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Arts and Crafts in Interior and Exterior Design
The changes that took place in American interior design and garden design at the turn of the century were a result of the same forces that changed
architecture-the desire of families, particularly women, to have simpler, more functional living spaces. Arts and Crafts decors fit this need and
were readily promoted in women’s magazines as the latest trendy style. Hence, between 1900 and 1917 the Arts and Crafts Movement became the most
important force in home d?cor, furniture, and gardens. Interior spaces became a way for women to express their personalities. Exterior spaces
became a way to celebrate nature and unite the inside and outside.
Arts and Crafts Interior Design
Perhaps the best way to describe what constituted an Arts and Crafts interior is to specify what it was not. William Morris saw the Arts and Crafts
Movement as a reaction to the heavy ornamentation of the high Victorian era, and interior design was where high Victoriana was most obviously
displayed. Victorian decoration can be summarized by one word-embellishment. Woodwork was dark, heavy, and often manufactured to look
hand-carved. Window dressings were made of heavy velvets and brocades, and usually layered with fringes and tassels. Furniture consisted of
massive tufted upholstered pieces like lounges and divans accented with wood ornamentation. Every inch of wall space was decorated with some
sentimental painting, heavy bracket, or framed stitchery.
Victorian designers and Arts and Crafts designers even differed on how their interiors were intended to influence those who lived within them. The
Victorians believed interior spaces were a way to shape character, particularly the character of women who were enshrined within their walls. The
1884 book Beautiful Homes and How to Make Them expressed this sentiment in its introduction. “It is by the thousand little felicities in
the shape of a pretty bracket here, an artistic gem of a picture, statuette, or bust; a gauzy curtain,… a cozy chair or comfortable divan;
these are the ‘traps of sunbeams’ of both physical and mental character, for which such surroundings as we have described fill a dwelling… it
is sure to be a home in which ‘graces of the Spirit, love, joy, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance,’ spread their sweet influence
and affect every member of the household.” Arts and Crafts designers, on the other hand, felt interior spaces should be where women could express
their honest, simple and utilitarian individuality.
Edith Wharton, departing from her usual fiction works, produced an influential book in 1897 on home d?cor that seemed to bridge the sentimental
Victorian world and the simple, functional Arts and Crafts world. The Decoration of Homes provided numerous examples from history of the
best in interior decoration. Included were chapters on ballrooms, salons, music rooms, and galleries, all rooms for which the Arts and Crafts
home had no space or need. But even in her heavy-handed definitions of “tastefulness,” Wharton recognized that much of what had traditionally
been defined as tasteful in home d?cor could easily be overdone. She warned that those who went beyond the essentials in home interior decoration
“should limit himself in the choice of ornaments to the labors of the master-artist’s hand.” Wharton’s ideas fit well within William Morris’s
The major change of Arts and Crafts designers was the elimination of the parlor in favor of a new room, the “living-room.” Unlike the Victorians,
Arts and Crafts reformers saw no need for formal entertainment spaces separate from family spaces. The living room was a multi-purpose space. It
was furnished with items that promoted comfort, not formality.
Another important development in interior design was the introduction of the library as an essential element in all homes. The 1893 Columbian
Exposition had a major impact on the way Americans viewed and purchased books. Book-related displays marketed books to the masses for the first
time. Architects like Frank Lloyd Wright seized upon the new importance of books, and began designing homes with built-in bookcases throughout
common spaces. Libraries did not have to be dark, masculine, separate rooms, but could be a part of the everyday lives of all family members.
Homeowners without built-in bookcases could purchase them from furniture manufacturers and catalog retailers.
Technological improvements also helped to change interior design. Electricity in homes led to different furniture placement. There was no need for
a central table with chairs around it in order to read by a single lamp. Instead, furniture could be pushed back against the walls and individual
lamps could be placed on side tables. Central heating meant that heavy draperies meant to hold in heat between rooms and at windows were no
longer necessary. The traverse rod was invented in 1905 to draw back the drapes and let in the outside. The fireplace, no longer needed to heat
rooms, remained as an architectural element. Heavy wool rugs covering floors from wall to wall to keep rooms warm were removed and replaced with
wooden floors decorated with occasional rugs. Linoleum became standard for kitchens because it was easy to clean.
Selected Item Descriptions
Clarence Cook. The House Beautiful: Essays on Beds and Tables, Stools and Candlesticks. New York: Scribner, Armstrong and Company,
This book’s title page summed up the Victorian lifestyle. The parlor illustrated on the page was heavily ornamented, and the woman was enshrined in
her domestic temple. Yet even this Victorian-era book recognized that life styles were changing. Chapter II, “The Living-Room,” noted that the
parlor was passe. “As these chapters are not written for rich people’s reading, and none but rich people can afford to have a room in their
houses set apart for the pleasures of idleness, nothing would be gained by talking about such rooms.”
Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman, Jr. The Decoration of Houses. New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1897.
Edith Wharton’s book was highly influential in the interior design field. Using rooms from classic historical buildings as examples, Wharton
defined tastefulness in home d?cor. While aimed at an upscale audience, Wharton did nonetheless advocate for simpler interiors over gaudy ones.
While she did not discuss Arts and Crafts in particular, but her message of less rather than more was in keeping with the basic design philosophy
of the movement.
The House Beautiful, Vol. 1, No. II, January 1897.
House Beautiful was one of the first and most successful of the home decorator magazines aimed at the middle class female reader. Its
popularity mirrored that of the Arts and Crafts designs it promoted in its pages. In this issue, the feature “Successful Houses” looked at the
home and studio of Frank Lloyd Wright in Oak Park, Illinois. The magazine noted of the house: “Here is a case where nothing has been done hastily
or carelessly, and every room has been arranged with the intention of obtaining a complete composition.” (On loan from the collection of Guy
Fred Hamilton Daniels, The Furnishing of a Modest Home. Boston, MA: Atkinson, Mentzer & Company, 1908.
This small, modest volume advised its readers on furnishing a small, modest home, and in doing so epitomized the Arts and Crafts Movement. The
rooms shown displayed some of the basic elements of Arts and Crafts interior design following Daniels’s three laws: fitness of purpose, order,
and simplicity. The couch, called a settle, was a simple square box with leather cushions and mortise and tenon joinery. It was nestled next to
the fireplace, flanked on the opposite side by a book case and a bow-armed Morris chair. Daniels described the room as “a comfortable corner in
the living room, offering commodity, firmness, and delight.”
Your Home and Its Decoration: A Series of Practical Suggestions for the Painting, Decorating, and Furnishing of the Home. The Sherwin-Williams
Company Decorative Department, 1910.
Retailers recognized the desire of women to read more about home d?cor, and began publishing their own guides that could educate and promote their
products. The title page displayed an extravagant Craftsman cottage with different colors and textures of the upper and lower floors, a long
sloping roof, a sun porch, and a pergola, all elements of a Craftsman-style home. The volume also included many interior room decorations and, of
course, suggested paint colors for these rooms.
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An Exhibit at the Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections, Carlson Library, The University of Toledo.
March 26th-June 30th, 1999.