History of Design (Product) | Historicism & Industrial Revolution Essay

In this essay, we will be discussing about the design reform movements of Historicism that were led by the Industrial Revolution.


The Industrial Revolution, which took place during the 18th to 19th century, was a transitional period which agrarian, rural societies became industrialised. Prior to the Industrial Revolution which began in the Great Britain, manufacturing were often based in homes, using hand tools or basic machines. However, the introduction of industrialisation marked a shift to automatic powered machineries, factories and mass production.

Industrial Revolution

There were a number of factors that contributed to Britain’s role as the birthplace of Industrial Revolution. One, Britain had great deposits of coal and iron ore, which was an essential raw material during industrialisation. Two, Britain was a politically stable society, as well as the world’s leading colonial power. These colonies served as a source of raw materials and acted as a marketplace for manufactured goods. Adding onto the rising demands in British goods, the sought for cost-efficient and effective methods production, led to the rise in mechanisation and factory systems.

Started in 1760, the First Industrial Revolution marked the era of mechanisation which saw the rise of industries mechanised by steam engine, the fast-paced textile industry and evolving stages of metallurgy and metal works. This includes the Spinning Mule that was invented by Samuel Compton and Newcomen’s Atmospheric Steam Engine that was invented by Thomas Newcomen. Following, the Second Industrial began in the 1870 which saw a rise in innovations in the communication, transport and manufacturing sector.

In 1851, the Great Exhibition took place in Hyde Park, London. The exhibition demonstrated the rapid change in technology during the early 19th century with exhibits of traditional tools as well as the revolutionary steam driven engines that were only available in Britain at that time. Despite the huge popularity from the public, the negative responses at the idea of machines replacing manual labour outweighed the positive reactions to the cutting edge technology. [1]

Unfortunately for the craftsmen, the Industrial Revolution brought forth heavy duty machinery and new, superior materials. Hand power gave way to steam driven machines while cast iron replaced wood and brick. Production of such spelt disaster for the craftsmen where machines could produce en-masse, resulting in the merchants selling their mass-produced merchandise at a lower price, reaping in huge lump sum of profit.

The Arts & Crafts Movement 

The Great Exhibition triggered a series of deign reform movements. Started in the late 19th century to 20th century, the Arts & Crafts movement was the first movement to emerge as a reaction to the social changes initiated by the Industrial Movement. It seeks to “turn artist into craftsmen and craftsmen into artist” emphasising the use of handicraft as opposed to machine production. The movement was influenced by the work of the designer William Morris, who believed strongly in the importance of creating beautiful, well-made objects that were used in the daily lives of the people as well as the objects being produced in a way that allows the maker to remain connected both with the product and the buyer. Morris was not entirely against the use of machines but he felt the division of labour under the mechanised system, where the manufacturing of an object were broken into small separate tasks, resulting in the lack of personalised touch by the maker. [2]

Art Nouveau

Emerged as part from the Arts & Crafts movement, Art Nouveau is an international style of  decorative arts. With a literal meaning of ‘New Art’, the practitioners felt that earlier designs had been excessively ornamental and in wishing to avoid what they considered as a frivolous decoration, they evolved a belief that the function of an objective should dictate its form.


With the beginning of World War I came the true start of Modernism. Modernism is a general umbrella term that houses many smaller sub-movements. These sub-movements include but are limited to Bauhaus and De Stilj. Modernism is a cultural movement that spread across Europe in the 19th and 20th century. It encompasses the activities and output of those who felt that the traditional form of art, architecture, social organization and daily life were lagging behind in this new economic, social and political conditions of an emerging industrialised world.

De Stijl Movement

De Stijl, which simply means ‘The Style’ in Dutch, emerged largely in response to the World War I with a return to order where the war torn apart social values in the western world. Formed by painter Piet Mondrian and artist Theo van Doesburg, De Stijl aimed to reformed the society where their aesthetic aimed to eliminate false distinctions between the so-called high art, applied and architecture. [3] It sought to express a new utopian ideal of spiritual harmony and order through the pure language of abstraction, consisting of only rectilinear shapes with primary colours.

Bauhaus Movement

Although short-lived, the influence of De Stijl led to the emergence of the Bauhaus movement that follows a philosophy of turning away from old structures and employ modernism with a sense of functionality for social and political purposes. Originated as a German school of arts in the early 20th century, the school was founded by Walter Gropius with a vision of bridging the gap between art and industry by combining crafts and fine arts. The style of Bauhaus is commonly characterised by economic sensibility, simplicity with a focus on mass production. The Bauhaus movement teaches “truth to materials” as a core tenet, which means that the material should be used in its most appropriate and honest form where its nature should not be altered. The use of machine-made, mass produced steel tubing created simple forms that required little handcrafting contributed to the streamlined, modern look of Bauhaus furniture.


In conclusion, Historicism consisted of different art movements which uses a variation of techniques to express different forms of art. Art has slowly moved from decorative to a more functionality based, closing up the gaps between artists and craftsmen.


[1] Lerner, Fern. “Foundations for Design Education: Continuing the Bauhaus Vorkurs Vision.” Studies in Art Education 46, no. 3 (2005): 211-26. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3497081.

[2] “V&A · Arts and Crafts: An Introduction.” Introduction to 19th-Century Fashion. Accessed September 03, 2018. https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/arts-and-crafts-an-introduction.

[3] Bigman, Alex. “A Brief Visual History of the Utopian De Stijl Movement.” 99designs. March 20, 2018. Accessed September 03, 2018. https://99designs.com.sg/blog/design-history-movements/know-your-design-history-the-utopian-de-stijl-movement/.


Leave a Reply