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The Arts and Crafts Movement in the American Midwest


Arts and Crafts in Interior Design

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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 philosophy.

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, 1878.

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 Szuberla).

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.

Last Updated: 6/27/22