By  on March 25, 2005

LONDON — Victorian England may have been dominated by smokestacks, coal mines, steel mills — and one very prudish queen — but by 1880 there was romance in the air in the form of Britain’s Arts and Crafts Movement.

The movement, led by John Ruskin and William Morris, was a rebellion against all things uniform and machine-made, and a celebration of the individual craftsman and his special skills. It also embodied the belief that everyone, regardless of social class, should be able to buy beautiful designs for the home.

This was the first — and arguably only — British design movement to have such widespread influence. It reached as far as California and Japan, laid the foundations for the Bauhaus and Weimar schools of art and revived crafts such as lettering and calligraphy, enameling, mural decoration, woodworking and pottery.

“It was the high point of British design,” said Karen Livingstone, curator of International Arts and Crafts, an exhibition of furniture, textiles, jewelry, clothing and objects for the home, at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

“It was the only time when the rest of the world was looking to Britain for leadership in design,” said Livingstone, who spent three years organizing the show, which runs until July 24.

The British segment of the presentation features everything from a wooden oak cabinet painted with pastoral scenes from the English countryside, to wool and linen wall hangings embroidered with birds and flowers, to a William De Morgan earthenware vase covered with swirls and golden fish.

There is also a Charles Rennie Mackintosh writing desk made from ebonized mahogany and inlaid with mother-of-pearl and stained glass. Mackintosh, who became an architect and designer, was one of the most famous students of the Arts and Crafts Movement. He studied at the Glasgow School of Art, which was famous for its innovative embroidery techniques.

While the British pieces are whimsical, colorful and highly decorative, the American-made Arts and Crafts objects are spare, sober and more practical looking. There is a dark, globe-shaped Frank Lloyd Wright urn, a sturdy oak and leather armchair by George Washington Maher and a solid oak book cabinet with copper details by America’s Arts and Crafts granddaddy, Gustav Stickley.“The mood of each country was very different,’’ Livingstone said. “The Americans weren’t afraid to be commercial and make money with their Arts and Crafts designs. Stickley, one of the most influential designers and manufacturers of the period, had a solid grounding in business and trade, so of course his approach was different.” 

American Arts and Crafts fans also embraced the romance of the prairies and of Native American culture as evidenced in the silver, copper and turquoise bowl made by Tiffany & Co. around 1900 and the silver print photographs of canyons and landscapes of the American West.

The highlight of the show, however, has nothing to do with Britain or America, but rather with Japan. The V&A has re-created a Japanese home interior that was first seen in Tokyo at an exhibition in 1928 and until recently was thought to have been lost. A blend of Japanese and Western styles, it features a colorful tiled fireplace, wooden chairs fitted with cozy plaid cushions and straw matting for the floor.

Japan was the last country to embrace Arts and Crafts in a movement known as Mingei, or folk crafts, which flourished between 1926 and 1945. Also featured in the Japanese segment are a lacquered wood bowl and a stoneware plate with finger-wiped decoration. “The Mingei movement helped revive lacquer and metal working and textile stenciling,” Livingstone said. “What you see here is a very earthy side to Japan.”

By the time Arts and Crafts reached Japan, the movement was long dead in Britain. The outbreak of World War I closed the chapter, and paved the way for the generally more decorative Art Deco and Modernism.

“Arts and Crafts was about reform,” Livingstone said. “It was a profound, proselytizing movement that cared about the quality of craftsmanship. And its intention was philosophical — raise the level of design for all of society.”

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