crafts models of tradition and innovation provided a framework in which individuals or small workshops could create new and distinctive work. This revival and survival of traditional handicrafts, however, still relied on the patronage of the upper-middle classes.
It was in Germany that the relationship between art, craft and industry was perhaps most successfully worked out. Companies, workshops and art schools explored the design and manufacture of good quality, everyday goods as a means of boosting local economies, as well as achieving social reform and lifting the status of the decorative arts.
Artist's colonies such as the one at Darmstadt were founded on the model of British groups such as the Guild of Handicraft. They too shared common views on materials and craftsmanship and aimed to elevate the status of the decorative arts.
However, the British model was thought to be too anti-industrial in spirit. In Germany it was legitimate to use technology as a means of achieving efficient production, so long as quality was maintained in the end product. In retrospect, the German interpretation of Arts and Crafts proved to be one of the most long-lasting and influential.
This content was originally written in association with the exhibition 'International Arts and Crafts', on display at the V&A South Kensington from 17 March - 24 July 2005.