Arts & Crafts Interiors The First Comfortable House
The Arts & Crafts period produced the first truly comfortable houses that regular people could afford1. They were well lighted, ventilated, heated, and pleasantly decorated, with the ultimate convenience of indoor plumbing. The paradox of the period is that this level of modern comfort was made possible by the very thing that Arts & Crafts idealists despised — urban industrial mass production.
The virtues of village living where skilled artisans created beautiful things in small, human scale, craft shops using hand tools and traditional methods of one-of-a-kind manufacture might have been the heart of the Arts & Crafts philosophy but these notions, appealing as they might have been, were already woefully outdated and wildly impractical even as the Arts & Crafts movement began in the late 1800s. The simple fact was that as early as the middle of the 1850s the populations of Europe and North America had completely outstripped the ability of pre-industrial communities of crafts shops and small-plot farmers to keep them fed, clothed and housed.
The Voices of Arts & Crafts Design
So, the Arts & Crafts reality was never a society of crafts shops and skilled partisans but a world of growing industrialization, and it was the mass production of goods of all kinds that made the comfortable life of the Arts & Crafts period possible. Still, the ideas and theories advanced by the Arts & Crafts community had a major impact on design from preferred forms to desirable materials, and many of the design theories developed during the Arts & Crafts period have continued to influence us well into the 21st century.
The Roycroft Community
To show the viability of their ideals, Arts & Crafts purists founded communities where their philosophy was put into practice. All of them failed.
These utopians, like the counter-culture Hippies of the 1960s and '70s, greatly underestimated the complexities of living a simple, communal life and overestimated their ability to survive on the proceeds of hand-crafted work. The fact is, even before the start of the Arts & Crafts period, industrialization had all but eliminated the possibility of earning a living through handcrafting. The communities that endured for a time, such as the Roycroft Community near Buffalo, New York, survived because they were heavily subsidized or adopted, at least in part, industrial techniques and mass marketing, or both.
The Roycroft Press, for example, was considered one of the most modern in the region, and its print shop made liberal use of mass production techniques. The community's excellent and high-quality furniture craft products were promoted nationally by the community's founder, Elbert Hubbard, through an up-to-date and very successful catalog marketing campaign. The community even printed its own magazine to promote its ideals and products.
Roycroft's first catalog, published in 1901, promised one-of-a-kind handcrafted furnishings but its more than 400 employees rather quickly adopted machine-based techniques to save time and cost in order to compete with the mass merchandisers. For a time, the community even sold its furniture through Sears, Roebuck & Co. Elbert Hubbard died in the sinking of the RMS Lusitania by a German U-boat in 1915. After Elbert's death, his son took over management of the community and kept it alive until 1938 when it was forced to close. The community's Roycroft Campus survives, however, and today has been restored by the Roycroft Campus Corporation. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Roycroft's demise was due in part of a shift in American tastes away from simple Arts & Crafts forms starting about 1920 but also because its hand-crafted furnishings could not compete in the marketplace. The shop-crafted, hand-made products of Arts & Crafts communities were expensive. Most people could not afford them. What they could afford, however, and what they bought in great quantities, were similar products, sometimes outright knock-offs, made in mass-production factories. Many of these large factories used marketing techniques to create the illusion that they were not really factories but large scale craft shops. They were, in fact, factories. Sometimes very nice, open, airy factories but factories nevertheless.
Gustav Stickley and The Craftsman Style
The most influential and prolific of the period furniture designers was Gustav Stickley. His simple, geometric furniture designs from 1900 to 1916 defined the "American Craftsman" furniture style and are now considered American classics, fetching astronomical prices on the antique market. But, his Syracuse, N.Y. facility, which he called the "Craftsman Workshops" did not remotely live up to the Arts & Crafts ideal. They were a factory, well equipped with every industrial woodworking tool known to the time.
The company's insurance inventory for 1910 (housed at the Winterhur Museum and Library in Wilmington, Del.), for example, listed power lathes, heavy spindle shapers, horizontal boring machines, chair presses, grinders, a number of band and table saws, mortisers, dovetailing machines, tenoners and post borers as well as drive belts, pulleys and power shafts that alone were worth thousands of (1910) dollars.
The notion that a skilled Stickley artisan patiently crafted mortise joints with an artfully wielded hand chisel is pure myth. Stickley workers were usually paid by the piece, not by the hour, and they were in a hurry. The reality was that the mortise was stamped out in one pass on a powered industrial mortiser, much as it would be today.
