Arts & Crafts and the Non-human

I’m increasingly interested in non-human-centered design, and one of the places to find its traces may be in pre-modern design.

In part, that is why I’m going back to the Arts & Crafts movement, and in particular to the writings of Walter Crane. He was an illustrator and a painter who worked closely with William Morris on design projects and political endeavors.

Crane was also a teacher at two of the oldest design programs in England, the Manchester Municipal School and, for a short time, the Royal College of Arts. He wrote several books that register his classes and attempt a systemic approach to design that’s quite different from later efforts.

For instance, where recent design history tends to focus on people, Crane’s is interestingly impersonal. He talks mostly about places, objects, and, above all, form. Isolated from individuals, it’s as if forms have a life of their own as if they drive history themselves.

That is visible in the image, where Crane uses the passive voice to talk about form. Writing using the passive voice is considered a style problem because it obscures who is the action’s subject. However, in this case, it conceals the human role in the evolution of form, giving it an organic, lifelike drive.

Crane’s writings point to a design history where the human and the individual are background elements. At most, he writes about collectives about peoples – which had some darker undertones that I will talk about in other texts.

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