Arts and Crafts Movement


Furness Desk
Architect Frank Furness also produced furniture designs that influenced the Arts and Crafts movement in Philadelphia. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

The Arts and Crafts movement in Greater Philadelphia grew against the backdrop of the area’s increasingly industrial character in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The 1876 Centennial Exhibition brought attention to Philadelphia’s prominence as a manufacturing center and fostered a renewed sense of pride in the city’s connections to national history, but it also elevated anxieties about the state of America’s crafts and the potential shortcomings of mechanized production. In the face of mounting unease with the social and environmental impacts of industrialization, Arts and Crafts advocates sought to mobilize architecture and the decorative arts in the service of recovering what they saw as the disappearing premodern values of craftsmanship, artistic harmony, and cultural cohesion.

The movement spread to the Philadelphia area over the last quarter of the nineteenth century with the increasing reach of the English design reform movement. The influential and polemical writings of English architect A.W.N. Pugin (1812–52), art critic John Ruskin (1819–1900), and especially designer William Morris (1834–96) together called for artists and craftspeople to work toward social and aesthetic reform. With an ethos of honest labor and “truth to materials,” they argued that objects and spaces should be simultaneously beautiful, functional, and produced in conditions that acknowledged the humanity of their makers. These ideas circulated in Philadelphia with the formation of art guilds modeled after those in England, popular periodicals such as The Ladies’ Home Journal (established 1883 in the city), and vibrant personal exchange among artists and designers on both sides of the Atlantic.

By the time of the Centennial, several Philadelphia designers were already promoting aesthetic visions rooted in romantic notions of medieval Europe, rejecting what they considered the formality and ostentation of the neoclassical styles dominating the profession. Architect Frank Furness (1839­–1912) and cabinetmaker Daniel Pabst (1826­–1910), generally considered “Victorian” figures, nevertheless drew upon the ideas of their English contemporaries, design reformers Owen Jones (1809–74) and Christopher Dresser (1834–1904)—Dresser had attended the Centennial and lectured in Philadelphia—in their emphasis on stylized, organic ornamental schemes. Around the same time, architect Wilson Eyre Jr. (1858–1944) was instrumental in reviving an English vernacular style in and around Philadelphia. These designers laid important groundwork for the area’s later Arts and Crafts activity.

Additionally, young institutions such as the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art (founded 1876, later separated into what would become the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the University of the Arts), the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (1848, later Moore College of Art and Design), or Trenton, New Jersey’s School for Industrial Art (1898, later part of Thomas Edison State College) were modeled after European precedents and attempted to address perceived low standards of design in manufacturing. Through instruction, exhibitions, and lectures by prominent artistic figures, these organizations became important vehicles for the theories of design reform, advancing the notion of craftsmanship in relation to modern manufacturing.

Arts Colonies and Craft Production

Outside of these official institutional efforts, one of the most ambitious undertakings of Arts and Crafts advocates was the establishment of utopian communities to promote aesthetic excellence and social unity through the crafts. Often framed as political acts and conceived in broadly anti-capitalist terms, they attempted to provide solutions to the uneven economic opportunity of the American Gilded Age. These communities drew upon design reformers’ cultural critiques—especially Morris’s views on art and labor—while their picturesque, vernacular-styled physical environments were inspired by the work of reformist architects such as Eyre.

English ceramicist William P. Jervis used hand and machine techniques in producing his works (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
English ceramicist William P. Jervis used hand and machine techniques in producing his works. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Philadelphia area was host to a particular concentration of arts-focused community experiments. Most prominent among them was Rose Valley, established near Moylan, Pennsylvania, in 1901. With the production of “artistic handicraft” as one of its core charters, the Rose Valley Association built its arts colony in and around an abandoned textile mill, a potent symbol of disenchantment with mechanized industry. The village was largely the project of Philadelphia architect William Lightfoot Price (1861–1916), whose early career included a stint in Frank Furness’s office, and his partner M. Hawley McLanahan (1865–1929). By 1905, the community included a furniture shop (for which Price designed many of the pieces), metalworking and pottery shops, and a bookbindery in addition to individual artists’ studios. Rose Valley also maintained a “city office” and a press in Philadelphia, which sold and promoted work from the shops. However, their production ultimately proved financially unsustainable, and the Rose Valley Association was disbanded by 1910.

