The Effects Of The Industrial Revolution vs. Arts & Crafts Movement

The significant technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution changed production in Europe and North America. Find out how Arts and Crafts artists faced the competition of mass production with craftsmanship.

Jul 24, 2020By Marie-Madeleine Renauld, MA & BA Art History and Archaeology
william morris strawberry thief
Close-up of Strawberry Thief by William Morris, 1883, via Victoria & Albert Museum, London


The Industrial Revolution (also called the First Industrial Revolution) took off at the end of the 18th century and expanded during the 19th century into a second Industrial Revolution in Europe and North America. It was a time of transition marked by significant changes in society and industry. With technological and scientific advancements and new materials available, machines progressively replaced men in factories. It was possible to produce faster and cheaper merchandise, leading to mass production. These changes caused considerable questioning in art. What was the place of the artist or the craftsman if machines replaced them? The Arts and Crafts is an artistic movement that developed from these interrogations.


The Industrial Revolution And Architectural Advancement

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The Iron Bridge by Abraham Darby III, 1779, via Historic UK


Important 19th-century inventions such as the train or the telephone enabled a faster lifestyle. The technological changes induced by the Industrial Revolution also brought novelty to 19th-century architecture with increased iron production. It made it possible to build in a new way. Until then, monuments were built in stone, wood, or bricks. Yet, with the help of steam and water power engines, industries produced glass and iron at a large scale. These new materials contributed to raising higher and lighter buildings and to developing new architectural forms.


Architects initially used iron to strengthen walls and roofs, however always hidden inside stonework. The world’s first example of visible iron architecture is the Iron Bridge built in Shropshire, England, in 1779, by architect Thomas Farnolls Pritchard and ironmaster Abraham Darby. 


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The Crystal Palace by Joseph Paxton, 1851, via


Later, the use of iron became increasingly common in architecture. Train stations, bridges, factories, featured iron and glass structures. The Crystal Palace, built in Hyde Park for the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, is probably one of the best-known examples of Industrial Revolution architecture. The Crystal Palace’s scope was mainly symbolic, built halfway through the century of the Industrial Revolution. The Great Exhibition drew millions of visitors from all over the world who could admire the endless possibilities of glass and iron architecture. The palace, designed by Joseph Paxton, displayed the finest inventions of the Industrial Revolution for several months.

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An Opposition Between Art And Industry

south wales industrial landscape
South Wales Industrial Landscape by Penry Williams, 1825, via The National Library of Wales


Yet, not all advances of the Industrial Revolution were favorable to society. Countries, once mainly rural and agriculture-driven, evolved into urban nations. Rural communities seemed then outdated. While cities developed, the growing number of charcoal fueled factories hissed heavy smoke in the air, deteriorating the atmosphere. Several people, including artists and architects, chose to escape busy cities to move to the countryside. The Cotswolds School gathered artists wanting to live a simpler life. They relocated to a rural location in the Cotswolds and used traditional furniture-making hand techniques in their workshops.


Industrial progress went on. In 1845, T. B. Jordan invented the first wood-carving machine. Instead of long hours needed to carve decorative elements in wood, one man was enough to produce identical pieces of furniture quickly. This invention, and the use of low-cost materials, made it possible to manufacture cheaper furniture on a large scale. High-street shops displayed plenty of those ready-made furniture pieces, and custom-made production became scarce. As machines replaced men and handwork, the quality of craftsmanship and the decorative arts declined. Several skilled artisans lost their position.


During the second half of the 19th-century, some leading British personalities rose against the impoverishment of craftsmanship. John Ruskin, a writer and art expert, and William Morris, a designer, poet, and novelist, criticized the low quality work produced by mechanized production. This resistance led to the birth of the Arts and Crafts movement.


The Arts And Crafts Movement: Origins And Characteristics

wightwick manor
Wightwick Manor by Edward Ould, 1887-1893, via UK National Trust Images


The Arts and Crafts movement developed in Britain in the 1860s onwards, and is named after the “Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society.” Created in 1887, the society aimed to promote handicrafts and the decorative arts. It encouraged handwork over industrial work.


Arts and Crafts artists drew inspiration from medieval times, a time they believed to be an example for honest craftsmanship. They used and adapted medieval decorative elements to create not mere copies of older pieces, but simpler designs with modern lines. Geometrically shaped furniture pieces displayed little decorative elements. Mortise and tenon joineries that used to be hidden were now highlighted. Craftsman left tool marks in wood or stone, as proof of handwork. Some of the Arts and Crafts decorators were also architects, enabling them to have a global vision of their work.


Other influences of the Arts and Crafts movement come from vernacular traditions and the import of wares from Asian countries. Japanese engravings served as wrapping paper and soon attracted the artists’ interest.


Although originating from Britain, the Arts and Crafts influence widely spread across Europe and North America.


Arts And Crafts In Europe

william morris ascanthus
William Morris by Sir Emery Walker, 1880, National Portrait Gallery London (left), with Acanthus wallpaper by William Morris, 1875, Victoria & Albert Museum London (right)


Considered today as the Father of the Arts and Crafts, William Morris contributed to the development of this new artistic movement in Britain. In 1861, William Morris and some friends founded the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. This firm produced high-quality, handmade furniture, textiles, books, and wallpapers. Its fabric and wallpaper designs are still well-known today. Morris emphasized the necessity to manufacture both useful and beautiful objects. Like other Arts and Crafts artists who were also architects, Morris created his designs as entities. It included objects, wallpapers, and pieces of furniture, as well as the architecture of the building itself.


