Arts & Crafts Interiors The First Comfortable House

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The Arts & Crafts period produced the first truly comfortable houses that regular people could afford[1]. 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 Arts & Crafts Series: Where Are You Now?

Arts & Crafts Architecture: Craftsman, Prairie & Four-square Houses
➛ Arts & Crafts Interiors: The First Comfortable House
Arts & Crafts Kitchens: The Birth of the Modern Kitchen
Recreating the Arts & Crafts Kitchen: Updating Period Design
Arts & Crafts Baths: The first Modern Bathroom
Arts & Crafts Resources: An Illustrated Guide to All Things Arts & Crafts

The virtues of village living where skilled artisans created beautiful things on a human scale in craft shops using the hand tools and traditional methods of one-of-a-kind manufacture were the heart of the Arts & Crafts philosophy.

These notions, however, appealing as they might have been, were already woefully outdated and wildly impractical even as the Arts & Crafts movement began in the late 1800s.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 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.

Industrialization and factory farming were already utterly necessary for survival.

Arts & Crafts Voices

The result was that 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.

Many of the design theories developed during the Arts & Crafts period have continued to influence us well into the 21st century morphing into the Bauhaus School and through it into the Minimalism that dominates modern design.

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.

Even before the start of the Arts & Crafts period, industrialization had all but eliminated the possibility of earning a living through handcrafting.

The communes 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.

The commune even sold its furniture through Sears, Roebuck & Co., the ultimate mass merchandiser of its era.

Elbert Hubbard died in the sinking of the RMS Lusitania by a German U-boat in 1915. After his death, his son took over management of the community and kept it alive until 1938 when it was forced to close.

"Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be beautiful or believe to be useful."

William Morris

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 to 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 mass-produced knock-offs, made in industrial furniture 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's Craftsman Workshops was a prime example.

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. It was a furniture factory, plain and simple, well equipped with every industrial woodworking tool known to the time.

The company's insurance inventory for 1910 (housed at the Winterthur Museum and Library in Wilmington, Del.), for example, listed power lathes, heavy spindle shapers, horizontal boring machines, chair presses, grinders, several 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 was pure fiction.

Stickley workers were 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.

After 1910 Stickley produced very few new furniture designs.

He wrote in his 1912 catalog that "my furniture was so carefully designed and well-proportioned in the first place, that even I with my advanced experience cannot improve upon it."

By 1916 Stickley was bankrupt due to overzealous expansion and the changing tastes of the buying public that less and less admired the primitivism and structural integrity of Stickley's furniture.

But in the company's 16-year reign, it changed the face of American furnishings, creating the first purely American furniture style that had no Europoean parentage.

It never saw widespread adoption outside of North America but is enjoying a domestic revival. American factories large and small reproduce original Stickley styles in large numbers and regularly introduce new designs in the Stickley Craftsman tradition.

L. & J. G. Stickley

Some of the old Arts & Crafts furniture companies are still thriving. L. & J. Stickley founded Gustav's younger brothers, Leopold and John George in 1920 is one of the survivors.

Gustav Stickley's American Craftsman style greatly influenced furniture makers of the time, including Leopold and John George. Their first catalog closely emulated Gustav's designs.

These were not direct copies but adopted the same principles of structural and material honesty. L. & J.G. Stickley's designs were less ponderous, and more refined than the American Craftsman furniture produced by Gustav, and developed a large following.

The firm still manufactures Craftsman furniture in their Onondaga Shops near Syracuse, N.Y. and in North Carolina.

It is no longer associated with the Stickley families, however. It was rescued from dissolution by long-time Stickley associate, Alfred Audi, who purchased the floundering factory from the last surviving Stickley widow. The company is now owned and operated by the Audi family.

It still manufactures most of the original L. & J.G. designs as well as some of Gustav's furniture and a line of its own designs.

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 brothers' 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, 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

Charles Mackintosh was a Scottish architect, artist, and designer who imported the ideas associated with the French Art Nouveau movement into Britain and combed them with concepts from Japanese crafts, to create new styles in home furnishings.

He particularly admired the restraint and economy of decoration associated with Japanese designs, which had a great influence on his work. Extensive, almost extreme, use of rectangular cut-outs and sharp right angles chacterize his designs.

He is particularly noted for his unusual chairs that often featured very tall backs.

Unlike his contemporaries, he never owned a furniture factory through which his designs could be given expression, so they were not as widely produced.

His style did not become 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 Museaum of Art in New York.

Pre-war Mack­in­tosh works now sell for substantial sums, and the 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 design vision.

The Greenes, the Halls, and Ultimate Bungalows

Fine craftsmanship did not disappear in America as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Given the right environment, it not only survives but thrives.

As this article is being written, it is thriving again with hundreds if not thousand of small crafts furniture shops producing custom funishings and cabinetry with backlogs of as much as a year.

