top of page
© Copyright

    Pre-Industrial Revolution Art and Design


By Alex Brown





Design without plastics or steel; Design without electricity; Design without factories;  Design without design magazines or TV; Design without tracing paper or coloured markers; Design without cameras or photostat machines; Design without aeroplanes, trains, cars; this was the reality of design in the pre-industrial age.


The purpose of this lecture is to examine the process and products of design in such conditions (around 1800) - before the Industrial Revolution (the Machine Age) when products had to be created by hand - one by one. Note the difference between:


1.     CRAFT PRODUCTION: before the Industrial Revolution where the design and the making of the product were carried out by one skilled person (in a single operation).


2.     INDUSTRIAL PRODUCTION: From, say, 1820 onwards, Design and Production were split into two distinct operations each carried out by 'specialists': those who Design and those who Make.  It also meant the Mass Production of products. Not one at a time, but possibly hundreds at a time.




Up to the 19th century, wealth in most societies meant owning LAND. It was the land-owning classes who were the chief patrons (clients) of art and design. There was a clear class structure of landowning aristocracy, a small professional and middle class, peasant farmers and a small urban working and trading class. Public taste was defined by the education and traditions of the aristocracy which were those of the Classical past. That is, based on Greek, Roman and Renaissance models of taste.


During the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century a Middle Class emerged whose wealth was based on owning factories, coal mines, shipping lines, and so on and on certain types of professional expertise: lawyers, doctors, bankers, architects and designers.


The other  aspect to note was the clear class distinction that was made between ART and UTILITY (function): between:


1.     the artist regarded as 'divinely-inspired' and who could be invited to the houses of the rich,


2.     the craftsman seen merely as a skilled workman who remained unseen in his craft  workshop.




The art and design styles of the pre-industrial age reflect the fact that European society of 18th and early 19th century was caught in a cultural trap from which it couldn't escape.


Art Movements had come and gone but all seemed to pay homage to, and circle around the great Classical themes. One can say quite definitely that the only stylistic source and authority for art and design in the pre-Industrial period was that of  TRADITION - and usually,  the Classical Tradition.


Politically and intellectually however, this period was revolutionary. In 1776 The American Revolution took place against against British rule.  In 1789 The French Revolution brought about the most radical political and social changes. A new spirit of rational enquiry - the Enlightenment - subjected all authority and tradition to criticism. In another area of society, that same spirit would lead to the invention of new machines and to the first continuous power source: steam power which would truely revolutionize industry and society.


The effect of these great changes in the 18th century and the spirit of analysis which drove them would not yet dramatically alter the character of the arts. That would come later. Tradition would remain the source of artistic authority for another hundred years. 




The aristocracy were schooled in the Classical traditions of Europe. Indeed one part of the education of an aristocrat in the 18th and early 19th centuries was to take the 'Grand Tour' through Europe to the monuments of Renaissance, Roman and Greek Classical civilizations. This plus the literature, paintings, sculpture and architecture of the time derived from the earlier Renaissance, Baroque and Roccoco periods fixed the artistic taste of the period firmly in the Classical mold.


This can be seen in two favoured styles of the period:


1.     Neo- Classicism:   An attempt to recover Classical (Greek) purity of form.


2.   Romanticism:   A Tragic, expressive and theatrical version of Classicism.


These styles defined the character of the major arts of the period and also the DECORATIVE DETAILS applied to functional items to 'make them 'beautiful'. Items such as chairs, tables, cabinets, ceramics, clocks, lampstandards, and so on, were heavily decorated with Classical and other antique forms which integrated them into the overall Neo-classical environment.


Note that undecorated or purely utilitarian forms would have been totally meaningless to artists and patrons of the period. 


5.0 NEOCLASSICISM (1750-1820)


Although it could not yet break out of the Classical mold, art and design was affected by the new critical attitudes of the Enlightenment, subjecting Classicism itself to analysis in an attempt to find the TRUE CLASSICAL PRINCIPLES on which art and design could be based. The result of this more 'rational' analysis of tradition was to pull out and stereotype the most 'pure' and essential features and forms of the Classical canon (standard forms and composition techniques). This kind of thinking produced the Neo-Classical style.  (Note: 'Neo-' is Greek for `new'. Neo-Classicism is, therefore, the new Classicism).


Characteristics of Neo-Classical Art


1.     Cool, severe, linear and restrained in expression and colour.

2.     Simpler and more restrained decoration

3.     A much simplified Classical architecture - more Greek than Roman.

4.     Use of simple geometric shapes- pyramids, spheres, cubes.


6.0 ROMANTICISM  (1790-1850)


The rational analysis which had produced the Neo-Classical ended up by destroying the validity of Classicism itself. Rationalism made it clear that once you denied the authority of Tradition, Classicism was just one style amongst others. No absolute authority or system - whether Religious (Gothic) or Classical, now determined what style the artist should use.


