Crafts: History & Types
History of Arts and Crafts Movement: Founded by John Ruskin, William Morris.

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"Education" (1890)
Stained glass window made by
Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Linsly-Chittenden Hall, Yale University.
Note: Tiffany glass refers to the many
types of glass produced 1878-1933 at
the Tiffany Studios, by Louis Comfort
Tiffany and a team of other designers,
including Clara Driscoll.

Definition, Types, History

Definition and Meaning
Types of Craft
History and Development of Crafts
Craft Guilds (c.1250-1850)
Arts and Crafts Movement (Flourished c.1850-1900)
Early 20th Century Crafts
The Post-War Rise of American Crafts
Artists Versus Craftspeople
Why Crafts Are So Important

See how the visual arts evolved:
History of Art Guide.

Definition and Meaning

The term "craft" denotes a skill, usually employed in branches of the decorative arts (eg. ceramics), or in an associated artistic practice (eg. lace-making). A key feature of crafts is that they involve a high degree of "hands-on" craftsmanship (hence the colloquial term "handicrafts) rather than just skill with a machine.

Some crafts that are practiced by artists working alone are sometimes referred to by the vague term "studio craft". Metal work, wood turning, glass blowing, and glass art are examples of "studio crafts", as is pottery - notably the studio pottery movement exemplified by Bernard Leach in Britain.


For more information, see:
Stained Glass
Chinese Pottery
Greek Pottery

Definitions, forms, styles, genres,
periods, see: Types of Art.

For the history & evolution
of decorative Celtic art motifs
used by craftsmen among
the Ancient Celts, and by
modern artists working in
the Celtic style, see: Celtic Designs.

Arts Versus Crafts

Ever since the Renaissance era, when the status of painters and sculptors (who were previously regarded as craftsmen) was upgraded to "artist", the term "crafts" has been classified as a lesser creative activity to "arts." Why? Because, supposedly, a craftsman can predict what he is going to create, whereas an artist can't predict what he is going to create until he has created it. In practice, however, the line between an "art" and a "craft" is frequently so fine as to be meaningless. A ceramicist, for instance, is most unlikely ever to be able to predict how a particular glaze will impact on the piece of clay sculpture being produced. (See also visual art and fine art.)

Decorative Arts: Applied Art: Versus Crafts

The etymology and distinctive meanings of terms like "arts" and "crafts" is further complicated and confused by the expansion of closely related areas like "Decorative Arts" and "Applied Arts".

"Decorative Art" is traditionally considered to include ornamental and functional works in ceramic, glass, metal, wood and textiles. The term encompasses pottery, furniture, furnishings, interior design, and architecture, and is used by art critics to distinguish these areas from the "fine arts" such as drawing, painting, and sculpture: "Fine Arts" being created purely for aesthetic reasons ("art for art's sake").

"Applied Art" describes fields of creative activity that apply design and aesthetics to utilitarian objects of everyday use. (Making functional things beautiful). It includes activities like architecture, interior design, graphic design, fashion design, industrial or commercial design, decorative art and functional art are considered applied arts. An example is the Bayeux Tapestry.

As you can see, a noticeable overlap exists between the three areas: decorative, applied arts, and crafts, and (in practice) between unique crafted items and fine art sculpture. Furthermore, the "Arts and Crafts Movement" at the turn of 19th century was a major influence on all these differing branches of artistic endeavour, as were the movements "Art Nouveau" and "Art Deco".


Types of Craft

There are hundreds if not thousands of different varieties of handicrafts. The following list of crafts is included merely for illustrative purposes.

Appliqué, Crocheting, Embroidery, Felt-making, Knitting, Lace-making, Macramé, Quilting, Tapestry art, Weaving.

Wood-carving, Wood-turning, Cabinet making, Furniture making, lacquerware.

Paper Modelling, Collage, Decoupage, Origami paper folding, Papier-mâché.

Pottery and Glass Crafts (see also Ancient Pottery)
Ceramics (earthenware, stoneware, porcelain), Mosaic Art, Glass Beadmaking, Glass Blowing, Glass Etching, (see Stained Glass Art Materials/Methods).

Includes metalwork involving processes like embossing, repoussé work, engraving, enamelling (types include champlevé, basse taille, cloisonné, plique-à-jour), granulation and filigree decoration. For more, see: Jewellery: History, Techniques.

Other Examples of Craftwork

Basket weaving, Beer-making, Book-binding, Doll-making, Enamelling, Floral Design, Ikebana, Jewellery-making, Knife-making (cutler), Leatherwork, Metalwork, Model-making, Tattoo Designing, Toy-making.