L. & J. G. Stickley
Gustav Stickley's American Craftsman style greatly influenced furniture makers of the time, including his brothers, Leopold and John George who's L. & J.G. Stickley company manufactured Craftsman furniture in their fully industrialized and heavily mechanized Onondaga Shops near Syracuse, N.Y. Their first catalog published in 1910 emulated Gustav's designs. These were not direct copies but adopted the same principles of structural and material honesty. Typically the L. & J.G. Stickley designs were less ponderous, and more refined than the American Craftsman furniture produced by Gustav.
L. & J.G. Stickley is still in business but no longer associated with the Stickley family. It was rescued from dissolution by long-time Stickley associate, Alfred Audi, with his purchase of the factory from the last surviving Stickley widow, and is now owned and operated by the Audi family which still makes most of the original L. & J.G. designs as well as some of Gustav's furniture and a line of modern furnishings.
Charles Limbert, Dutch Arts & Crafts
Charles Limbert started his Arts & Crafts furniture factory in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1902. Like the manufactories operated by the Stickleys, the Limbert shops were not even close to the Arts & Crafts small shop ideal but a large, fully mechanized production center for mass-producing fine furnishings.
Although a contemporary of the Stickleys and producing somewhat of the same type of furnishings, Limbert refused to call his designs "Craftsman", insisting that they were "Dutch Arts & Crafts" and derived from traditional Dutch folk furniture The designs are similar to the Stickley creations, generally not as well proportioned but visually more interesting and less severe with frequent embellishments, particularly cut-outs, influenced by Dutch design but also by famous Arts & Crafts designers from the British Isles, notably Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
Limbert's designs, being less emblematic of the classic Craftsman style associated with the Stickleys, have not withstood the judgment of history as well as the Stickley designs. While there are avid Limbert collectors, his pieces do not bring the astronomical prices in contemporary auctions that one commonly sees associated with Stickley sales. The possible exceptions are his well-designed and crafted small tables which have almost become Arts & Crafts icons.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Hebridean Art Nouveau
Unlike his contemporaries, he never owned a furniture factory through which his designs could be given expression, so they were very limited, and his style did not become widely popular until after his death in 1928. But, his influence on design, particularly in Europe, persists today. He regained the attention of the design world in 1997 after a major retrospective of his work at the Metropolitan Museau of Art in New York.
Today, major Mackintosh works sell for substantial sums, and his style is enjoying somewhat of a resurgence, especially in the design of cabinet hardware. Almost all major decorative hardware manufacturers now show a "Mackintosh Collection", none of which was designed by Mackintosh but which reflect his style and vision.
The Greenes and the Halls, Ultimate Bungalows
None of the above should suggest that fine craftsmanship disappeared from America as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Given the right environment, it not only survived but thrived, and advanced to levels not previously possible due to the introduction of powered shop machinery.
One such environment was created by the architectural firm of Greene & Greene in Southern California at the turn of the 20th century. Charles & Henry Greene started their architectural practice in 1894 in Pasadena, then a rural resort community for the very wealthy, moving it to Los Angeles in 1903. Their "ultimate bungalow" houses bore little resemblance to the everyday bungalow of Main Street but were luxury mansions in the Arts & Crafts style created primarily between 1905 and 1910 and costing as much as 20 times the price of an average house. Their work captured national attention after it was featured in Good Housekeeping in 1906.
The furniture was built by the brothers John and Peter Hall. Both were master cabinetmakers, and their shop worked in close collaboration with the Greenes to carefully craft the Greenes' unique furniture visions. The shop was well-equipped with stationary power tools which relieved its craftsmen of the drudgery of simple shop tasks, formerly done manually, and allowed them to turn their creative energies to the intricate handwork often required to build the Greenes' striking designs. The result was some of the finest craftsmanship ever seen and the development of novel woodworking techniques still used in fine cabinetmaking today.
The Greenes admired the work of Gustav Stickley and kept a file of clippings from Stickley's Craftsman magazine from which to draw ideas and inspiration. Their pre-1905 furniture designs closely followed the Stickley Craftsman style. But, over time the Greenes introduced oriental themes into their furniture, rounding over edges to soften the rigid Craftsman look, and adding Oriental elements including cloud-lift rails adopted from Chinese traditional design. By 1910, their furnishings bore little of the elements of the Craftsman style except for the exposed (cabinetmakers say "expressed") joinery characteristic of Stickley furniture.