The year before the founding of Rose Valley, Price helped found another experimental community. Arden, Delaware, just north of Wilmington, was a joint venture between the architect and Philadelphia sculptor Frank Stephens (1859–1935) and was based on the “single-tax” theories of American economist Henry George. Stephens and Price couched George’s radical economic principle in medievalizing terms—what they saw as the democratic, “charming” character of the Middle Ages—and borrowed from the English Garden Cities movement, designing a woodland village with two central greens. While the scale of craft activity in Arden was more modest than at Rose Valley, the village was host to a furniture workshop, a printing shop, and the commercially successful Arden Forge, which operated until 1935. In both colonies, social life was equally integral to the utopian vision; theater, poetry, dancing, and music all played important roles in fostering both community spirit and a holistic approach to artful living.

Philadelphia-Area Artists and the Medieval Ideal

Key Lock
Gothic ironwork reborn in Samuel Yellin’s lock set. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Amid the influence of Philadelphia’s arts institutions and utopian colonies, the work of several individual artists in greater Philadelphia also relates to Arts and Crafts principles, particularly the emphasis on medieval models. The Polish-born master metalworker Samuel Yellin (1885–1940), who studied and later taught at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art, used traditional techniques and structured his Philadelphia workshop around longstanding European craft practices. Yellin’s student Parke Edwards (1890–1973) contributed significant metalwork to the Bryn Athyn Cathedral (built 1913–19) in the eponymous Swedenborgian community north of Philadelphia, where workshops established for the building project were consciously shaped after medieval precedent. And amid a prevalent Gothic revival, painter William Willet (1869–1921) formed a stained glass studio in 1898 with his wife Anne Lee Willet (1867–1943). Inspired by the English Pre-Raphaelites, a group with close ties to Arts and Crafts, Willet diverged from the vogue for opalescent glass in the American movement, strongly preferring medieval techniques and materials.

These stained glass panels by William and Ann Lee Willet possess the gothic-revival style popularized by the Pre-Raphaelite artists working in England (Corning Museum of Glass)
These stained glass panels by William and Ann Lee Willet reflect the Gothic Revival style popularized by the Pre-Raphaelite artists working in England. (Corning Museum of Glass)

The Pre-Raphaelite influence, as well as involvement of English illustrators such as Walter Crane and Kate Greenaway in design reform, also provided important precedents for some Philadelphia-area graphic artists. Wilmington-based illustrator and author Howard Pyle (1853–1911) published a well-known cycle of Arthurian illustrations (1903–10) that played upon contemporary interest in the Middle Ages. Pyle taught at the then–Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry until 1900, later opening a teaching studio at his own home. His instruction proved so popular that an informal colony of illustrators formed in Wilmington. A number of his students, including Violet Oakley (1874–1961), a Philadelphia illustrator, designer of stained glass and mosaics, and muralist for the Pennsylvania State Capitol), and the painters and illustrators Maxfield Parrish (1870–1966) and N. C. Wyeth (1882–1945) went on to prestigious careers.

In Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Henry Chapman Mercer (1856–1930) founded the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works in 1899. Building on his prolific career as an archaeologist, historian, and collector, Mercer’s initial ambition was to revive disappearing Germanic pottery techniques from early America. However, he also drew significant inspiration from the Middle Ages for the Moravian ceramics, whether in conventional shapes, pictorial “mosaic” tiles, or the distinctive high-relief designs (known as “brocade” tiles) he used in larger narrative compositions. In addition to his membership in the influential Boston Society of Arts and Crafts, Mercer was well-connected with nearby Arts and Crafts advocates. William L. Price, for example, used Moravian tiles in several of his buildings, including Jacob Reed’s Sons’ store in downtown Philadelphia (1903) and the façades of Rose Valley houses. Mercer’s lectures and writings further illustrated his conviction that learning from the past was critical for the arts of the industrial era.

