The Arts and Crafts movement may have emerged 140 years ago, but it has hardly fallen out of favour since: in fact, echoes of William Morris, John Ruskin and their peers’ focus on traditional skills, craftsmanship and simple, nature-inspired designs – a reaction against the mass-produced furniture and ornate fabrics popular at the time – can be found in the current appreciation for handmade pieces. Millennials and older generations’ fervour to do away with fast furniture and plastic waste is now such that the BBC is launching The Victorian House of Arts and Crafts, a documentary, reality show and craft contest hybrid, which begins tonight.
The programme is an experiment in applying the aesthetic and socialist ideals that underpinned the Arts and Crafts movement – the aim of creating beautiful, authentically made furniture, accessible to all – to a group of modern-day craftspeople, challenging six crafters to spend a month together in a Victorian commune. They reside in an Arts and Crafts house in rural Wales, just as they would have done in the late 1800s, with no electricity or modern comforts and dressed in the clothes of the day. Each week they decorate a different room in the house, making furniture, wallpaper, curtains and accessories using only the basic tools that would have been used at the time, and their efforts are judged by presenter Anita Rani, potter Keith Brymer Jones (previously of The Great Pottery Throwdown), and antiques expert Patch Rogers. In the spirit of William Morris’s idealist philosophy, they must work together to complete the pieces, and experience what Morris called ‘the joy in labour’.
Inevitably, there are the personality clashes that occur when six people used to working alone are put in close quarters and under pressure, but the real heart of the show is how detailed each object the crafters make really is.
Tonight’s episode sees woodwork designer Abdollah making a reproduction of Morris & Co’s Sussex Chair, with a turned wooden frame and a woven rush seat. Starting from scratch with a length of tree trunk, he splits the wood by hand, turns it on a foot-powered lathe, steam-bends the spindles and carves their decorative markings. Meanwhile, embroiderer Niamh helps by painstakingly weaving the seat from reeds. As Keith Brymer Jones observes, “It’s fascinating to see this tree trunk go from a big lump of wood to a lovely fine spindle, and it’s being done by a very simple lathe and a hell of a lot of patience.
“That’s the thing that comes over in all the products: the amount of patience the crafter needed to be able to achieve these beautiful objects,” he adds. It takes more than 80 hours in total, and, according to Abdollah, he didn’t sleep for two nights in order to get it done.
The time pressure and the lack of modern tools has, he says, enhanced his working practices since leaving Wales. “The process of making in the programme was so compact. We were given a task that would normally take a month to do, but we had five or six days max. I learned to start making from the moment I got my project, and I had so much focus because of not being connected to social media and not being connected to daily life. I couldn’t believe that I could create a piece of quality furniture within five days with no power.”
Metalworker Bryony similarly found the lack of modern machinery and electric light a challenge when tasked with replicating a delicate silver dish by the Arts and Crafts designer Charles Robert Ashbee: “I had to drill about 50 holes by hand, which took a day; I could do that in half an hour in my studio,” she says. Working entirely by hand, she starts with a sheet of silver, which she saws, hammers and polishes into a thing of exquisite beauty. Likewise, product designer Ilsa first hand-draws a design for a William Morris-inspired wallpaper, then carves it into wooden blocks, and hand-block-prints the pattern, in three colours, on to enough wallpaper to decorate an entire room.
A common theme among the crafters is that the aspect of the project they found the most challenging - living with no power, no light when the sun went down, and no connection to normal life - was also the most rewarding. As Bryony points out, working with hand tools “links you back to craftspeople from hundreds and thousands of years ago”, while Abdollah adds “Very little access to tools and materials pushed me to the edge, which made me more creative.”
Given the time and effort that goes into the objects they produce, such pieces would naturally be expensive to buy in the real world, a tete-a-tete between craftsmanship, quality and affordability that the original Arts and Crafters also grappled with. But at a time when cheap, mass-produced, disposable furniture is starting to lose its gloss - both for aesthetic reasons, and its effect on the planet - this in-depth look at the work of Morris, Ashbee and their contemporaries is a timely reminder of the lasting power of the handmade.
The Victorian House of Arts and Crafts starts tonight at 9pm on BBC2
Where to find handmade homewares
Brodgar chairThis modern update on a traditional oak Windsor chair, with a curved woven straw back, is a collaboration between London-based furniture maker Gareth Neal and Orkney chair-maker Kevin Gauld. £2,050, The New Craftsmen.