How Arts and Crafts Survive the Industrial Revolution Can Help Us Win in Digital Transformation Era


Fortunately, in the 21st century, we can still enjoy seeing some hand-made crafts and furniture since the 18th century from antique shops. This means that arts and crafts have successfully survived until now. Let’s examine why Industrial manufacture did not wipe out the industry of handcrafts and man-made arts during and after the Industrial Revolution.  By dissecting the Arts and Crafts Movement with the five elements we generally used for helping our Digital Transformation: Customers, Data, Innovations, Values, and Competition, it may shed lights on understanding how these timeless strategies have stood the test of time.

No one had seen or prepared for the coming of Industrial Revolution. It was both a sudden but gradual movement. The discovery of coal was a precursor to the movement, in which the cheap coal was three times more potent than the tree as a source of combustible material. Mining more coals had created more problems of flooding water in the underground caves that caused by the digging. The mechanism of pumping water out of the flooding caves became that spark igniting the Industrial Revolution because this gave rise to the first design of steam engine fueled by coals. 


During the 18th century, British people lived in small towns that spread around the country. Each town had its own craft and metalwork shops that supply town people the needs from furniture, woodworks, and tools for daily lives. Since power source was no longer constraint along the river due to the invention of a steam engine to power the assembly lines instead of using water mills, factories flourish all over the country. Cheap and low-quality furniture, tools, and household decors had flooded from town to town.  Traditional arts and handcrafts industries were at the brink of collapse and disappearing from the world.  It seemed that there was no way of combating the Industrial manufacture.  It was devastation, and it appeared that the revolution had delivered a final blow to destroy the arts and crafts businesses.

Not only the whole industry of arts and crafts were in danger of its existence, but the valuable skills of traditional arts and crafts could also lose forever, and the effects rippled in all fabric of society. Despite the pessimist view of its outlook, the Chinese Taoist philosopher has a saying of believing that a thing turns its opposite if pushed too far when explaining the mechanism of Yin and Yang.  During this era, many people including John Ruskin and William Morris, who with artistic backgrounds like poet, designer, craftsman came together and shared their ideas and thinking about the impact of the Industrial Revolution. Cross-pollination among the intellectuals, many arts organizations and societies were created and formed around the world, and this was known as the Arts and Crafts Movement from late 19th century to 20th century.

Data is the Precursor of Innovation

During the Arts and Crafts Movement, many conversations and meetings had to have taken places. Processes like identifying whom to talk to that could benefit the long-term goals, what to ask, talking points, what connections needed to be made, are exactly the essential ingredients of modern information technology. In the simplest term, these were structural and unstructured data that played an important role in the transformation of the art industry.  The data alone is not useful at all, but when we can make a connection between data, it develops into the helpful information we can use to formulate a plan. After sharing and exchanging ideas and thinking, it became evident that there was no way to combat the Industrial Revolution head to head, but to differentiate hand-made arts from the machine. Here were the strategies taking place to reform the art industry:

  1. Organizing traditional art skills into the teachable and shareable knowledge base that can be passed down and use for their works.

  2. Expanding their skill sets by learning various traditional arts and style includes medieval and other periods' styles.

  3. Creating bold and new styles using bold forms, intense color, and expand the product line regarding its functions. For example, some artworks were deliberately left unfinished to create a rustic appearance.

In other words, processes of strengthening one’s capabilities and challenging to build better products are the steps for creating values as a business.  Testing new ideas with new customers and untapped markets and learning from failures are the steps of innovation. The transformation strategies are interconnected and interdependent, but both the business and customers are the center of this dynamic where the business can influence customers and vice versa.

Find New Customers

Because of Industrial Revolution, the middle class began to grow its wealth due to the enormous opportunities.  After years of reform in the art industry, it became clear that handcrafts were only affordable by wealthy people and no longer compete with Industrial manufacture since the market had been differentiated.  Moreover, another function of arts organizations besides spreading of Arts and Craft ideas is to attract middle and upper classes to join since they can learn to appreciate arts and define lifestyles. In this way, as a business, this helps to target and secure customers who can afford high-quality arts and handcraft products.

Making It Future-proof

To keep the arts and crafts alive in the future, many art enthusiasts began to work with educational institutes and government to put practical handcrafting and art classes as a required discipline, and this was known as the New Education Movement in the late 1880s, which was inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement.


Looking back, the process of how arts and crafts transform themselves in the Industrial Revolution seems very similar to what we face in the Digital Transformation today. We need collaboration to obtain valuable information by collecting the right data and attempt to make a necessary connection from the raw data, just like what we do with Big Data with machine learning. We should not be afraid to build prototypes and perform experiments to explore new opportunities because it was a part of the innovation process.  By examining the relationship between what our customers’ needs and what we can do to improve our products, we can add values to our products to meet the demand. Finally, when everything is done right, securing the desired customers should be easy if we have done our homework diligently.  From the Arts and Craft Movement, it seems like succeeding in Digital Transformation is a soul-searching process since we need to have faith in what we do in the market.  Strengthening our belief in the value we can deliver is important. If artists lost their faith in believing in what they do were unimportant, and the skills that they possessed would lose forever. When they were at the bottom, they didn’t give up but choose to learn more about traditional arts and expand skill sets and refine their skills in a grander level as a group. Besides upgrading their skills, increasing lines of products and differentiating themselves from machine-made products, they develop several transformation skills:

  1. Learning to reconnect their customers;

  2. Building a network of skilled artists;

  3. Using new technologies:  industrial factories, methodologies, designs;

  4. Experimenting to innovate new products;

  5. Creating long-lasting values;

  6. Continuing collecting raw data, feedbacks, and identifying issues.

It looks like these timeless strategies applied many centuries ago still relevant in today’s digital age.

If you have any thoughts about passing arts education to generations or the article, I would love to hear what you have to say.  Thank you for reading.