Last fall, as an extension of our Makeshift initiative, we began a new series of events and conversations called On Design. The series explores art, design, makers, relationships, and the elevation of craft. Our conversation in January explored William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. Here are some of Natalie’s thoughts from the presentation. Feel free to share your own thoughts and join the conversation.
When I started the company that Alabama Chanin has become today, I had a vision for what I wanted to accomplish. At the time, I wouldn’t have identified that vision as a business model—but as the company expanded, I understood that I wanted to design and grow the business in a sustainable way. In a world of fast fashion, mass production, and machines, I wanted to design slowly and thoughtfully. I also wanted to promote skills that seemed to be vanishing, particularly hand-sewing skills—like those used by quilters.
It isn’t hard to connect the beginnings of Alabama Chanin to the Arts and Crafts Movement. This movement developed first (and most fully) in England, but eventually spread across the globe from Europe to North America. It stood for traditional craftsmanship using simple forms and often applied medieval, romantic, or folk styles of decoration. It advocated economic and social reform, and has been said to be essentially anti-industrial. Made-by-hand, by artisans…sound familiar?
At the helm of the movement was a designer, writer, craftsman, and Renaissance man named William Morris (who I’ve often quoted as saying, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to use, or believe to be beautiful.”).
At that moment in time, the world was reacting to The Industrial Revolution. Factories and machineries were booming throughout England. Mass-produced goods caught the attention of the public but William Morris feared that craftsmanship and style had lost their way and that widespread industrial development was slowly eradicating these traditional skills and artistry was being lost. Morris even described art as “man’s expression of his joy in labor” and his idea of “handicraft” was essentially work without any division of labor, rather than work without any sort of machinery.
In essence, the Arts and Crafts Movement was a reaction against the revolution. Those involved in the movement (artists, architects, designers, writers, craftsmen) produced handcrafted metalwork, jewelry, wallpaper, textiles, furniture, and books. These artists found that the movement combined their love of the Romantic literature of Tennyson, Keats, and Shelley with a commitment to social reform.
It of course had its critics—progressives who questioned its purpose, practicality, and validity in the modern world. Despite these opinions, the movement grew and captured the attention of those interested in design, worldwide. In Britain, the movement was most commonly associated with dress reform, ruralism, the garden city movement, and the folk-song revival; and in continental Europe with the preservation of national traditions in building, the applied arts, domestic design, and costume.
Morris believed that the “diligent study of Nature” was essential; he created because he wanted more beauty in the world. Simple as that. He believed that a designer should have a working knowledge of any media that he used. As a result, he spent a lot of time teaching himself a wide variety of techniques.
Many of the designs and patterns he produced are inspired by nature and feature flora and fauna imagery (and in turn, those designs have served as inspiration for many of Alabama Chanin’s stencils). With his textile designs, Morris revitalized many previously-norm techniques. He insisted on quality raw materials, natural dyes, and producing his designs by hand.
Perhaps ironically, though the Arts and Crafts Movement was initially against machine-made products, their designs eventually inspired a prolific amount of production. It should be noted that though the fundamental design approach remained the same, the genre of Arts and Crafts evolved over time, and is often referenced as a style of design, rather than a philosophy for production—as was initially intended. The movement spanned continents and remained popular for an extraordinarily long period of time from its origins in the 1880s through the 1910s—while its effects continue to be seen prolifically in modern day designs. In essence, the Movement was strongly active from 1880 through the 1930’s when the Art Deco style came into existence—a 50+ year span. And, you can purchase products from Arts and Crafts designers today, over 100 years from the movement’s beginnings.
Liberty of London still sells prints designed by Morris and you can also purchase Morris-designed home furnishing fabrics. The movement’s influence on homes and interiors resulted in villages of bungalow homes across the country. My own community still has several Arts and Crafts-inspired homes purchased directly from Sears and Roebuck and assembled upon delivery.
The Arts and Crafts Movement ultimately served as inspiration to the Bauhaus movement, which influenced my design school and my core method of education. Taking our lead from this movement, Alabama Chanin has always focused on craftwork and simplicity to create beautiful products made from quality materials. We want to elevate the craftsman and artisan, with respect to materials and traditions, and create conversations about these relationships through our Makeshift series. These tenets remain important to us from design and sustainability perspectives. And the current Maker’s Movement is directly related to this forerunner in its focus on returning the act of design to the craftsman.
We look forward to continuing our discussions on design and want to encourage makers of today to express themselves in their own design languages.
Books from Natalie’s personal library photographed by Abraham Rowe