Decorative Arts Farther Afield

The Fulper Pottery Company of Flemington, New Jersey integrated glass and ceramic elements in this glazed ceramic lamp (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The Fulper Pottery Company of Flemington, New Jersey, integrated glass and ceramic elements in this glazed ceramic lamp. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Beyond Philadelphia, a number of commercial firms responded to the growing American taste for the Arts and Crafts, although these tend to be less well-documented. One of the most successful was the Fulper Pottery in Flemington, New Jersey, which had operated since the early nineteenth century but released a popular “Vasekraft” line of art pottery by 1909; Trenton-based Lenox’s Ceramic Art Company (founded 1889; from 1906, Lenox Incorporated) likewise produced Arts and Crafts wares. In southern Pennsylvania, the York Wall Paper Company offered several designs that echoed William Morris’s well-known wallpapers and textiles, while glass firms such as Gillinder and Sons in Philadelphia and the Dorflinger Glass Company in White Mills, Pennsylvania, produced works with organic ornament that would have fit well within an Arts and Crafts interior.

By the time the United States entered World War I in 1917, the American Arts and Crafts ideals were subsiding in the face of shifting tastes, the disbandment of arts colonies, and the increasing economic pressures of industrial production. Some individual firms and makers nevertheless continued their craft-derived work; Samuel Yellin continued forging iron into the 1930s. Ultimately, Greater Philadelphia’s Arts and Crafts history is especially notable for the close-knit nature of the artistic community and the generally high quality of its output. In many ways, Pennsylvanian reformers came as close as any Americans did to realizing the medievalizing ideals of Ruskin and Morris, albeit in short-lived fashion. The Arts and Crafts legacy, furthermore, set an important stage for the rise of the studio craft movement in postwar Philadelphia.

Colin Fanning is Curatorial Fellow in the Department of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He holds an M.A. in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2015, Rutgers University


Dragonfly Lamp by Fulper Pottery

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Fulper Pottery Company, founded in the early part of the nineteenth century, was primarily a producer of utilitarian stoneware, but in 1909 the company released a line of art pottery it named “Vasekraft.” Most of the shapes in the line were simple and derived from Eastern examples, with richly colored and textured glazes. This lamp, however, was a particular technical and aesthetic innovation, with a glazed ceramic shade inset with pieces of colored glass. Its motifs—dragonflies and water lilies—also appeared in the somewhat better-known lamps by New York glass artist Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933) and signal the broad Arts and Crafts interest in nature-inspired forms and ornament.

Table Lamp, 1910–15. Made by Fulper Pottery Company (Flemington, New Jersey). Shade and base: glazed pottery; shade inset with glass. H. 19 5/8 in. (49.8 cm.); Diam. 17 in. (43.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Anonymous Gift and William Cullen Bryant Fellows Gifts, 1998.

Frank Furness Desk

Philadelphia Museum of Art

The work of Frank Furness, one of Philadelphia’s most prominent architects of the nineteenth century, rejected historicist forms and ornament, despite his early exposure to the Beaux-Arts tradition in the New York City office of Richard Morris Hunt (1827–95). He opened a practice in Philadelphia in 1867 and collaborated with his partner George W. Hewitt (1841–1916) on their successful 1871 competition entry for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts building, still standing at the corner of Broad and Cherry Streets in central Philadelphia.

In addition to his evocative and original architecture, Furness also oversaw the execution of a number of his furniture designs over the course of his career. This desk, designed for his brother Horace’s study, exhibits an architectonic presence, with a horseshoe arch and dense ornament that resonated with several of Furness’s building designs. The dense, stylized (rather than naturalistic) organic ornament corresponds to the principles of design reform promoted in particular by Owen Jones and Christopher Dresser. Furness’s eclectic, anti-classical approach to ornament provided an important precedent for the later Arts and Crafts movement in greater Philadelphia.

