My first exposure to William Morris came from an undergraduate drawing class. I came across a page from an illuminated volume of Chaucer (top image) while researching for a manuscript project and thought that it might make an interesting reference. Noticing the production date (several centuries later than the style would suggest), I made a point of conducting some extra research. This information pointed to an artist who longed for a return to a more traditional production system, though there seemed to be more at work than just wishing for the good old days. I was drawn by Morris' desire to improve the lives of craftsmen and consumers, and amused by the fact that the period he chose to reference with his work is known for having produced some of the most wretched living conditions in human history.
Morris does not make it easy for the viewer to engage his work without prior knowledge of his background and motivations. As a key figure in the Arts and Crafts movement, as well as emerging socialist groups, much of his work (along with that of his contemporaries) can be examined based on his disdain for the state of decorative arts of the period. Morris and his partners (including artist Edward Burne-Jones and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti) sought to revive the dignity of the trade by offering practical objects created by skilled craftsmen. This stood in stark contrast to the prevailing production style of the period, characterized by an overabundance of expensive, poorly-made decorative products forced upon a struggling public. Basing production on the medieval guild system, they hoped, would ensure a higher standard in design while supporting a skilled and respected working-class. Quality at all levels of production, as well as affordability and availability followed, drawing the firm to support the consumer as much as the artisan.
For Morris, this reverence for the Middle Ages was not limited to a business model. A dedicated artist, scholar and medievalist, Gothic architectural characteristics, as well as archaic printing techniques and floral/faunal design schemes found their way into all of his products and soon became a trademark of his firm. As can be seen in the examples below, many of Morris' furniture pieces share a characteristic stocky, fortress-like build reminiscent of Romanesque architecture. These plank-heavy objects tend to sit low to the ground, supported by thick legs. Lobed arches, cruciform supports, buttressing and prominent molding combine to give the impression that each Morris piece was made by hands belonging to a different time (second from top). The shift from squat, sturdy pieces to more graceful forms (third from top) can perhaps be tied to the personal involvement of Morris. Only some of the very early furniture items are attributed to him personally (his specialty seems to have been fabrics, tile, wall-paper and book-making). After the early 1860s, the majority of the firm's furniture design seems to have been carried out by a staff overseen by Morris, who functioned as a sort of final reference before pieces went into production.
The furniture designs typical of Morris' firm fall into two categories, based on intended use. Pieces following the first type were intended for everyday use (fourth from top). Unadorned and stripped down to the most basic (almost crude) forms, these pieces were specialized for non-glamorous private use. The firm's showroom pieces, on the other hand, demonstrate the soaring heights of medieval design. These pieces were meant to be seen as well as used. Lavishly embellished (often with painting or patterns carried out by Morris himself) and ornately carved, items from this category were often designed to fit into a specific architectural situation (the Red House, Morris' home for a number of years, serves as a good example of the total integration of decoration and construction he preferred - bottom).
In spite of Morris' dedication and ideals, however, the idea of incorporating too many of his design principles into my own work seems frightening. A little goes a long way when it comes to these designs. While the furniture is of unequivocally sound construction, many of the decorative schemes used to augment the pieces leave something to be desired. Suffering from the severity and crowding often seen in medieval art, many of Morris' wallpapers, upholstery and prints seem to stagger under their own weight. Additionally, while the everyday pieces strike a fine balance between utility and aesthetics, many of the more heavily embellished items seem awkward by comparison. Rather than examples of functional design, they stand out as pieces that might have been lifted from a living history museum and were never quite meant to be used. All in all, it seems best to pick and choose when it comes to Morris. Referencing any historical tradition means walking a fine line. There is a reason, after all, that most medieval construction techniques have been replaced over the years, and the link between stylistic/aesthetic concerns and social/economic context need not be a fixed one.
Images (from top):
Sample from The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, 1896 (University of Texas - Austin)
Painted table, 1856 (Arts and Crafts Museum at Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum)
Settle at Coddington All Saints (www.flickr.com)
Rush Seated Chairs (www.victorianwed.org)
Interior, Red House (www.williammorristile.com)
Bradley, Ian C. William Morris and His World. New York: Scribner, c.1978.
Parry, Linda, ed. William Morris. New York: Abrams. 1996
Van der Post, Lucia. William Morris and Morris & Co. London: V&A, 2003.