A similar 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.

The brothers designed and built what they called "Ultimate Bungalows."

Their houses, however, bore little resemblance to the everyday bungalows of Main Street.

They 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 their first bungalows were featured in Good Housekeeping magazine in 1906.

For many of their more famous houses, the Greenes were given creative control of the interior decoration and furnishings.

The furniture designed for these houses has become famous in its own right, widely duplicated and even more widely admired.

The original, one-of-a-kind pieces are virtually priceless and mostly owned by museums. But, even well-executed copies bring up to $30,000, in part due to the vast amount of time needed to recreate the intricate joinery and inlays of the original pieces.

Brothers John and Peter Hall built the furniture.

Both were master cabinetmakers who worked in close collaboration with the Greenes to carefully craft the Greenes' unique furniture vision.

Their shop was well-equipped with stationary power tools which relieved its craftsmen of the drudgery of simple shop tasks 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 Eastern elements, including the cloud-lift rails adopted from Chinese traditional design that became one of the hallmarks of their designs.

Eventually, their furniture bore little 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.

Fortunately, the craftsmanship of the Halls has not been lost. It went into abeyance for several decades but had been revived by modern craftsmen and -women working with Greene and Greene designs.

Among the more nationally recognized are Thomas Strangeland and Darrell Peart both working in Seattle; Jeff Grainger in Altadena, California; and Brett Johnson's Craftsmen Studio in Keytesville, Missouri.

Defining Elements of Arts & Crafts Interior Design.

The hand-crafted furniture and appointments produced in the Hall Brothers workshops were prohibitively expensive, 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 idealists.

So, while social philosophers and moral critics bemoaned the evil effects of industrial mechanization, builders and homeowners enthusiastically embraced it, and the increasing prosperity it provided, 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.

The Arts & Crafts period produced the first truly modern homes with most of the comforts and conveniences that we take for granted today.

It was the very first period in history that enabled homeowners of even modest means to enjoy more personal luxury than even the richest kings of lore and legend.

Openness, Light, and Horizontal Lines

Victorian interiors embraced small rooms and enclosed spaces in zealous pursuit of the personal privacy largely denied their ancestors going back to stone age communal dwellings in which privacy was a rare and prized luxury.

Arts & Crafts interiors retained enclosed bedrooms and baths, but otherwise opened up the house. The defining char­acter­is­tic of Arts & Crafts interior design was openness and light — lots of light, accompanied by emphatic horizontal lines to make public areas of the house appear large and expansive.

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 also how homes 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 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. 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 lead.

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 any number of furniture shops, for a lot less.

The layout of an Arts & Craft interior was largely dictated by common sense and a drive for simplicity, epitomized by the layout of four-square houses and to a lesser extent, the Craftsman bungalows.

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 1970s and 1980s open architecture. Long sight lines created the illusion of larger spaces. It is not uncommon to be able to see completely through an Arts & Crafts house from front to back.

Fine wood carefully finished to emphasize the wood's figure, was used throughout. Abundant glass, ceramic tile, and stonework created sanitary surfaces prized for ease of maintenance and improved hygiene.

Art glass might be used 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 stained glass motifs that could be selected by the buyer.) The main entry door or a window facing the front of the house would typically be glazed with stained glass artwork of some kind.

Built-In Furnishings

Few houses contained the extensive built-in furniture of the Green brothers' Ultimate Bungalows but almost every home of the period had several built-ins. The 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 also 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.

Linen cabinets were built into hallways and medicine chests and shelves for toiletries in bathrooms. Ironing boards folded neatly into wall niches in the kitchen, with a nook for the iron.

A breakfast nook, with two bench seats and a table, was often built into one corner of the kitchen. Drawers and cupboards were commonly constructed under the stairs.

Telephones occupied their own recesses, with a convenient slot for the telephone directory.

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 crafted 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 of site-built furnishings 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 skilled labor.

Almost anything made of wood 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 World War of 1939-1945 much of it was destroyed in ill-advised "renovations".

Some survived in attics and garages, and if we can find it we have no hesitation in restoring it. Otherwise, we have to suss out what it 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. So, if we can discover who built a house, we pretty much know what the interior looked like.

Earthy Color Palette

Prior to the 1850s, virtually all pigments were derived from natural, mostly mineral, sources.

But, in 1856 William Henry Perkin, a British chemist, accidentally discovered the first chemical color, while trying to create a synthetic quinine to treat malaria.

Mauveine or aniline purple (which today we call mauve) became instantly popular when Queen Victoria appeared in public draped in clothing of the color.

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.

Arts & Crafts color schemes, especially in the early part of the period, rebelled against what designers saw as Victorian color extravagance and returned to the earthy, natural pigments of an earlier age.