After 1910 the era of the "ultimate bungalow" and one of the most creative partnerships of furniture design history came to a close. The firm of Greene & Green designed only one or two "ultimate" houses thereafter and was soon dissolved. Charles Greene moved to Carmel to pursue his love of painting. Henry Green became a local architect in Los Angeles. The Halls maintained themselves by building articles of redwood for the retail market with an occasional commission from Henry but after their shop burned in 1920, did not bother to rebuild. Both worked various jobs in southern California as carpenters and cabinetmakers until retirement.
Defining Elements of Arts & Crafts Interior Design.
The hand-crafted furniture and appointments produced in the Hall Brothers workshops were, of course, very expensive, and far out of reach of the average homeowner. For most householders of the period, the furniture that was within his means was mass-produced in factories.
Much of it was excellent furniture — stylish and very well made — but by no means the product of the small craft shop ideal of the Arts & Crafts fundamentalist. So, while social philosophers and moral critics bemoaned the evil effects of industrial mechanization, homeowners and their builders enthusiastically embraced it, and the increasing prosperity it produced, to build, furnish and decorate the period homes of the middle class.
Homeowners were also quick to adopt the new home technologies that industrialization was making possible —central heating and hot water systems; mechanical refrigeration, electric lighting, and indoor plumbing allowed Arts & Crafts homeowners of modest means more personal luxury than even the richest kings of lore and legend. The Arts & Crafts period saw the first truly modern homes with most of the comforts and conveniences that we take for granted today.
Openness, Light and Horizontal Lines
The defining characteristics of Arts & Crafts interiors are openness, light, emphatic horizontal lines, handsome, high-quality materials and lots of glass-, stone-, tile- and wood-work.
Gustav Stickley (1858-1942)
One of eleven children of a German immigrant, Gustav Stickley was a very astute businessman but also a true idealist and a firm believer in the Arts & Crafts ethic of a simple life surrounded by useful and beautiful things.
His starkly simple geometric "New Furniture" designs defined not just the American Craftsman furniture style but how the houses of the period were decorated and appointed. The classic Craftsman Interior with extensive, plain woodwork and simple but beautiful materials throughout is the product of his intention to create an interior that was a fit setting for his furniture.
He believed that well-designed and well-crafted surroundings would make life better through "perfect simplicity". His furniture reflected his ideals of honesty in construction, and truth to the materials. The plain surfaces of his wood furniture were devoid of carvings, moldings, and other embellishments and relied solely on the character and beauty of the finished wood itself for decoration. Mortise and tenon joinery was exposed to showcase the structural quality of the work. His furniture company, Craftsman Workshops, was very successful, eventually becoming a national force with showrooms in New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C.
To showcase his designs but also to give voice to his his ideas for better living, he began publishing his own magazine, the Craftsman, in 1901. It featured furniture designs and house plans, poetry, biographies, and current events as well as articles on decorating, organization, ideas for better living, and social philosophy (some would say "socialist" philosophy). The magazine greatly influenced public taste and perceptions of beauty but it had even more impact on American design professionals, becoming the voice of the entire generation of Arts & Crafts designers that followed Stickley's ideals.
Today, Stickley and his work have once again become popular. His furniture, particularly his early furniture designs produced between 1901 and 1904, have become collectibles selling for as much as a half-million dollars. Excellent reproductions of his furniture are available from a number of furniture shops, for a lot less.
For more information about our heirloom quality, Stickley-inspired furniture designs for your Arts & Crafts home, please contact us.
The layout of an Arts & Craft interior was largely dictated by common sense and a drive for simplicity. Interiors featured an open floor plan of airy rooms with simple surfaces of plaster and wood. Living and dining "rooms" are often divided by low wood and glass partitions rather than walls. This created what was later to be called a "great room", an icon of 1970's and 1980s open architecture, with long site lines that created the illusion that the house was larger than it actually was. It is not uncommon to be able to see completely through an Arts & Crafts house from front to back.
Beamed ceilings and simple wainscots are typically seen in living and dining rooms. Art glass might be used throughout the interior in dividers and cabinet doors — more common in architect-designed houses than in builder-designed or kit houses. (But, some kit houses were an exception. Several Sears kit homes came complete with doors and interior dividers featuring art glass.) The front door or a window facing the front of the house would typically be glazed with a stained glass artwork of some kind.
Much of the furnishing in an Arts & Crafts house was built in. Extensive use of built-ins meant that very little furniture was needed in an Arts & Crafts home. Less furniture contributed to the open, uncluttered, airy look of the house.
Built-in wardrobes with drawers and hanging clothes cabinets in bedrooms eliminated the need for chests of drawers and bureaus. The only furniture needed in the bedroom was the actual bed — and not even that if a fold-up "Murphy" bed was built into the wall.
