In safe hands

The Victoria & Albert Museum this week opens its doors to a major exhibition of the Arts and Crafts movement.

Room designed by William Morris

They could not, of course, turn back the clock. Morris and some others in the Arts and Crafts Movement, such as the architect CFA Voysey, were later canonised as pioneers by the Modernists. The movement quickly spread to the US, to Europe, and flared into life again in Japan in the 1920s and 1930s. Which is probably why America’s master architect Frank Lloyd Wright found Japan so congenial.

But what of Arts and Crafts as a decorative style, which is how most of us encounter it today? Its main attribute is to appear so hand-crafted it hurts. Sometimes over-elaborative, at other times it attains an artful simplicity in its espousal of the good simple making of things.

It likes to reject the right angle. All those loops and swirls and other organic motifs that we associate with the style led directly on to the more frou-frou excesses of Art Nouveau. The colours of the peacock recur in its fabrics, wallpapers and tiles. It led to a style of well-made, restrained furniture that Heal’s and Liberty revive periodically to this day.

But Arts and Crafts has always given me an uneasy feeling. When I think of it, I think of The Wind in the Willows, or the music of Edward Elgar or Frederick Delius. The high point in this country of the movement is associated with the Edwardian era. The calm before the storm. Industrial Armageddon, in the form of the machine guns and tanks of World War l, was to destroy the illusion that a quasi-medieval way of life could survive. A generation of young craftsmen were wiped out on the Somme. Those who were left, made memorials.

Yet the ideals of craftsmanship survive, just as the romantic and narrative tradition in literature reasserted itself after James Joyce, TS Eliot and Ezra Pound. From designer-makers to architects, people still fight a resistance movement against standardisation. Technology – in the form of instant-prototyping computer programs – has perversely come to the aid of the crafts. There is a clear line of descent from Morris to Ron Arad. The Holy Grail of the one-off item at mass-produced prices may yet be attainable.

International Arts and Crafts runs at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London from 17 March until 24 July

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