V&A pays homage to the 'Changing Rooms' of nineteenth century

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was the high point of British design, the moment when the world looked to the UK as the epitome of taste and style.

It was the high point of British design, the moment when the world looked to the UK as the epitome of taste and style.

And now the new blockbuster exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is set to remind the Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen generation how the passion for turning one's home into a work of art began with the ideals of John Ruskin and William Morris more than 100 years ago.

International Arts and Crafts is the most comprehensive show ever mounted on the movement, which began as a reaction to the machine-dominated production of the British Industrial Revolution and went on to influence designers in Europe, America and Japan.

Among the highlights is the recreation of the first and most important Arts and Craft interior in Japan, which was first seen in Tokyo in 1928 and had been thought lost for decades until the key features were rediscovered during research for the London show.

But the exhibition also includes furniture by the Scot Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, pottery by Bernard Leach, and Native American clothing that influenced the stunning jewellery of Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Karen Livingstone, the curator of the exhibition, said: "Arts and Crafts was one of the most far-reaching and influential design movements of modern times. It changed the way we think about design for the home, and the way we value how things are made. It was very quickly taken up around the world."

Arts and Crafts began in the UK in about 1880, and promoted the ideals of good craftsmanship and integrating art into the home. Compared with later, more decorative movements such as art nouveau, it was focused on practical design for real people.

"It was born of a concern for what was happening in manufacturing. Traditional skills were being lost and this had affected the standards of ordinary working people's lives who had become very poor," Miss Livingstone said.

"The Arts and Crafts movement was about domestic design from the simplest country cottage to the most grand aristocratic mansion. It is remarkably resonant for today. This is where the idea starts that ordinary people, the likes of you and me, can have well-designed goods in the home."

The show, of about 300 objects, is the latest blockbuster at the V&A, after art nouveau and art deco. "You can see traces of art deco in the Viennese designs and in the later work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh," Miss Livingstone said.

But in terms of design history, the show follows on from the museum's homage in 1996 to William Morris, the 19th century designer, writer and political thinker. It is also the history of department store design as Heal's, which is sponsoring the exhibition, Liberty's and William Morris's own company, Morris & Co, embraced the Arts and Crafts ethos to offer design to the masses.

Masako Hironaka, whose grandfather, Hyoe Takabayashi, worked on the original Japanese Arts and Crafts house, and who visited its recreated interior yesterday, said William Morris was enormously influential in Japan, but most Japanese were unaware of the link between Morris and their native Mingei (folk craft) movement.

"I knew from when I was a child that my grandfather had been involved with the design but because it was thought the building did not exist any more, it had been put out of my mind. This is very exciting," she said.

Ironically, the desire for a simpler life was implicit in the Arts and Crafts movement but it was through its uptake in cities from Budapest and Vienna to Chicago, New York and Tokyo that it grew to thrive.

"The exhibition shows that while handicraft and the simple, country life was the ideal, the movement was also sophisticated, intellectual and urban. It had a strong commercial basis and a desire to influence industrial design and manufacture," Miss Livingstone said.

Every nation adapted it in its own way. The Germans, for example, thought the British were anti-industrial in spirit and worked hard to produce Arts and Crafts goods with mass market efficiency.

International Arts and Crafts opens at the V&A tomorrow and runs until 24 July with a £10 admission charge.