Arts & Crafts palettes avoided the bright, synthetic, primary, and secondary colors, 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 were common in later Arts ∧ Crafts period in kitchens and bathrooms but, otherwise, 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.

Architects often specified the color scheme and incorporated colors into the final plaster coat of walls and ceilings using a calcimine tint rather than paint.

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.

The French designer and artist, Le Corbusier, for example, is famously reputed to have decreed: "Every citizen is required to replace his … wallpaper … with a plain coat of whitewash."

(However, his hostility toward the material did not stop him from collaborating on two wallpaper collections late in his career. However, the designs reflected his preference for simple, geometric shapes rather than the busy floral motifs of the Victorian era.)

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 the wall treatment was that there was so much beautiful wallpaper available. It was affordable beauty — another instance of the triumph of Yankee economic pragmatism over the moral philosophy of the Arts & Crafts purists.

Decorative wallpaper was meant by the movement's founders 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.

Arts & Crafts Woodwork

Furniture and interior woodwork were on the somber side — typically oak and dark.

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 true walnut or California walnut on the West Coast.

Period builders and furnituremakers commonly used chemical treatments to color woodwork. Gustav Stickley was well-known for his fumed finishes on white oak.

Oak and other species containing tannic 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, depending on the depth of color wanted. Twelve hours colored the wood slightly, seventy-two hours turned it almost black.

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 or wainscot at the bottom.

This division greatly enhanced the horizontal aspect of a room and was one of the design devices used by Arts & Crafts architects to make period houses seem larger.

A wood moulding is called a "crown moulding"; a wallpaper or paint border is a "top border" or "crown border".

The area above the windows (or above the picture rail, if there is one) and below the crown. To emphasize this area, a contrasting wallpaper pattern or paint in a coordinating color may be used. Many wallpaper printers make special patterns, called "frieze paper" just for this area.

Picture Rail or Frieze Border
A wallpaper border is called the "frieze border". A wood molding is a "picture rail" and often forms the top casing of the windows.

Field or Fill
This eye-level section is considered the main part of the wall and is usually where the primary wallpaper pattern called the "fill" or "fill paper" is applied.

Chair Rail, Dado Border, or Cap rail
The height of this element is usually between 32" and 54" from the floor. A wallpaper or paint border is usually referred to as the "dado border". If wood paneling (wainscot) is used on the lower part of the wall, then this molding forms the top border of the paneling and is called a "cap rail" or "wainscot cap". However, in dining rooms, it was often enlarged into a "plate rail" used to display plates, vases, and other household treasures. Any other wood border is a "chair rail."

Dado or Wainscot
This section, between the floor and chair or cap rail, is the "dado" if it is painted or papered but the "wainscot" if it is paneled. Often the paper used in the dado area is the same as the paper used in the fill but most wallpaper printers have coordinating sets of fill/dado/frieze paper for those who are a little more adventuresome.

Base Board
The bottom of every wall is trimmed with base moulding called "mop board" by the old-timers. In Arts & Crafts houses it should be at least 4" wide and 3/4" thick, of plain but well-figured wood. Wider is better up to about 8 inches.
The frieze and border patterns used in this illustration are available from Bradbury & Bradbury.

Fuming resulted in very uniform and very inexpensive coloring. Virtually no labor was involved. After coloring, the wood was varnished. Fuming colored the wood, varnish protected it.

Modern reproductions of Arts & Crafts interiors commonly avoid the very dark oak look in favor of a lighter finish more in accord with contemporary preferences.

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, almost never painted.

Moldings were heavy and wide, in part because the look was favored by decorators of the period, but also because wide moldings were often necessary to hide the slight unevenness of and wide gaps in wet plaster walls where the walls met the ceiling and floor.

The Tripartite Wall

Making a virtue of necessity, architects of the period used 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 in traditional Victorian architecture.

Walls were often divided into horizontal bands, separated by borders – creating what is called a tripartite wall that gave the interior of the house its distinct horizontal aspect, visually enlarging the rooms and discouraging hanging pictures.

Many Arts & Crafts designers thought wall-art an unnecessary adornment to already perfectly decorated rooms. Most homeowners disagreed and hung pictures anyway – often suspended on decorative cords from the picture rail.

Walls were banded 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 wainscot.

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, multi-part crowns of colonial and Victorian houses (although common in reproduction houses). Simple and often flat crown molding was preferred, and today 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-burning or coal-fired stove was the standard. In contemporary illustrations,

Kitchens of early in the period seldom featured built-in cabinetry. Fitted cabinets did not become common until the Post-War period.

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)


1. This concept of the "comfortable house" originated as far as we can tell with the publication in 1982 in Old House Journal of an article by Clem Labine (who is credited with coining the name "Four-Square") and Patricia Poore, entitled "The Comfortable House: Post-Victorian Domestic Architecture".

Rev. 02/05/24