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The Red House by William Morris and Philip Webb, 1860, via UK National Trust Images


In the late 1850s, William Morris and architect Philip Webb, his chief furniture designer, joined efforts to design the Red House. This Arts and Crafts family house located near London inspired future works. Morris used this project to develop and apply his theories to create suitable dwellings for the working class. Unlike gothic revival movement architects, he did not adopt medieval forms and ornaments to imitate the past but to serve the needs of his time. This rupture with the tradition constitutes a decisive revolution in the way architects and artists envisioned their work.


British Arts and Crafts architects and designers gathered in societies like medieval craftsmen guilds. Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo created in 1883 the Century Guild of Artists, which inspired the creation of many others. The Art Workers’ Guild, for example, reunited architects, artists, and designers to elaborate unified ensembles.


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Carl Larsson House Interior by Carl and Karin Larsson, 1888, via Carl Larsson House Sweden


The Arts and Crafts movement developed later through the rest of Europe, adapting as it met local traditions. Yet the foundations of the movement remained and led to a sharp turn in European taste. Artists stopped solely imitating antique styles in their works. Nations rediscovered and glorified vernacular styles. Designers, for example, used Celtic patterns in Ireland and Viking inspirations in Scandinavia. These adaptations led to regional styles and the various forms of the Art Nouveau movement.


The United States: Merging Arts And Crafts And Industry

gamble house interior
Gamble House Interior by Charles Greene and Henry Greene, 1908, via Alta Online


From the end of the 18th century onward, Britain and other European countries such as France, Belgium, and Switzerland experienced the First Industrial Revolution. The United States underwent those tremendous changes a few decades later. Also known as the Second Industrial Revolution, this period started in the second half of the 19th century.


Around 1870-80, the Arts and Crafts movement reached and widely spread throughout the United States. The first exhibition of this new style in Boston in 1897 contributed to its growth in North America. The movement flourished between 1900 and 1925. American artists reinterpreted the style in their own way and adopted an opposite attitude towards mechanized work. They designed robust and rustic pieces of furniture using local materials such as oak. The use of machines to cut wood and carve decorative elements enabled them to associate aesthetic designs at an affordable price. The alliance of Arts and Crafts philosophy and the use of the Industrial Revolution contributions allowed a large diffusion of their work.


adjustable back chair
Adjustable-back chair, No. 2342 by Gustav Stickley, 1905, via Museum of Fine Arts Boston


Gustav Stickley is an important representative of the Arts and Crafts movement in the United States. Stickley was an American furniture designer and maker known to have associated the Arts and Crafts style with rural furniture. It is called the ‘Mission-style’ as it resembles simple furniture pieces of Spanish missions in California. After learning furniture-making craft in his uncle’s factory and a tour in Europe where he discovered Arts and Crafts designs, he opened his own furniture factory: the Craftsman Workshops.


Stickley drew inspiration from the designs of William Morris. He used American white oak for his designs, magnified by a light stain to accentuate the wood grain. The adjustable-back chair is a fine example of his work. He conceived it as a comfortable and sturdy chair, using handmade techniques as well as electrical and steam engines to prepare the wood before hand-finishing. In 1901, Stickley launched The Craftsman, an illustrated monthly magazine printed to promote his work and his beliefs regarding furniture production. The magazine helped to circulate the importance of the craftsman status.


Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the founders of modern architecture, fully developed the Arts and Crafts philosophy in association with industrial techniques. In his publication “The Art and Craft of the Machine” (1901), Wright advocates the advantages of machine work for the future of arts and crafts. He believes the machine capable of serving the arts’ ideals.


Legacy Of The Industrial Revolution And Arts And Crafts 

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Dining Table and Six Side Chairs by Frank Lloyd Wright, 1907-1910, via Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago


The Arts and Crafts movement as it developed in Britain could not durably trump technical and social advances of the industrial era. Arts and Crafts furniture proved to be too expensive for average families to buy, making a large scale diffusion impossible. However, the movement contributed to creating public awareness of the appreciation of authentic and handmade crafts. Ironically, the fashionable Arts and Crafts designs became an inspiration for mechanized, mass-produced furniture pieces. Liberty, the still renowned London store, produced from 1883 in his workshops affordable furniture inspired by Arts and Crafts designs.


In the United States, we have seen that designers and furniture makers adopted a more inclined position towards the Industrial Revolution’s technical advances. They tried to take advantage of machine work to simplify materials preparation, then manually finishing the job. This approach enabled them to produce cheaper, yet good quality objects and to diffuse their work.


Several characteristics of Arts and Crafts designs inspired later styles: simplicity of the form, adequation with the function. Arts and Crafts philosophy constitute the premises of several 20th-century artistic movements, from the Art Nouveau movement to Modernism.

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By Marie-Madeleine RenauldMA & BA Art History and ArchaeologyMarie-Madeleine is a contributing writer and antique furniture restorer. She holds an MA and BA in Art History and Archaeology from the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL), Belgium. She also followed training in antique furniture restoration. In her free time, she enjoys creative activities, and hiking through the Swiss mountains where she now lives.