Monday, September 26, 2011

Julia Weber

William Morris

“Have nothing in your house that you do not believe to be useful or beautiful.” - William Morris -

The artist and writer William Morris (1834-1896) was a man of many talents, he was a painter, designer, printer, entrepreneur and social reformer all at once. He wrote and published poetry, fiction, and translations of ancient and medieval texts throughout his life. Morris was a key figure in the Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century. A movement made up by British designers and writers with an inherent craft idealism advocating a return to well-made, handcrafted goods as a reaction against mass production and industrialization.

Morris ideas about craft were also reflected in his political views. He was influenced by the readings of John Ruskin and Karl Marx and by his interest in medieval traditions. Morris defined the Middle Ages as a period of pure handicraft, in which all production was individualistic in method. The workman worked for himself and any tool he used was merely an aid and not a supplement to his hand labor.

During the industrialization the division of labor and the production by machinery replaced the production by handicraft. The old ways of workmanship were lost and to Morris the workman became merely part of a machine. Morris claimed that the new, machine-made goods were ugly, anything old was replaced by something inferior in beauty. But it was not just the beauty of goods that got lost in industrialization, but also the joy of making them and the happiness in daily work. Morris expressed the need for a system of production that would allow the creation of beautiful surroundings as well as a pleasant occupation. Morris himself was unable to put his desire for an aesthetic and political reform into practice. His wish for a return to production by handicraft for beauty´s and society´s sake stood in contrast to the demands of the capitalistic marketplace.

While he was not able to realize his ambitions for society as a whole, he was able to realize and promote his ideas about beauty and craftsmanship in the decorative arts firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co (later just Morris & Co) which he and fellow artists founded during 1961. The company designed and produced decorative objects for the Victorian home, such as wallpapers, textiles, furniture and was particularly well-known for its stained glass, examples of which can be seen in churches throughout Britain. Morris became known as a designer of decorative wallpapers often characterized by floral patterns. By 1883, Morris wrote "Almost all the designs we use for surface decoration, wallpapers, textiles, and the like, I design myself. I have had to learn the theory and to some extent the practice of weaving, dyeing and textile printing: all of which I must admit has given me and still gives me a great deal of enjoyment."

In 1885 the periodical “Godey´s Lady´s Book” published an article that illustrated and described a Morris & Co. parlor (living room). The author wrote in detail about the artistic furniture, the special art fabrics, elegant chandeliers and the richly carved mantel. The wood work is described as “finely carved and polished old oak and solid mahogany, the furniture from the Morris Company being a rich and boldly carved dragon design, in mahogany.” The author concludes her impression of the parlor as follows, “the whole effect that has been produced is entirely artistic and pleasing to the most fastidious, and illustrates most forcibly what results from that treatment of the Morris Company Art Fabrics, in which is at once discernible the clearly defined conception of the artist decorator, who blends designs and colors in beautiful harmony.”

A piece of furniture that can still be found today is the Morris chair. Introduced in 1866 the Morris chair was not actually designed by William Morris, but made by Morris & Co. The characteristic feature of a Morris chair is a hinged back, set between two un-upholstered arms, with the reclining angle adjusted through a row of pegs, holes or notches in each arm. The original Morris chair had dark stained woodwork, turned spindles and heavily decorated upholstery. The chair was widely copied after Morris' introduction, and is still manufactured. It is not just Morris chair that remains, but also the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement and the desire for authentic craftsmanship that continue to resonate today.

William Morris Golden Lily Minor wallpaper (source:

Morris & Co Living Room

Morris Chair

1 comment:

Shannon Wright said...

Wonderful insight into the Arts and Crafts philosophy and their rejection of the machine age!
Do you know about Bradbury and Bradbury
who silkscreen original Morris patterns, up in Benicia? The silkscreening class should go there! I'll say the same thing to Jen.