History and Development of Crafts

Craft Guilds (c.1250-1850)

Originally coined during medieval times in Europe, the term "Craft Guild" refers to an occupational association which typically consisted of all the artisans (and sometimes the suppliers, retailers and wholesale merchants) involved in a specific branch of industry or commerce. Largely developed after 1250, Medieval craft guilds (eg. for goldsmithery and metalwork) varied little in their general organization. Each had an assembly of all members, which possessed some rule-making authority, but real control lay in the hands of a few top officials and a council of advisors. A typical Guild was divided into three categories: Masters, Journeymen and Apprentices. In the wealthiest trades, a guild might also have an inner circle of Master Craftsmen. The main economic aim of craft guilds was to achieve a complete monopoly over everyone involved in the profession, in order to protect and promote the financial interests of their members, but this was rarely achieved. Generally, there were too many competing guilds, and too much state interest for this to occur. For example, from the 15th century onwards, rules regarding apprenticeship and key areas of guild policy became the target of State intervention. As a result, from the late 16th century onwards, the power and activity of craft guilds began to decline: a process accelerated by the standardization and mass-production techniques introduced by the Industrial Revolution, as well as the emergence of regulated companies and other associations. Guilds were finally abolished in France (1791), Rome (1907) Spain (1840) England (1835) Austria and Germany (1860) and Italy (1864).

The disappearance of craft guilds signalled the end of master-craftsmanship as an integral part of industry and commerce, and its replacement with machine-tool dexterity in both factories and workshops. This issue - the redundancy of individual hand-based craft skills, and the emergence of mass-production methods to produce faster, cheaper but less "beautiful" products - informs much of the debate surrounding the inherent value of crafts. The first reaction against this mechanization was the Arts and Crafts Movement, which gathered momentum during late Victorian times.

East Asian Arts and Crafts
Asian art - embracing works from India, China, Korea and Japan - is noted for its mastery of different types of art. Lacquerware, jade carving, bronzes, pottery, porcelain, Buddhist sculpture, silks and other textiles, were just some of the artforms mastered in Eastern Asia. For more, see: Chinese Art (c.1700 BCE - 2000 CE); Korean Art (c.3,000 BCE onwards) and Japanese Art.

Arts and Crafts Movement (Flourished c.1850-1900)

The Arts and Crafts Movement was a social and aesthetic movement of the late 19th and early 20th century that advocated good design and craftsmanship at a time of increasing mechanization and mass production. Mainly concerned with architecture and the decorative arts the movement originated in Britain but also had a significant impact on the continent and in America. No particular style was associated with the movement, aside from general "folk art", but there was an emphasis on "honesty" - on producing products that showed clearly what they were made of and how they worked. This often involved the use of plain materials and surfaces, and has had a lasting influence on modern design.

The movement's name came from the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society, founded in 1888, but it's origins go back to the 1850s ideas of John Ruskin (1819-1900). Ruskin abhorred the type of highly decorated machine made products that dominated the Great Exhibition of 1851 (which led to the foundation of the Victoria and Albert Museum) and believed that the beauty of medieval art sprang from the pride that medieval artists had in individual craftsmanship. His ideas had a huge influence on William Morris (1834-96) who, via his decorative arts firm, set about the recreation of hand industry in a machine age, producing a range of textiles, printed books, wallpaper, furniture and other items. Commercially and aesthetically, his work was a triumph, but he failed completely in his idea of producing art for the masses because only rich people could afford his products. Even so, his ideas strongly influenced craftsmen and teachers, leading to the foundation in the 1880s of various bodies to promote Arts and Crafts ideas including the Artworkers Guild (1884), which aimed to increase understanding and collaboration between different branches of the visual arts.

20th Century Crafts

The Arts and Crafts movement also inspired designers, like Henry van de Velde, as well as styles such as Art Nouveau, Art Deco, the building of the Honan Chapel (1916) in Cork, the Dutch De Stijl design group, the Viennese Secession movement, the Deutscher Werkbund, the Wiener Werkstätte, and eventually The Bauhaus Design School. Some art historians even regard it as a precursor of Minimalism, whose pure forms found their way into architecture, painting, sculpture and many areas of applied art.

In America, there were a series of Arts and Crafts-inspired styles. "The Craftsman," a magazine published by cabinet-maker Gustav Stickley articulated a number of American craft concepts which had significant influence on Frank Lloyd Wright and later American craftsmen, artists and architects. Another crafts style was the Roycroft movement, established in 1895 by Elbert Hubbard, as a community of artisans along the lines of a Medieval European guild in upstate New York. Mainly concerned with creating ornate books, it also produced a range of furniture and metal products. The 20th century studio crafts movement originated in a number of new crafts programs established during the 1900s. In 1901, for example, the first ceramics art school was founded at Alfred University in New York. In the same year, the first metal arts class was launched at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, followed two years later by the first textiles class.

