Human/Nature: The British Roots of Arts and Crafts

Human/Nature: The British Roots of Arts and Crafts

[originally posted March 2021]

Raskin Craftsman Cover


If there were any doubt as to who set Gustav Stickley on the Arts and Crafts path, the very first issues of his Craftsman magazine provide the answer. The premiere issue is dedicated entirely to the great English artist, artisan, and poet William Morris (1834 – 1896), while the second celebrates the art critic and intellectual, John Ruskin (1819 – 1900), whose ideas set the movement in motion.


Nature, art, and society

Both men came from wealthy families, and money and education gave them wide

exposure to art, culture, and the changes that were
underway in Victorian England in the mid-19th century. While specifically concerned with the “connections between nature, art, and society”, Ruskin became a committed social critic who saw moral dangers in the growing Industrial Revolution.

He feared that the division of labor in factory work separated the designer from the maker. Ruskin’s objection wasn’t to the use of machinery to aid production, but rather to the factory worker’s dehumanizing loss of dignity and loss of the ownership of his craft.


Master craftsman

Morris Craftsman

William Morris embraced Ruskin’s views and set about putting his philosophy into practice. As factories disempowered the worker and quashed any sense of creative fulfilment, Morris undertook the opposite experience, personally studying and mastering as many types of art and design as he could. He also saw a decline in the quality of English decorative arts as a direct result of Victorian industrialization, and he was determined to reverse that trend. With a close circle of like-minded friends and artists, he established Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company, a sort of artists’ collective that jointly produced decorative objects for the home and for churches.


 Back to nature
By the 1860s, Morris began producing the work that made his reputation as a designer. With the aim of reconnecting the human with nature, he created wallpapers, tapestries, textiles, carpets, and ceramic tiles that brought the natural world vividly to life within the home. His richly colored organic patterns, combined with simple, honest furniture forms, defined the English Arts and Crafts movement—and made a profound impact on young Gustav Stickley in America.


Morris, Woodpecker Tapestry | Morris, Acanthus Wallpaper |Morris, Trellis Wallpaper

 The view north

In addition to Morris and Ruskin, other Brits came to impact Stickley’s approach to furniture design, most notably the Scots architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868 – 1928) and his artist wife, Margaret MacDonald (1864 – 1933).

Mackintosh and MacDonald were part of a burgeoning movement known as the Glasgow School, or Scottish Arts and Crafts. While sharing the English emphasis on simplicity and nature, the Scots were further influenced by Japanese art and Art Nouveau design. The Glasgow School embraced a more decorative, modernist style—seen in Charles’s exaggerated, pierced chair backs and lighting fixtures and in Margaret’s fanciful painted panels—that almost certainly caught the eye of Stickley designers like Harvey Ellis, whose style shows a very similar spirit


  Glasglow Chair  

  Willow Tea Rooms, Glasgow |  Mackintosh Centre, The Lighthouse, Glasgow | MacDonald, White Rose and Red  

 Today’s tributes

The impact of British Arts and Crafts on Stickley is evident from the earliest Gustav and Leopold designs to the present day. Stickley’s adaptation of the Morris Chairwhile very much in the clean, unembellished American Arts and Crafts style, is undoubtedly an homage to William Morris, as are a number of hand-knotted rug designs inspired by his textiles and wallpaper patterns, including the new Curling Vine.

Gus Bow Arm  Morris Lily Rug  Bungalow Garden

Highlands Trestle Table, Mackintosh Side Chair

As for the Scots, the Highlands Collection and Mackintosh Dining Chairs incorporate Mackintosh’s iconic pierced details and modern, elongated proportions, and rugs like WindyhillGlasgow, and the new Rennie Tulip owe their inspiration to Charles and Margaret’s unmistakable, imaginative style.


Highlands Trestle Table, Mackintosh Side Chair


 While the two movements diverged in certain ways, a shared devotion to authentic craftsmanship and the embrace of nature means that British and American Arts and Crafts, even today, live beautifully side by side.

Additional sources:

“Introducing William Morris,” The Victoria and Albert Museum

“John Ruskin,” The Tate Museum`

“The Scottish Arts and Crafts Movement”

“William Morris”