Design Reform and the Aesthetic Movement

With the Industrial Revolution in full swing, both socio-political and design concerns were surfacing in the early part of the nineteenth century. While the increase in manufacturing productivity had created a new middle class with the economic power to purchase the abundance of products being produced, it had also created an urban laboring class. Laborers suffered from long work days, low wages, and perilous working conditions. Cities became overcrowded, unsanitary and disease-ridden. Working class discontent and labor uprisings pointed to the need for reform.
The glut of manufactured goods created concerns over declining production quality. Beginning in the 1830s, the British government was actively steps toward design reform. The Select Committee on Arts and Manufactures, which was under the Board of Trade, sought to increase manufacturing exports by taking steps to improve manufacturing. During this period schools of design were established. The Select Committee advocated for a “balance between beauty and utility and the use of decoration derived from the study of botanical forms” (Raizman 50). The goal was to apply a common standard of taste.
The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London was much criticised by advocates for design reform, including Owen Jones, designer and an exhibition organizer, who said that many products showed “novelty without beauty, beauty without intelligence, and all work without faith” (Raizman 55). Other advocates of reform of this time period were A.W.N. Pugin who advocated for Gothic Revival and Charles Eastlake who published Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery, and Other Details (1868).
Design Reform was an effort to apply a level of order and taste to the overwrought eclecticism and excessive ornamentation of the Victorian Era. In the second half of the nineteenth century these sentiments had gained momentum began to give way to a new approach to design. This age of reform is characterized by streamlining, simplification and lightening of the heavy Victorian style. Elsie de Wolfe, the first woman professional decorator, was an innovator in this way. She “stripped away the many overlays of things that the Industrial Revolution had made possible by 1851” (Tate & Smith 240). A visitor said of her dining room, that it was “a model of simplicity… gold and white” (238). This overriding focus on beauty, unity, and cohesiveness of design became known as the Aesthetic Movement. “Sources of inspiration, materials, processes, and subjective meaning” were critically important in this movement (Raizman 69).
The wealthy began employing design firms to handle the outfitting of their homes. One such firm was that of Tiffany & Wheeler, Louis Comfort Tiffany who would go on to found the famous lamp company and Candace Wheeler who was known for developing a process for simulating embroidery on fabrics. They worked for such prestigious clients as President Arthur and Mark Twain. Tiffany and Wheeler’s design for the Veterans’ Room and Library at the Seventh Regiment National Guard Armory, New York, was an intricately patterned and textured space typical of the Aesthetic Movement. Every surface was transformed by some detailing (Meikle 71-73).
The call for reform would continue to evolve. William Morris and John Ruskin view of design reform would advocate for a new ethical framework linking craftsmanship, artisanship, and social reform. Their philosophies would give rise to the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Questions: Design is cyclical. The Victorian Era has been called Rococo Revival. The revolt against its excesses resulted in the Neoclassical Style. The revolt against Victorian Style culminated in Modernism. Where on the continuum of minimalist to eclectic do you think we are currently? Where do you think design is headed?