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William Morris: A Legacy of Art and Design

Updated on January 4, 2012
Portrait of William Morris in his later years in 1887
Portrait of William Morris in his later years in 1887 | Source
Morris' former home, the Red House, as it stands today in Bexleyheath, England
Morris' former home, the Red House, as it stands today in Bexleyheath, England | Source
Pine cabinet produced by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, &Co. Designed by Philip Webb and painted by Edmund Burne-Jones, 1861
Pine cabinet produced by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, &Co. Designed by Philip Webb and painted by Edmund Burne-Jones, 1861 | Source
"Acanthus" wallpaper produced by Morris & Co. in 1875. Much of the Morris & Co. textiles and wallpapers have been reproduced and are still popular
"Acanthus" wallpaper produced by Morris & Co. in 1875. Much of the Morris & Co. textiles and wallpapers have been reproduced and are still popular | Source

To speak of Englishman William Morris solely in terms of what he contributed to interior and exterior design during his lifetime and to generations beyond will be an injustice but yet in terms of how he is most known today, it would be in that regard – so far reaching his vision to have contemporary meaning . He was one among few to acknowledge the suffocating, gaudy notions of Victorian design and revivalist styles and refuse it. He reached for more and determined that for one, the craftsmanship that the Industrial Age had disowned needed to be wholly resurrected and replaced by more archaic sensibilities like those of the Medieval or “pre-Raphaelite” Era. He created a revolutionary blueprint of how design processes could function through collaboration with subcontractors and partnership and through employees. He instigated a reform in design counter to what he considered to be an erosion of taste in art and would found the Arts and Crafts movement.

Morris was an artist and craftsman in his own right, yet in terms of architecture and design, in order to construct universally, he relied on others with whom he could be in concert and he had many allies like the Edmund Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Pre-Raphaelite painters, and Phillip Webb, an architect. More than anything, Morris was the master designer, the supervisor of designs that applied to his interior design projects that were undertaken by his decorative arts company Morris & Co. and in regards to products that were produced thereof – furniture, wallpaper, stained glass, tapestries, glassware, carpets, among other thing – albeit Morris was capable of and did handcraft decorative items himself.

Morris’ approach to design had its springboard in the ideas of John Ruskin and also the Pre-Raphaelite artists, all of whom longed for a return to artistic practices and aesthetics embodied in the Medieval Era that emphasized craftsmanship, echoed in the words of Ruskin who said, “Until common sense finds its way into architecture, there can be but little hope for it’. While the Pre-Raphaelites resuscitated medieval sensibilities they were also informed by the Romanticists with their tell-tale incorporation of images like those from Arthurian legends and also in use of bold color, detail and complex compositions. Yet, like Ruskin, they wanted to articulate spiritual and artistic integrity so foreign to the Industrial Age. Morris, the greatest contributor to what would become the Arts and Crafts movement (or Craftsman movement), founded his aesthetic platform on these ideas of which his first major construction the Red House is an example.

Although Morris and his firm took on several commissions in subsequent years to design interiors like those at St. James’ Palace, the “Green Dining Room,” and Stanmore Hall, the design and construction of The Red House, intended to be his personal residence, is the most prolific example of Morris architectural style; it was a prototype for Arts and Crafts design, in its reflection of rational functionality, but it was also an expression of Pre-Raphaelite art, apparent in wall paintings and furniture decoration (with medieval motifs); both aesthetics underscored a return to “basics,” ergo artistic integrity and honesty. Construction started in 1859 at Bexleyheath not far from London. It was to be a turreted house, like a medieval castle, yet it would have little semblance to the Gothic Revival. Unlike most Victorian homes, the Red House was of a highly practical schema: family rooms on the first floor and common rooms on the ground floor, inclusive of a large, light filled kitchen. Morris filled the house with decoration: embroidered wall hangings and painted and patterned walls and ceilings. Exterior red brick walls and red tiled roof reflected its name.

Though difficult to highlight just one, Morris’ greatest achievement may have been that he forcibly diverted at least to a degree the style of the time, that is Victorian historicism and Eclecticism of which decoration and architecture rested on mass manufacture and a degradation of taste and craftsmanship, into the Arts and Crafts movement. If the emergence of this Aesthetic style had a singular aptitude it would be an accomplishment, but the movement set the future of design in a whole new direction and provided the conditions in which would emerge Art Nouveau, modernism and contemporary design and this was a revolution. Today, most homes for common people are built with functionality in mind – in the US, a ground floor “great room” with partial separation supports a family with working parents who have to cook and look after their children at the same time. It was Morris who championed this sort of “livable” house.

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