The result of this was the breakdown of stylistic order where anything became possible. The only limit was now to be that of the artist's and designer's IMAGINATION - which defined the character of the new style called ROMANTICISM. Romanticism ultimately meant a kind of artistic freedom and led to an outburst of emotion, naturalism, nostalgia, sentiment and decoration in art.


Characteristics of Romantic Art.


1.     Dreamlike, tragic or horrific subject matter is now represented

2.     The artist is seen as a tragic, romantic and visionary figure.

3.     Experimentation with colour, subject matter & form takes place.

4.     Architecture and Design: mixture of different styles for different situations.


The destruction of Classicism as the ultimate authority opened up the way for a diversity and mixtures of styles. Since all styles were equally valid their semantic power was, to some extent, neutralized.


For this reason, DECORATION became the main vehicle for maintaining the semantic function of buildings and products. It provided the unity and variety of form required to express the meaning of the object.




The Philosophy of Rationalism which influenced the French Enlightenment viewed history and society in terms of PROCESS - not fixed ideas or things. History was regarded as a natural and dynamic unfolding of events which has its own irresistable logic. Authority, derived from the past was seen as an attempt to block or hold back the flow of history. Political authority (eg. kings, emperors, etc) or cultural authority (Tradition and Classicism), were subjected to intense criticism during this period destroying their credibility.


In art and design terms, this rejection of the 'authority of the past' would lead to the beginnings of the Modern Movement and Functionalism. So too the Rationalist idea of Process fitted exactly with the irresistible driving energy of the Machine which was beginning to impose itself more and more on daily life in early 19th century society. The general results of these Rationalists tendencies can be outlined as follows:


1.     The ideas of Modernism, Functionalism and Rationalism became completely linked and   opposed to Tradition, Decoration and Authority.


2.      It became possible to judge a work of design on how well it addressed and solved its own immediate functional and semantic problems without reference to traditional practices.  


3.     No one historical style could now regard itself as automatically superior, more valid or more correct than others by appealing to past authority. For Rationalism, HISTORY WAS HAPPENING NOW.




In the late 18th century, the tradesmen and the makers of things were near the bottom of the social scale. Yet it was this group - makers of pumps, ironmongers, glassmakers, clockmakers and amateur inventors of all sorts that began to produce the machines and power sources which would trigger the Industrial Revolution and the massive social and political changes which would follow.


Between 1700 and 1850 a whole new technology arose based on machines which were not dependent on variable sources of energy such as human, water or wind-driven.


They were based on STEAM and its continuous, constant driving energy.


Projected through pistons, turning wheels and powering all sorts of machines, steam was used for trains, factory engines, ships, mining water pumps and everything else which needed a constant source of energy. So too came inventions in electricity, the internal combustion engine, precision clocks and engineering, oil extraction processes and so on in a great burst of invention.


The MACHINE AGE had begun.




Rationalism had destroyed the credibility and authority of the past, without yet providing an alternative vision. The results of this were:


1.     Since there was no SINGLE authoritative style, designers now viewed the past as an   enormous 'wharehouse' of equally valid styles. ECLECTICISM - choosing from a wide range of  stylistic sources - became the key approach of designers in the early 19th century. 


2.    The confusion of the period and the search for an authentic single style led to the REVIVAL of the Gothic style. Its use spread from church building to all kinds of design products. By the middle of the 19th century Gothic Revival design competed with Classical as the 'style of the age'. 


3.      At the centre of the Gothic style was the idea of Simplicity, Morality and Truth which extended to the use of materials, the expression of the functional derived in part from the original boldness of Gothic engineering.


4.       The two main design styles - Classical and Gothic Revival - identify and develop their most basic values These fundamental values were:


                  a)      For Classicism: order, discipline and pure Euclidian geometry.


                  b)      For Gothicism: truth to materials, flexibility and direct expression of function.


Somewhere in this combination of Classical discipline, Gothic Revival Morality and the force of industrial power lay the seeds of the Modern Movement. That is, Design integrated with Industry in a powerful new synthesis. The Modern did not arise out of nowhere. It was a development and synthesis of what already existed 


Later, when stripped of their decorative features, the merger of these two styles to give discipline, flexibility and truth to materials and function would resolve the cultural tensions of the 19th century.




In design terms a major split had occurred. Mass-produced goods of limited taste flooded the newly-created mass market. The 'High Art' tastes of the artist and the upper classes were overwhelmed by the number of new products being projected on to the market by raw industrial power. For many, the solution was to reject the force of mass production. But for others, a more intelligent question was:


"Was it possible to unite the forces of raw industrial power and the principles of rational design"? 




