Today’s column is a continuation of my series. If you’d like an accompanying handout of the entire series along with photos, send me an email.
I last wrote about the rise and fall of the Louis kings of France. Although the 17th century had seen a powerful and wealthy France, England would take its place by 1800 with the help of the Industrial Revolution. Before this time, societies had been largely rural and agrarian. Goods had been made by hand in small workshops.
The Industrial Revolution transformed populations to a more urban way of life and goods were mass-produced using special-purposed machinery in large factories. The production of textiles became greater, simpler, and quicker with the invention of power looms, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, and the spinning jenny (jenny from the word “engine”). These inventions, along with the development of iron and coal industries, and the steam engine, improved transportation, communication and trade.
The Victorian age, 1837-1901, saw a series of revivals of past styles including Gothic, Baroque, Greek, Romanesque, Queen Anne and Jacobean. When I think of the Victorian age, I think of San Francisco’s painted ladies and Sherlock Holmes. Furnishings were highly decorated because new machinery made this an easy process. Why have just one curve to a chair frame when three more could be quickly added. Why not add tufting to the upholstered seat and back? And, with the abundance of textiles, why not add fringe and tassels to boot?
This loosely described Victorian style had its critics. The capabilities of machinery came first with design aesthetics an afterthought. A vocal minority in England had become disturbed by the sinking level of style, craftsmanship and taste — all succumbed to the ability to mass-produced goods.
In 1861, designer, William Morris, founded a firm of interior designers and decorators dedicated to recapturing the spirit and quality of the craftsmanship of medieval trade guilds. A William Morris style emerged by way of metalwork, wallpaper, rugs, fabric and furniture based on his love of nature, gardens, forests, and birds as his inspiration.
His characteristically long, flowing, curvilinear lines inspired Spanish architect, Antoni Gaudi, and the Art Nouveau movement in Europe. Morris also influenced architects Le Corbusier in Paris and Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school in Germany.
Although the Bauhaus style was severe, austere, and boxy, unlike that of William Morris, it was founded on Morris’s idea that there should be no distinction between form and function and that art and architecture should meet the needs of the common man. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was the third and last director of the Bauhaus school, which closed in 1933. Before becoming director, he had designed his famous Barcelona chair, named so because he entered the chair in the 1929 International Exposition hosted by Barcelona, Spain. The armless chair was known for fine craftsmanship using chrome on steel and tufted leather cushions.
The Arts and Crafts movement had a profound influence on the United States. Next up, we’ll be coming home and taking a look at the works of Frank Lloyd Wright.