henry cole

Henry Cole, the first director of the Victoria & Albert Museum.

I’ve been looking at Prof Toshio Kasumitsu’s dissertation British Industrialisation and Design 1830-1851, which I found my way to from Charles Saumaurez Smith’s blog, in which he thanked Kasumitsu for his eloquent support for the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.

In this interesting thesis Kasumitsu shows how early ideas of “craft”, “skill”, “art” and “mystery” were associated with protective guilds and the apprenticeship system and that they indicated a deep understanding of a trade. Adam Smith, who believed that long apprenticeships protected the trades and the masters and disadvantaged the public, moved the meaning of “skill” towards ideas of manual dexterity, whereas previously it had a much richer meaning. In Smith’s thinking, skill in this sense could be imparted in much shorter training programmes. It became closer to ideas of “competence”, which motivate modern vocational training .

I wondered whether the elevation of craft in the thinking of Ruskin, Morris and their followers above mere making was associated with an archaic and protectionist concept of arts and trades, and whether their resistance to new methods of organising work and production favoured the tradesman over the consumer? That was the effect of Morris’s business practice, which was incapable of producing products cheaply, and there was an irreconcilable contradiction in his philosophy between between the idea of a craft-based economy and the idea of a society where everyone could lead a life of modest prosperity. It’s well understood now that the vaguely-envisioned non-industrial society of Ruskin and Morris entailed expensive goods and low wages. That may not have been problematic for the Tory Ruskin but it was for the socialist Morris.

By the mid-19th century it was supposed that design had deteriorated because of the separation of  the “fine” from the “decorative” arts, leading to the debasement of the latter. This view persisted for a hundred years and the cause of the separation was frequently attributed to the factory system and the division of labour. Those things may have reinforced it but they cannot be said to have caused it, because it began centuries before the industrial revolution and was associated with the Renaissance conception of the liberal arts as distinct from the crafts and with the attempt of fine artists to elevate their social status.

It is also questionable whether the separation of art into “fine” and “decorative” necessarily depresses design. By the end of the 19th century the Arts and Crafts style had thoroughly permeated manufacturing industry and it dominated domestic goods for 20 years after Morris’s death. Some of the designs made in this period were by fine artists but not all were. The furniture painted by Morris and Burne-Jones may be said to be fine art applied to manufacture, but what of the work of pioneering industrial designers like Christopher Dresser, W. A. S. Benson and Lewis Foreman Day? The design of manufactured goods is dependent on the adequate selection and training of designers rather than on the inclusion of fine artists in the manufacturing process or erasing the distinction between the two. Manufacturers arguing for the creation of art schools said unequivocally that artisans were talented intuitive designers but that what they needed was education in the principles of design.

The low status of artisan designers and the supposed deterioration of design were generally elided in critiques of “bad design” and the latter was supposed to be a consequence of the former. But was it, and to what extent did other things cause it: 1) Indifference of the buying public to “good” design and preference for “bad” design? 2) The inadequate training of designers? 3) The expense of getting good design? All those things –  bad taste, lack of education and the commercial motive – were blamed, but there there is evidence against all of them. 1) There were prolonged and strenuous attempts to elevate taste, from the efforts of Henry Cole (above) and William Morris to the Design Centre, and they appear to have had little effect in the view of their promoters. 2) The Schools of Design and their successors spent seventy years getting designers to study the best models but critiques of bad design persisted. 3) The argument from commerce was confused from the start, between claims that the profit motive pushed out good design and claims that businesses would do much better if only they made better-designed products.

2 thoughts on “CRAFT, SKILL, DESIGN

  1. Always interesting to read your thoughts Marshall. I’m not sure I can add much, but it has always struck me that the Crafts Council has undermined its own raison d’etre in insisting that craftsmen are really artists, and if they are not artists they should aim to be. If we take them at their word, once they have convinced the benighted craftsmen of their need for higher aspirations( aka higher prices), we can only wonder when they will do themselves out of a job? If there are only artists left, what could be the purpose of a Craft Council? There is, and always will be a distinction. Even though it is unfashionable to bring the subject up. If I see, as I did walking the other day, an arch of stout wires, holding up pieces of stone, on a wide public footpath, I always look for an explanation. Is there a purpose, was there a purpose, is this some remnant of a historic artefact? If I can’t see one, I conclude ‘It must be art then’.


    1. Many people seem to have that view of the Crafts Council, Jonathan. It was significant that government support for the crafts was transferred from the Board of Trade to the Department of Education in the 1970s, recognising that the crafts were no longer relevant to industry but were part of the arts. The CC’s register of makers and Hothouse mentoring programme are nevertheless valued by many craftspeople and I think both are oversubscribed.


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