While the debates about design ranged on in Design circles and amongst the educated upper classes about what style was 'correct': Neo-Classic, Romantic or Gothic, at the level of everyday life, the growing power of industry was creating a whole new lifestyle for the mass of the population.


Consumer goods in great numbers were being produced which basically avoided the whole issue of style. They were cheap, mass produced, functional items which solved everyday problems without fuss or pretensions to 'art' or 'greatness' very much in the spirit of the simple craftsmen of a previous age.


This spirit of UTILITY (fitness for purpose) can be clearly seen in the items advertized in the large number of manufacturers' catalogues which appeared in the 19th century (eg. Sears Roebuck in the USA and Whiteley's in the UK). Looking through the pages of these and other catalogues gives a very different picture of the design issues of the day. Here are displayed the simplest factory-produced everyday items: domestic metalware of all sorts: (Eg. knives and forks, scissors, stoves, pots, sewing machines, kitchen items, etc); simple glassware and ceramic items (Eg. Wedgewood) cheap functional furniture: (Eg. the Thonet bentwood chair range), and so on.    


These items may look craft made - they are 'ordinary' and simple. Yet the significant thing is that they were produced in factories by mass production techniques. In this sense the great issues of style were being OVERTAKEN BY EVENTS - the 'event' of the factory and the mass market in consumer goods.


While the artistic elite argued about appropriate style, industry was changing the world and making the argument itself out-of-date.




By the middle of the 19th there was , in effect a 'two-track' approach to design.


1.     A utilitarian, functional, matter-of-fact, consumer-led and, in a sense - democratic approach.


        Direct and to-the-point in terms of usefulness and practicality.


2.     A matter of prestige, aesthetics and social display.


It was not enough that the product perform its designed task, it also had to reflect the social status of its owner with highly decorated, rich materials which sometimes got in the way of its efficiency of use.


However, the factory system and mass production would ensure that the first design approach would soon dominate the consumer-led forces of Modern design.




The Europeans were, to some extent trapped by their cultural traditions - two thousand years of it. They were surrounded by examples of it and the education of their social elites was based on that long - essentially Classical tradition. In a situation like this it would be difficult to imagine different and alternative design possibilities when the whole environment is loaded with the Classical (and to some extent Gothic) past.


In the United States however, this was not the case. There in the 19th century, a new society was in the making and it was still open to new ideas without recourse to tradition. Socially, American society was still fluid in the sense that there was not a hereditary 'ruling class' which dominated the political and social thinking of the country. The few large cities which existed - New York, Chicago, San Fransisco and New Orleans were dominate by men and their families who had made money out of industry: oil, railroads, factories. While these few, established rich families were influenced by the art and tastes of European culture, outside this small group,  enterprise and money were still the deciding factor. The waves of immigrants who continued to enter America in great numbers were the enterprising poor of other countries leaving behind the rigid social and class conditions of Europe.


The great cultural and social 'melting pot' of the United States at the time provided the opportunity to DESIGN WITHOUT TRADITION. To approach problems with a directness and inventivess more difficult to achieve in tradition-bound Europe.


The result of this open and flexible attitude would be to ensure that by the end of the 19th century, American industry would have out-performed that of Britain - up till then the 'Workshop of the World' and cradle of the Industrial Revolution.




The following two quotations represent an increasingly common view of American products of the 19th century when compared with those of the Europeans:


"The American, while adhering closely to his utilitarian and economic principles has developed a degree of beauty in them that no other nation equals. His clipper ships, fire engines, locomotives and some of his machinery and tools combines that equilibrium of lines, proportions and masses which are among the fundamental causes of abstract beauty.  (James Jackson Jarves, 1869).


"It is essential to realize that in the very decades which our cultural historians have called the ugliest and bleakest in our history......The American people had developed skills and knowledge which enabled them to create patterns of clean, organic and indigenous beauty out of the crude materials of the technological environment". (John A. Kouwenhoven)




Apart from the openess to new ideas mentioned above, American production techniques finally broke with the craft tradition and brought in true mass production techniques known at the time as: 'the American system'. It was a method of production which drew considerable praise from visiting Europeans.


Essentially it was what we would now call the 'interchangability of parts'. This is the central mass production idea and it is useful to compare it with the craft methods of production which went before it.   


     1.   Craft production involved producing whole products - one at       a time.


For instance, in the production of one rifle, the trigger mechanism, barrel and stock were all made exactly to fit together only in that one rifle. The trigger mechanism for one rifle could not be used for another rifle of the same type. There are several problems with this:


a)     If a part of the rifle goes wrong, the whole rifle has to be sent back to the manufacturer because its mechanisms are designed specifically for that one item.


b)    Speed of production is relatively slow. One craftsman producing one object at a time requires a lot of craftsmen to produce a lot of objects.


c)     Craft production requires that each man knows everything about the production of the product because he has to make and assemble each part of it himself.


d)     (Note: In the U.S. in the early 19th century there was a shortage of skilled labour).


