The Arts and Crafts movement--back to the future?

Before this Kat was first purring, he would encounter “arts and crafts” programmes at school and summer camp. Being manually maladroit, he shunned anything to do with it and sought refuge on the baseball or football (the U.S. kind) pitch, taking strength in the fact that arts and crafts were for sissies. My oh my, has this Kat’s view of the arts and crafts world changed (and with it an apology that he owes all of his mates from that earlier time who did not join him then on the sports pitch). Ultimately finding his way to the IP world, this Kat has spent much of the last 30 years protecting and giving value to the arts and crafts creations of others.

During that time, he has become familiar with the Arts and Crafts movement which, under the leadership of William Morris, flourished towards the end of the 19th century, first in England and later elsewhere. The movement was largely anti-industrial and anti-capitalist in outlook. It lamented what it perceived to have been the decline in the state of the decorative arts as well as the conditions in which production and manufacture took place. As noted in Wikipedia, “it stood for traditional craftsmanship using simple forms and often applied medieval, romantic or folk styles of decoration.” However, the movement ultimately dissipated, due in part to its rejection of industrialism and capitalism and, as noted by The Economist (see below), in its fixation on a perceived “artisanal golden age that had never existed.”

The central issue of dispute within the movement was whether the machine had any role to play in the acts of creation and production. While the purist position would have preferred to reject any role for machines, even the leaders of the movement seemed to have recognized that this view was untenable. In the famous House of Lords case, Hensher v Restawile [1976] AC 64, Lord Simon discusses this point, noting that even Morris himself “acknowledged that the machine could be useful in extinguishing all irksome and unintelligent labour, leaving us free to raise the standard of skill of hand and energy of mind of our workmen.” Moreover, …[t]he Central School of Arts and Crafts, though foremost a school of handicrafts, has as a declared aim to encourage ‘the industrial application of decorative design.’ “The most salient IP implication of this dispute was the recognition of copyright protection for works of artistic craftsmanship on the one hand, and protection of industrial designs on the other, the first being an act of singular creation, without mediation of the machine, with the other seeking to protect aesthetic creation if reproduced in sufficient quantities as part of a functional item.

Those who believe that the Arts and Crafts movement was only a passing moment in history would be well-advised to consider the article, “Artisanal capitalism: The art and craft of business”, which appeared in the January 4, 2014 issue of The Economist, here. The article describes the flourishing of the modern crafts (or “maker”) industry, focusing on a Brooklyn, NY company named Etsy, here and here, which is an e-commerce site that sells handmade or vintage items (which must be at least 20 years old) as well as, more recently, factory-manufactured items that are made to the company’s guidelines. For those who you are looking for a snow-goose necklace ($27) or a “minimalist” stainless-steel toilet-roll holder ($36), this is the place for you. The company charges 20 cents for each listing and 3.5 cents for each sale. For 2013, sales are reported to have exceeded one billion dollars.

So how do the classic concerns that engaged in the Arts and Crafts movement play out within the
context of the maker movement? First, there is a wide embrace of certain technology as a part of the act of creation and, in particular, use of computer-aided design (CAD) and 3D printing. As a result, as reported in the article,
“[t]oday’s artisans are also taking advantage of advances in 3D printing and computer-assisted design. In 2013 about 100,000 designs per month were uploaded to Shapeways, a 3D producer with a marketplace on which 13,500 designers have opened shops.” 
 Whether use of a 3D printing file to make a product should be considered the spiritual heir to a work created pursuant to the Arts and Crafts movement seems questionable; reliance on a CAD file seems less conceptually problematic.

Second is the issue of what is called “outsourced supply chains”, which in some ways has come to
replace the preoccupation over the machine in the 19th-century movement. The question is whether enabling the making of articles to be carried out by third parties, subject to the rules of Etsy, is a deviation too far from the principles of the maker movement. The current chief executive of Etsy reckons that it is sufficient that the seller be the “author” of the article, which means that the seller/author is transparent about who is making it. The goal is to ensure, albeit via self-policing by the sellers themselves, that the article was in fact made by “only small artisanal manufacturers” and not in a sweatshop in Asia. Some so-called Etsians have expressed outrage (and some have even quit the site) at this change of policy, claiming that in effect it is selling out “true artisans” in favour of policies serving the interests of the company’s investors, who see a potentially lucrative IPO ahead.

As for IP, the issue of how to protect individual works of craftsmanship may well be challenged as never before by the direction in which that the maker movement seems to be headed. There is another consideration, however, that merits attention, and that is the role of branding and marketing. The most successful of the 19th century artisans loyal to the Arts and Crafts movement presumably enjoyed the commercial premium that their name enjoyed, although this Kat could not find a discussions on how this played out against the movement's anti-capitalist orientation. Whatever the dynamic of that former time, the current form of the maker movement, being an e-commerce platform in nature, will provide quite different opportunities for even the smallest artisan to develop his personal brand as a type of commercial and competitive advantage. Whether this might be seen as running counter to the goals and principles of the maker movement is an interesting question.
The Arts and Crafts movement--back to the future? The Arts and Crafts movement--back to the future? Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Friday, February 21, 2014 Rating: 5


  1. A very thoughtful post. Yes, the self-styled "Maker Movement" has been explicitly anti-IP from the outset, and views the printers as an ideological cudgel. However, its already marginal influence will become even less significant once the mass market adopts the technology globally.

    As you say, what could be more exciting than an individual artisan - a 10 year old pupil in India - receiving income as their design is printed out all over the world? In-game app purchases already demonstrate that parents willingly support small purchases. The only people with anything to lose from IP marketplaces for 3D printing are the freejadists.

  2. I believe that a sister post exploring the Luddites would be in order.

    There are parallels with anti-innovation that could be used for a lesson in today's world.

  3. Was at a talk a couple of weeks ago at the house Baillie Scott built for the Holt family at Blackwell : It was built as a holiday home and (as photographs show) was filled with the family's old Victorian furniture. Yes - love Arts & Crafts stuff - but wonder if we're perhaps sometimes too precious these days - isn't copying sometimes flattery ?


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