Desk, 1870–71. Designed by Frank Furness (American, 1839–1912). Made by Daniel Pabst (American [born Germany], 1826–1910). Walnut, walnut veneer; rosewood (knobs); brass, iron, steel, glass. 77 1/2 x 62 x 32 1/4 inches (196.9 x 157.5 x 81.9 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of George Wood Furness, 1974.

Jervis Vase

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Art pottery—as decorative objects and in interior or architectural applications—was an especially important vein of Arts and Crafts activity in the United States. The ceramist William P. Jervis, formerly of the Avon Faience Company and Corona Pottery in England, rented a studio space in the Rose Valley guildhall until 1905 and was an important catalyst for the colony’s ceramics operations.

Notably, he did not find the use of handwork and machine manufacture to be incompatible. The combination of handwork and machining was more common in the Arts and Crafts movement, especially in America, than the heightened rhetorical focus on handwork and craftsmanship might indicate. Much of Jervis’s Rose Valley pottery was made with the aid of industrial tools such as molds and jiggers, allowing the potters to focus their attention on glazes, such as the rich matte cobalt shown here.

Vase, 1904–5. Made by William P. Jervis (American [born England], 1851–1925). Earthenware. H. 4 1/2 in. (11.4 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Purchase, Charles L. and Jane D. Kaufmann Gift, in memory of Charles L. Kaufmann, 1991.

Lenox Vase

Philadelphia Museum of Art

This vase from the ceramics company Lenox Incorporated, based in Trenton, New Jersey, is of enameled porcelain, in contrast to the thickly-potted earthenware and stoneware that characterized the bulk of art pottery at the time. However, it demonstrates that the design-reform vogue for flat, stylized vegetal ornament carried across media and manufacturers of different philosophical stripes. Lenox Incorporated, originally named Lenox’s Ceramic Art Company, had its roots in the Arts and Crafts movement, structured as an art studio rather than a factory. From 1906 the company turned its focus toward higher-volume tableware production, although it still made “artistic” works such as this vase. The vase was available in the John Wanamaker Company department store in New York, illustrating the widespread popularity of the Arts and Crafts aesthetic in the first decade of the twentieth century.

Vase, 1911. Made by Lenox Incorporated, Trenton, New Jersey. Porcelain with underglaze and overglaze enamel decoration. 10 1/2 x 8 5/16 inches (26.7 x 21.1 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with funds contributed in memory of Sophie E. Pennebaker, 1997.

Price Trestle Table

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This trestle table, designed by William L. Price, illustrates the fine craftsmanship and beautiful forms produced by the Rose Valley arts colony outside Philadelphia. Details such as the exposed dovetail joints between the boards of the tabletop, the exaggerated mortise-and-tenon joinery of the stretchers, and the emphasized grain of the oak were common characteristics of Arts and Crafts furniture, meant to draw attention to the craftsmanship, materiality, and “honesty” of the table. While Price’s nod to the Gothic revival style was somewhat more historicist than the production by other American Arts and Crafts firms and appealed to elite tastes of the moment, the Rose Valley Shops were a bold attempt to realize the ideals of artistic handicraft, guild-derived systems of labor, and congenial rural living so central to the Arts and Crafts movement in America.

Library Table, 1904. Designed by William L. Price (American, 1861–1916). White oak, stained. 29 1/2 x 66 x 39 1/2 in. (74.9 x 167.6 x 100.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sansbury-Mills Fund, 1991.

Yellin Lock, Key, and Handle

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Based on a romantic vision of Middle-Ages ironwork, this handmade lock exemplifies the attention to detail and lavish Gothic ornament of Samuel Yellin’s work. Born in Poland, apprenticed in Russia, and later a teacher at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art, Yellin worked at both large and small scales, and some of his ironwork remains visible in Philadelphia’s built environment and many other cities across the United States. This lock in particular is a masterpiece in miniature, drawing attention to its artistry through its fine ornament and the lock mechanism visible through a translucent panel of mica (now missing).