Living rooms usually featured bookcases and benches alongside the fireplace, wall lamps to illuminate sitting areas and settles or benches built into alcoves. Window seats, bookcases, writing desks, liquor, and cigar cabinets, small alcoves for firewood storage, and even a fold-up bed for guests were common features.
The divider that separated the living and dining rooms sometimes included bookshelves, a small desk and storage cabinets below. A well-appointed dining room invariably featured a sideboard, buffet or china cabinet integrated into the woodwork. Some buffets had legs in front to simulate a free-standing cabinet but were firmly attached to the wall in back.
Linen cabinets were built into hallways and medicine cabinets and shelves for toiletries in bathrooms. Ironing boards folded into wall niches in the kitchen, with a nook for the iron. Telephones occupied their own recesses, with a convenient slot for the telephone directory. A breakfast nook, with two bench seats and a table, was often built into one corner of the kitchen. Drawers and cupboards were commonly built-in under the stairs.
In larger houses, separate libraries and dens might not only contain built-in bookcases, desks and window seating but also a fold-up bed to convert the room to a guest bedroom.
The health and hygiene movement sweeping the era encouraged built-ins. Built-in furnishings were thought to be more sanitary since dust could not collect beneath them. Fold up beds permitted bedding to be hung so it could be "aired", which was thought to contribute to good health.
Many built-ins were built in place by the finish carpenters who also built the house's kitchen cabinets and hung its windows and doors.
Detailed plans for built-in furnishings of all types were available from sources such as architect William A. Radford, publisher of American Builder magazine, who distributed them free of charge to builders, lumber yards and potential homeowners. The designs were widely adopted by Arts & Crafts builders and built into thousands of period homes.
(Many complete issues of American Builder Magazine can be found at Google Books. Dozens of Radford house plans are still available at Antique Home Style.)
But, as time went on, this fairly leisurely process largely gave way to pre-fabricated built-ins available from catalogs published by local and national millwork and cabinet companies — usually not only more refined pieces but also quicker to install by less skillful labor. Almost anything wooden that could be built into a house was available: linen cases, medicine cabinets, kitchen cupboards, wardrobes, bookcases, fireplace surrounds and mantels, sideboards, kitchen dressers, even whole breakfast nooks complete with bench seating.
Unfortunately, after the 2nd World War much of it was destroyed in ill-advised "renovations". Some survives in attics and garages, and if we can find it we have no hesitation in restoring it. Otherwise, we have to suss out what if probably looked like, and rebuild it. Fortunately, in our little part of the world, most Arts & Crafts period housing was built by the same four or five guys who used the same built-ins over and over.
Earthy, Natural Color Palette
Period color schemes returned to the earthy, natural pigments of an earlier age. Prior to the 1850s, virtually all pigments were derived from natural, mostly mineral, sources. But, in 1856 William Perkin accidentally discovered the first chemical color, mauveine or aniline purple (which today we call mauve). His discovery was quickly followed by a hoard of other inexpensive, chemically-derived colors, which the delighted Victorians used abundantly in elaborately painted houses and many-colored wallpapers and fabrics.
Furniture and interior woodwork was typically oak and dark. Gustav Stickley was well known for his fumed finishes on white oak in which the surface of the wood is chemically altered to make it very dark — almost black. Other native woods such as American elm, walnut and cherry were also used. American or black cherry was favored in the East, where it is abundant, and walnut on the West Coast. Modern reproductions of Arts & Crafts furnishings commonly avoid the very dark oak look in favor of a lighter finish.
Architects often specified the color scheme and incorporated colors into the final plaster coat of walls and ceiling using a calcimine tint rather than paint. (Learn step by step how to repair and add tint to your plaster walls at How to Fix Loose Plaster.) In addition, final plaster coats often contained sand to give them a rough coat to better reflect light and to discourage wallpaper, a Victorian holdover that many designers disliked.
Arts & Crafts Wallpaper
But, the use of wallpaper persisted, tapering off only at the very end of the Arts & Crafts era. Part of the reason for the tenacity of wallpaper is that there was so much beautiful wallpaper available. And, it was affordable beauty — another instance of the triumph of Yankee pragmatism over the moral philosophy of the Arts & Crafts purists.
The Seven Parts of a Tripartite Wall
The tripartite wall is divided into three horizontal sections: the frieze at the top, the fill or field in the middle and the dado at the bottom. This division greatly enhances the horizontal aspect of a room, and was one of the design devices used by Victorian and Arts & Crafts architects to make period houses seem larger.
