Arts and Crafts Movement – an ethnographic perspective

| January 19, 2012

Recently I came across an interesting article about the Arts and Crafts movement that might be of interest to design educators or working on related subjects (e.g. technology studies, aesthetic theory). Written by Francis E. Mascia-Lees as part of an edited volume, the article draws on her ethnographic research among crafts people in the United States. The article’s main objective is to write a “material history of the senses in commodity culture by focusing on the everyday lives of actual subjects: a group of U.S. consumers who self-consciously consume products associated with the widespread late 19th and early 20th-century Arts and Crafts movement…” (Mascia-Lees, 2011: 6). In doing so, she argues that one way of understanding how the arts and crafts movement has come to represent certain ideas about consumerism is to look at how actors in this movement assign value and meaning to both the production and consumption of crafts goods and services. This requires exploring the embodiment of aesthetic experiences or what she refers to as “aesthetic embodiment.” This concept reflects a “mode of attention to everyday detail that hones sensory receptivity to the specificity of things” (2011, 19). In developing this idea further Mascia-Lees relates these ideas to the work of William Morris, whose efforts to counter mass industrial trends in the 1800s gave birth to the modern ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement. Through this reading she provides an overview of his life’s work and relates his key ideas to contemporary issues in a number of informative and provocative ways. For instance, she writes that Morris’s primary objective was to produce and sell “objects based on socialist principles” rather than produce goods “based on specific design principles” (2011: 13). But this is not the major argument of the paper. Rather, Mascia-Lees argues that the Arts and Crafts movement provides consumers with an alternative way of navigating dominant consumer structures. As such the article raises a number of timely questions that are facing the field of design/technology studies. Below are a few quotes from the article that I found both informative and helpful for thinking about such topics like the DIY movement, sustainability, or the relationship between the creative practices of designers and the ideological forces shaping modern consumer cultures.

“Handicraft also constitutes a way of being in the world…” (2011, 18)

“… buying a product from its maker provides them with an alternative to buying mass-produced items, affording them an ethical position that allows them to navigates at least some aspects of consumer culture…” (ibid)

“Buying a handicraft is not only a way to resist mass production, but also to rein in its excess.” (ibid)


Mascia-Lees, Frances E. (2011). Aesthetic Embodiment and Commodity Capitalism. In A companion to the Anthropology of the body and Embodiment, First Edition. Francis E. Mascia-Lees (ed). Pp. 3-23. U.K: Blackwell Publishing