After the end of World War I, Europe gave birth to a variety of new design styles, including: De Stijl, The Bauhaus School and Art Deco; the latter being embraced by numerous American architects and designers. Also, during the Depression era of the late 1920s, early 1930s, the US Federal Works Progress Administration continued funding crafts as well as public works and murals, in order to keep workers occupied. This permitted crafts to survive at a local level, while the incorporation of more craft courses into third-level arts programs helped to promote crafts at a national level.

The Post-War Rise of American Crafts

During and after World War II, which witnessed the replacement of Paris by New York as the world's art capital, there was a significant movement of skilled European artists, ex-Bauhaus designers and craftsmen from Europe to America. In addition, in 1943, the American Craft Council was established to champion the skills and well-being of craftspeople. In due course, the ACC founded its own publication - the "American Craft" magazine - and developed the Museum of Art and Design (then called the Museum of Contemporary Crafts). Other centres of innovation and excellence emerged, among them Black Mountain College in North Carolina, the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, the California College of Arts and Crafts, the Toledo Museum of Art, the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, the Penland School of Crafts and the Pilchuck Glass School. Thus revitalized, post-war American craftspeople became better trained and their studio art more proficient, a process accelerated in the 1960s and 1970s by the feminist art movement - see, for instance, the work of Judy Chicago (b.1939) - and by the anti-industrialism trend among young people. In 1972, the Renwick Gallery - located in the Corcoran Gallery of Art building close to the White House in Washington DC - was established as a studio craft department of the National Museum of American Art, and has become a distinguished showcase for American studio craft objects. In 1993, designated as "The Year of American Craft", works by 70 craftspeople were gifted to the White House to inaugurate The White House Collection of American Crafts.

Artists Versus Craftspeople

Despite a general resurgence in the world of handicrafts and decorative arts - especially ceramics, glass-blowing, furniture and fashion design - the sheer diversity of craft disciplines has made it all but impossible to establish common standards of training and production. Inevitably, therefore, the craftworker functions more like an artist and less like an artisan. However, society continues to deny craftspeople parity with fine artists.

True, many craft activities (producing beautiful functional items) can be clearly distinguished from the fine arts (producing beautiful items for beauty's sake), but a large number of craftspeople who create one-off pieces would rightly consider themselves artists. For example, there seems no logical reason to classify a unique piece of pottery, or stained glass, or wood-carving, or textile (eg. tapestry), as a "craft product", rather than a "work of art". In fact, by comparison with many modern-day conceptual artists and other exponents of contemporary art, ceramicists, wood-turners and stained glass artisans are infinitely more "artistic". (For more about the meaning of art, see: What is Art?)

Ireland: A Case in Point

Irish craft workers are represented by the Crafts Council of Ireland, whose position is a mini-reflection of the secondary status of crafts. Unlike the "arts", which enjoy generous financial support from the Department of the Arts, channelled through powerful state bodies like the Arts Council, the Crafts Council is merely a limited company funded by the Department of Enterprise. Local bodies include groups like Kinsale Pottery Arts Centre and West Cork Craft & Design Guild.

Why Crafts Are So Important

The fundamental value of crafts lies in their opposition to mass-production methods. We need the latter in order to produce items cheaply and quickly, but unless we want to become people who know the price of everything but the value of nothing, we also need the aesthetic benefits which come from individually designed items - such as a hand-made scarf, a beautiful chair, carpet or dish. A society without beauty is soulless, as George Orwell has vividly described in works like "1984". Promoting crafts is one way to retain the type of artistic skills needed to make life more visually pleasurable. If you want a graphic illustration of the power and theraputic benefits to be gained from more visually pleasant surroundings, visit your local hospital, school, or town hall and look around you. If the building is depressing and drab, chances are it's because it has an uninspiring design and boring colours with no touches of visual beauty. On the other hand, if it has a cheerful air, chances are it's because it has a more individual design and probably lots of colour. The same goes for your workplace and home. The fact is, living in a beautified environment with a certain amount of individuality and beautiful objects, adds immeasurably to our enjoyment of life. Crafts and craft skills are important contributors to this ideal, and for this reason alone are worth preserving.

• For more about the evolution and types of crafts, see: Homepage.
• For details of new painters and sculptors, see: Contemporary Irish Artists.

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