       2.       Mass production techniques


Standardized parts of objects produced separately and then assembled later into whole product.


a)      Each part is relatively simple to make


b)      Failed parts of the mechanism can be easily replaced since the parts are completely standardized and can be used in any similar type of product.


c)      Each worker on the Mass production 'line' does not have to be highly skilled. Each is only producing a single part of the product.


d)      Production is faster since it is split down into a set of simple operations.






1.      The Colt Revolver


Apart from the superior design of the gun itself, the production process that Samuel Colt designed for his factories employed the most advanced mass production techniques. The relation between the design of the product (in this case a gun) and the techniques used to produce it are very clear in this example. Colt designed the gun with fully STANDARDIZED AND INTERCHANGABLE PARTS each of which could be manufactured separately and then assembled.


He demonstrated the superiority of his weapon AND his production processes at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in the U.K. He stripped down several guns and put their different parts in different boxes. He then challenged anyone to assemble a pistol by taking the different parts out at random. In other words, the parts were so highly standardized that they would fit together to produce a fully working weapon.


This degree of standardization had not been seen before in the weapons industry and so impressed the British that they tried to copy the 'American System of Manufacture' for their own arms industry.


2.      Hobbs Locks


The American locksmith, Alfred C. Hobbs gained immediate publicity in the 1840s by picking a supposedly 'unpickable' lock made by the British lock company, Bramah. Apart from winning the considerable prize money it drew attention to the locks which his company produced. They were manufactured on the basis of standardization of component parts, so that there was maximum interchangability of parts even between locks of different sizes. Although Bramah the British company also standardized its components, this had not been adopted by the rest of the industry in the UK.  


The majority of British locks then were virtually handmade.


3.      The Dollar Watch


Britain and Switzerland had been the traditional craft producers of watches, but in 1850 Americans began to make watches by machinery at Waltham, Massachusetts.  These watches were not only manufactured more cheaply but were also of superior accuracy to almost all European watches. At the exhibitions of 1876 in Paris and 1878 in Philadelphia, USA, the American Watch Company alarmed European manufacturers by the excellence of their machine-made products and by their low prices.


The 'dollar watch' could not be surpassed anywhere in the world for quality and cost.




On May 2nd 1851 the Times newspaper in London wrote: "There was yesterday witnessed a sight the like of which has never happened before and which in the nature of things can never be repeated....Around them, amidst them and over their headswas displayed all that is useful or beautiful in nature or in art"


The Times was describing the opening of the Great Exhibition staged in London in 1851. There were 13,937 exhibitors and over 100,000 industrial, manufacturing, domestic and artistic exhibits. More than six million visitors toured the exhibition. According to its organizers, the Exhibition was there to demonstrate 'Progress' after almost a century of headlong industrialization. This exhibition was the first real moment for 'cultural stocktaking'.


However, in spite of the enthusiasm generated by the exhibition, it was clear from informed comment that there was a crisis of confidence in design. For although the industrial nations clearly had the MEANS of doing almost anything, they had lost the ability to conform to any accepted or unified standard of form or design. 


"We have no principles, no unity; each (designer) struggles fruitlessly, each produces novelty without beauty or beauty without intelligence".




The nature of the crisis which the Great Exhibition displayed lay in the obvious  CONTRADICTIONS IN ATTITUDE between the 'high art' products and those of industry were very obvious when they were placed side by side at the Exhibition. Here was a society which while performing miracles of technology, science and industry surrounded itself with senseless bric-a-brac and over-ornamented designs in the home environment. For instance:


a)     One could see the products of industry: simply shaped functional, strong and economical in their use of materials.


b)     Or domestic products: bulky and heavily decorated with every conceivable material for the  display of sentimentality, status and money.


Generally 19th century society held these apparently contradictory design positions with ease. Although there were a few critical voices who pointed to the underlying beauty and economy of the machines displayed as against the vulgarity of domestic items, this was not the general opinion. The fundamental question was not asked: "Why don't we apply the same kind of design thinking and approach to our domestic environment that we do to the design of our machines?"  The idea that a 'FUNCTIONAL DESIGN' principle could be applied to ALL products had not yet arrived. This essentially MODERN approach would not have been acceptable at the time.




architecture, design history, cultural history of Europe, US, Asia, gothic, islamic, renaissance, baroque, modern, postmodern, 

Architecture Art Design Cultural History and Theory and More

From Undergraduate to Graduate: its all here. Packed with information. Everything you wanted to know about :



bottom of page
free html visitor counters
free html visitor counters