The Arts and Crafts Movement in Muskoka

The Arts and Crafts Movement, beginning around 1860, ran parallel to but in opposition of Victorian excesses. Since Arts and Crafts architecture is heavily represented in Muskoka, it is interesting to understand the politics and philosophy behind its creation.

The Industrial Revolution, while bringing technological experimentation and innovation, also generated squalor and human exploitation. Prosperity for the elite came at the expense of an underpaid workforce of men, women and children who were squashed into unplanned urban environments so they could work in the factories. Change had come too rapidly to be planned for. There was no sanitation, no schools, no fresh water, and brutally long working hours, promoting the use of drugs like opium and liquor to dull the reality of their existence.

In Victorian times the growth of factory work produced wretched working conditions for adults and children alike. For the first time, work was broken down into a series of small, repetitive, mundane tasks on an assembly line, making the people slaves to the machine. Because of the availability of inexpensive machine tooled decorative items, the demand for expensive hand crafted work declined, and the demand for cheaper machine made reproductions, made to a rigid pattern, flourished.

Reformers like Charles Dickens rallied against this new reality. Encouraged by William Morris, the English Arts and Crafts movement was born. The philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement was a search for authenticity and a rebellion against the dehumanization and excesses of the Industrial Revolution. They believed that morality, art and nature were directly connected, and that industrialization separated man from nature and thus from morality. This romantic revival of an idealized past suggested that craftsmanship would reconnect man with nature and morality.

Through this movement they sought to reverse the position of man as slave to the machine, making a craftsman the master of the machine. Inspired by the writings of John Ruskin, there was a movement against the division of labour. Rather than revering the speed of mass production and a rigidly adhered to plan, the thinkers behind the Arts and crafts movement believed one person should create an entire piece, using the machines as tools to facilitate the mundane parts of the job, but leaving the human work to be the creativity and decisions required to make the piece uniquely and superbly crafted. Through this process, pride of accomplishment could be derived and the person would be lifted from a subservient role to that of a craftsman who is the master of the machine. There would be honesty in design when items were not mass produced, as the designer would be able to make spontaneous decisions and improvements during production, rather that being confined to a rigid plan, as working on an assembly line would demand.

The popular Victorian style of heavy ornamentation and machine tooled, mass produced opulent designs was rejected by William Morris, the father of Art sand Crafts, in favour of simpler forms, high quality craftsmanship and natural materials. Since Japan had opened to the West in 1854, the influence of oriental design had impacted the leaders of the Arts and Crafts movement and could be seen in the simplicity of their designs.

Like other Victorian styles, the North American application of Arts and Crafts architecture did not always match the English styles. In fact, some styles that were indigenous to North America emerged from the British Arts and Crafts movement. They are Shingle style, Craftsman Style and Prairie School Style. However it is really only Craftsman and Shingle style that are commonly found across Muskoka.

Craftsman homes are recognized by their low pitched roof, wide eaves with triangular brackets, exposed rafters tails, porches with thick square or round columns, stone exterior chimney, numerous windows, beamed ceilings, dark wood wainscoting and open floor plans. Craftsman comes from the name of a magazine that was published by Gustav Stickley from 1901-1906. A true Craftsman style home or cottage is built from the plans from this magazine, however the name has broadened to mean a building constructed with Arts and Crafts ideals.

Shingle style is especially common in construction of the large lake properties in Muskoka. It is an unadorned structure with asymmetrical massing, informal use of small paned windows clustered in groups of two’s or three’s, and the exterior walls are clad in shingles.

Many of the homes and cottages built with the Arts and Crafts ideals have inglenooks. Inglenooks are small cozy areas, often near a fireplace, where built in benches or bunks are available for seating or sleeping. They are common in old Muskoka cottages. Our architect used an inglenook as an “away room”very effectively in our small cottage.

Both Craftsman and Shingle style homes and cottages are often filled with built in and freestanding furniture that was created especially for the building by the architect and builder. This furniture was often, but not always, made from quarter cut oak, and had the linear pattern we know so well from the currently popular Mission or Stickley furniture. During a recent cottage tour of an old Muskoka shingle style cottage, it was easy to see the furniture that was original to the cottage as it had the same acorn motif cut into it as was cut into the staircase and some trim pieces on the main building.

Arts and Crafts influences are also currently very popular in custom construction across Muskoka. A boat ride or a drive will enable you to locate numerous Arts and Crafts characteristics in homes and cottages.

Thelma Jarvis Sales Representative

Port Carling: (705) 765-6855
Bracebridge: (705) 645 5257
Cell: (705) 644-3554
Fax: (705) 645-1238

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