The table below lists the most common names of the various wall parts. There are others. We are interested in what these elements are called in your part of the country. contact us and let us know.
Picture Rail or Frieze Border
Field or Fill
Chair Rail, Dado Border or Cap rail
Dado or Wainscot
The frieze and border patterns used in this illustration are available from Bradbury & Bradbury.
Arts & Crafts palettes avoided the bright, synthetic, primary and secondary colors of the early Industrial Age, favoring a muted pre-industrial palette of earth-tone tertiary colors: yellow became ochre, red appeared as terra cotta or clay and green was represented by olive. Bright colors, if used at all, were used sparingly and as highlights. Blue was rarely used but if used was on the gray side of true blue.
Decorative wallpaper was meant to be a cottage craft in which artists manually stenciled their designs onto hand laid paper or, worst case, block printed designs using pre-industrial, hand-operated screw presses similar to those used by Ben Franklin.
But, in fact, most Arts & Crafts wallpaper was printed on huge, powered, roller presses. Had it not been, middle-class homeowners would not have been able to afford it. Powered rotary printing drove down the cost of wallpaper, sometimes to less than that of paint. Even diehard fabric and wallpaper artist/designer, William Morris, a founder and moral philosopher of the Arts & Crafts movement, eventually adopted roller press technology for his later, more complex, multi-colored designs to meet stiff price competition.
Wallpaper was also practical. Wet plaster walls could not be painted for up to a year after a house was built but wallpaper could be applied almost immediately.
Period builders often used chemical treatments to color woodwork. Oak and other woods containing tanic acid such as chestnut, cherry and walnut can be darkened by exposure to ammonia fumes. Woodwork could be fumed after it was installed by placing bowls of ammonia hydroxide throughout the house and waiting 12 to 72 hours. (This is very dangerous — don't try it.) This resulted in very uniform and very inexpensive coloring because virtually no labor was involved. After coloring, the wood was varnished.
Someone may have painted over these original finishes. Fortunately, the paint is relatively easy to remove, and it usually should be removed to reveal the beautiful, first-growth, hardwood underneath.
Arts & Crafts Moldings and The Tripartite Wall
Elaborate moldings are not a feature of the Arts & Crafts house. Moldings were plain, without the complex, decorative profiling of the Victorian era but of heavy, handsome, well-figured wood. White oak was the wood most commonly used, especially in the Mid-West, followed by red oak, elm, ash, and chestnut.
Cherry was popular on the East Coast and Douglas Fir in California, reflecting the hardwoods abundant in those parts of the country. Except in kitchens and bathrooms, moldings were seldom painted, but were stained or dyed.
Moldings tended to be heavy and wide, in part because the look was favored by decorators of the period, but also because wide molding was often necessary to hide the slight uneveness of and wide gaps in wet plaster walls where the walls met the ceiling and floor. Making a virtue of necessity, architects of the period use moldings to accentuate the strong horizontal lines favored in Arts & Crafts interiors. The Prairie School pushed the horizontal plane further than any other period style but almost all Art & Crafts houses emphasized horizontal over the vertical elements favored for traditional Victorian houses.
Walls were commonly banded with wood moldings at several heights. At the foot of the wall was base molding, which should be at least 4" high, and at least 3/4" thick, higher is better up to about 7". The next band was the chair rail, set at between 30" and 54" above the floor. The space between the base and chair rail was called the
dado, or, if paneled, the
Banding around the room at the top of the windows was also common. The banding forms the top casing of the windows and doors, creating a space called the "frieze" between the top of the windows and the ceiling. This feature was unapologetically borrowed from the traditional Japanese house.
Finally, at the top of the wall was a crown molding but not the heavy, angled crown of colonial and Victorian houses (although common in reproduction houses). Flat crown molding is more consistent with the style.
Arts & Crafts Kitchens
Prior to the First World War, Arts & Crafts kitchens barely differed from their spartan Victorian antecedents. A wall sink, a few drawer chests and a table or two for food preparation, along with a wood- or coal-burning stove was the standard. In contemporary illustrations, kitchens of the period seldom featured built-in cabinetry.
There was very little need for extensive storage. Most food was grown or produced locally and purchased fresh daily — at least in upscale neighborhoods. The milkman delivered fresh milk, the butcher fresh meat to order, the greengrocer fresh vegetables to supplement whatever was growing in the back garden. Very little food needed to be stored. The little storage that existed was devoted to storing kitchen implements and possibly dining ware. . . . (Continues)