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During the Industrial Revolution Britain became the world’s first industrial power. Most progressive artists and designers were appalled by the effects of industry. Many of them joined the Arts and Crafts movement, which is Britain’s most important contribution to the history of design. The leader of the Arts and Crafts movement was William Morris (1834-1896), who was a writer, designer and social reformer. A Utopian Socialist, Morris was a radical who questioned the values of his day.
To Morris, industry was both aesthetically and socially damaging. Firstly, he felt that machine-made goods were inferior to handcrafted products. Secondly, he believed that machine production reduced the worker to a slave and crushed artistic expression. So Morris felt that beauty and creativity were being destroyed by industry. His fundamental belief was that beauty should be available to everyone in the form of good design.
Morris built a house for himself at Bexleyheath in Kent. It was designed by his friend Phillip Webb and was known as the Red House (1859-60). This was the first Arts and Crafts building; this is where Morris’ ideas first took form. Morris was inspired by quaint English villages and vernacular buildings. These buildings weren’t designed by architects; they were built by craftsmen using local materials and traditions. In the age of industrialisation, this nostalgic picture of Olde England became very seductive.
The Red House tries to achieve this ideal. It’s not designed in any particular style. It’s a simple, honest house built of unpretentious red brick. The plan is completely informal - the rooms have been jumbled together for the convenience and comfort of the owner. This was a sharp contrast to Classical houses where the plan would be very formal and symmetrical. The design responds to local vernacular traditions – the house is in Kent so it quotes from the brick lime kilns that are part of the Kentish landscape. Overall, the design is very English and rustic. It represents a retreat from the harsh realities of the Industrial Revolution into a romantic vision of the English countryside.
In his design and writing Morris tried to correct the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution. He wanted to create a society that valued the worker and simple, honest craftsmanship. Very soon Morris gathered a following among young designers. This was the basis of the Arts and Crafts movement. Arts and Crafts designers found conventional Victorian tastes repulsive. They pioneered the idea of truth-to-materials: they used materials in a way that was appropriate to their properties. Wood has to be sawn and carven, metal has to be beaten into shape. For example, this is a vase by Charles Ashbee. The metalwork still shows the indentations of the hammer that shaped it – it has been left with this rough finish to show how the object was made. In the same way, woods were left with the natural grain, instead of being polished to perfection.
Members of the Arts and Crafts movement were opposed to the effects of industry, so to counteract them, they formed trade guilds, in the same way that medieval craftsmen had done. They hoped this would allow the worker to take pride in his craft. For example, Charles Ashbee set up a workshop called the Guild of Handicraft in the East End of London, but in 1902 he moved the whole workshop to the Cotswolds so that the workers could be in the countryside among rural traditions. Ashbee created a rural craft community as an escape from industrialisation.
Arts and Crafts designers felt that architecture should be based on materials and craft processes. Edward Prior (1857–1932) designed an Arts and Crafts house called The Barn at Exmouth in Devon (1896). In the late 19th century, English domestic architecture was the most admired in the world. The German scholar Hermann Muthesius published a book called Das Englische Haus (1904-5), which publicised this work in Europe. This building was reported in Muthesius’s book and gained considerable fame.
Prior designed a more spectacular house, Home Place, Kelling (1903-5) in Norfolk. This is one of the best Arts and Crafts houses. It was built on a radical plan that was informal and sprawling, but symmetrical. The materials were dug from the site. Prior used a combination of brick and rubble to create a rough texture.
It is often said that 'An Englishman's home is his castle'. In some cases this is literally true. Sir Edwin Lutyens was commissioned to redesign Lindisfarne Castle on the Northumberland coast. In 1901 the building was purchased by Edward Hudson, the owner of Country Life, a magazine for the upper classes. It features articles on English country houses and glorifies aristocratic life. Hudson commissioned Lutyens to refurbish the castle in an Arts and Crafts style.
The entrance hall is divided by heavy stone pillars evoking an ecclesiastic interior. The dark red-brown stone contrasts with the whitewashed plasterwork. The kitchen is spartan in design, but dominated by a large stone fireplace. In the scullery is a mechanism used to operate the portcullis. Throughout the castle, Lutyens used a variety of materials including stone, brick, slate and wood to create vivid colours and textures, signifying a rustic, modest life-style. The interiors are thoroughly homely and domestic, despite being housed in a castle.
The dining room lies within the remains of the Tudor fort. The vaulted roof is functional, supporting the gun battery above. A large chimney contains a bread-oven. In this room Lutyens used Gothic Revival traceried windows. The long gallery was created by Lutyens as an echo of the grand galleries in Elizabethan and Jacobean houses. The house is a superbly vernacular image, a fantasy of the Middle Ages recreated in the early 20th century.
Houses like this were for the elite, but suburban housing echoed these design precepts. Suburban development expanded after the First World War and new housing was built in quaint Arts and Crafts or Neo-Tudor styles. This is a 1920s housing estate in Harrow. The aesthetic was safe, comforting and nostalgic, qualities which define traditional English housing.