Yellin saw his art as a direct inheritor or continuation of medieval ironsmithing, and modeled his firm—which employed around two hundred craftsmen by the 1920s—on the workshop practices of the Middle Ages. This intense interest in the artisan culture of earlier periods, along with his focused attention on materiality and high-quality handwork, made Yellin one of the most prominent and successful participants in Philadelphia’s Arts and Crafts movement.

. Lock, Key, and Handle, 1911. Made by Samuel Yellin (American [born Russia], 1884–1940). Wrought iron, mica (originally, now missing). 16 1/2 x 19 3/4 x 3 1/4 inches (41.9 x 50.2 x 8.3 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with the Joseph E. Temple Fund, 1911.

Willet Panels

Corning Museum of Glass

In Philadelphia, the Arts and Crafts movement often overlapped with the widespread Gothic revival style that was popular throughout the country. This is particularly evident in the stained glass made by artist William Willet and his wife Anne Lee Willet, which adorned churches, homes, and public buildings from the nineteen-teens onward. Willet had studied with prominent American artists William Merritt Chase and John La Farge before opening his own studio for stained glass. Heavily influenced by the work of the English Pre-Raphaelite group, this pair of windows bears verses from a thirteenth-century composition by Italian poet Dante Alighieri, whose work was translated by the English artist (and member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82).

Two Stained Glass Window Panels, 1910–20. Made by William Willet (American, 1869–1921). Corning Museum of Glass, Gift of Dr. Thomas H. English.

York Wall Paper Company

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

This wallpaper by southern Pennsylvania firm York Wall Paper Company exhibits the strong influence of William Morris and his aesthetic philosophies on American designers and manufacturers. Morris argued that overly illusionistic representations in the decorative arts were deceptive and “dishonest.” Accordingly, he argued that stylized or slightly abstracted nature-inspired motifs were preferable for textiles and wallpapers, highlighting the two-dimensionality of the surface while drawing attention to the artistic quality of the pattern. While this example was machine-printed (rather than the expensive and labor-intensive block-printed papers Morris advocated), it demonstrates the far reach of English design reform ideas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Sidewall, 1895–1905. Made by York Wall Paper Company (York, Pennsylvania). Machine-printed. 27 9/16 x 19 5/16 in. (70 x 49 cm). Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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Related Reading

Andrews, Jack. Samuel Yellin, Metalworker. Ocean City, Md.: SkipJack Press, 1992.

Ayres, William, ed. A Poor Sort of Heaven, A Good Sort of Earth: The Rose Valley Arts and Crafts Experiment. Chadds Ford, Pa.: Brandywine River Museum, 1983.

Boris, Eileen. Art and Labor: Ruskin, Morris, and the Craftsman Ideal in America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986.

Clark, Robert Judson, ed. The Arts and Crafts Movement in America 1876–1916. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Edwards, Robert. “William Lightfoot Price: His Furniture and Its Context.” In American Furniture 2012, edited by Luke Beckerdite, 116–53. Lebanon, N.H.: Chipstone Foundation and University Press of New England, 2012.

Kaplan, Wendy, ed. The Arts and Crafts Movement in Europe and America. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art; New York: Thames & Hudson, 2004.

———, et al. “The Art that is Life”: The Arts and Crafts Movement in America, 1875–1920. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1987.

Philadelphia Museum of Art. Philadelphia: Three Centuries of American Art. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1976.

Reed, Cleota. Henry Chapman Mercer and the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987.

Ricci, Patricia Likos, ed. “The State as a Work of Art: Design, Technology, and Social Reform, 1876-1917.” Special issue, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 126, No. 2 (April 2002).

Thomas, George E. William L. Price: Arts and Crafts to Modern Design. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000.

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