Designed to please

6th May 2005 at 01:00
Lesley Hoskins recommends a book about the Arts and Crafts Movement

Textiles of the Arts and Crafts Movement By Linda Parry Thames Hudson Pounds 14.95

Set up a group of artists and designers in 1888, the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society ran regular exhibitions of the decorative arts, with textiles as a major category. This book looks at the textiles, their designers and manufacturers connected with the society's heyday untill it's decline in 1916.

Defining the Arts and Crafts Movement is particularly challenging because of its strong ideological basis. The society's main aim was to raise the status of the decorative arts. As one of its founders, AH Mackmurdo, recalled, its aims included turning "industry in the direction of producing such kind of decorative form and ornament as can be produced without detriment by mechanical processes".

Although many of the textiles were hand-made, the involvement of commercial manufacturers was welcomed by the society, provided they aligned production techniques and decoration with the inherent qualities of the materials.

The VA exhibition, International Arts and Crafts (until July 24), highlights questions such as whether hand-making is a necessary component and whether we can talk about an Arts and Crafts style.

Although Linda Parry admits to discomfort with the expression "Arts and Crafts", she is able to indicate a common stylistic thread. Many designs draw inspiration from flowers and plants, with the naturalism highly stylised. Patterns respect the flatness of the medium and are resolutely two-dimensional, frequently emphasised by outlining. Soft effects and irregularities associated with hand techniques such as stenciling and indigo-discharge printing are often featured. Many of the colour reproductions in this beautifully produced book are large enough to show the texture and tactility of the fabrics as well as the delicate clarity of draughtsmanship in the original paper designs.

A useful catalogue of Arts and Crafts designers, craftsmen, institutions and firms backs up the aesthetic detail. More generally, the book illuminates how the production of textiles results from complex interrelationships of ideology, design, manufacturing, retailing and consumer demand. This book is a marvellous resource for the textiles sections of A and AS product design and art and design. It is also a pleasure to read and a joy to look at.

Lesley Hoskins is specialist curator at the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, Middlesex University

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