23 January 2008

2-Minute Design History: William Morris

Clever patterns, elegant fabrics, swirly colours of psychodelic goodness - we’ve all seen his work, heard a thing or two about the Arts and Crafts movement, maybe even confused him with the same-name talent agency, but really, who is William Morris? Welcome to 2-minute design histories. Design inspiration, in as quick as you can cook a pack of instant noodles.

Born outside of London in 1834, William Morris is not only an icon in the history of Design, he was also a writer and a social reformist. The best known pioneer of the British “Arts and Crafts Movement” he was a multifaceted designer and consummate craftsman driven by passionate social ideals, and even worked directly with, none other than, Marx and Engels. But he’s remembered best of all, for his wallpaper.

It was the second half of the 19th century and industrialism pervaded the air. William Morris and his Oxford college crew (poets and artists like Dante Rosetti, and Edward Burne-Jones) countered the trend by joining the “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood” which shared an affinity for idealized Medieval romanticism.

The industrial manufacture of art and architecture was cheap, tasteless and lacking in soul. William Morris and his friends wanted to see a return to hand-craftmanship, and the artisan raised to the status of artist. Morris wanted equality among media as well as among men. Art should be affordable, and no elitism bestowed on certain arts over others.

After Oxford, Morris joined an architectural firm, but found himself leaning more and more towards the decorative arts. Eventually he started his own firm which evolved into the famed Morris and Co., which succeeded in reviving a slew of traditional crafts like stained-glass painting and tapestry weaving.

A true “back in the old days” kind of a guy, he championed the restoration of all things classic from Greek to Gothic. For example, he founded the “Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings” and, according to Wikipedia, “single-handedly recreated the art of tapestry weaving in Britain.”

Like some sort of design Jesus, he was raising arts and crafts from the dead all over Britain. And the result was at once beautiful, symbolic, naturalist, romantic and inspiring.

Likewise, he founded Kelmscott Press in London, to advance the improvement of book printing and design. Medieval manuscripts and classic woodcuts inspired his book designs including the Kelmscott Press edition of “The Work of Geoffrey Chaucer” (designed by Morris and illustrated by Burne-Jones) which is considered one of the most beautiful books of all time.

An all around over-achiever he not only worked the design gamut from architecture and industrial design to textiles, glasswork and publishing, he also translated classics from Ancient Greece and Iceland. He even spent his later years writing fantasy novels, which believe it or not, are considered a breakthrough in fantasy fiction, as he was the first to set a book in an entirely invented world. His work later influenced C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

But back to his wallpaper.
His designs are characterized by a grounding in nature as he turns consistently to leaves, flowers, trees and birds for his motifs. His works are often lush, yet tempered by an incomparable precision of craft and impeccable detail. His flowers and leaves swirl in sensuous, often cleverly repeating, patterns and sometimes hint at the Art nouveau styles that would follow.

His designs are still sold and licensed by Sanderson and Sons (a long-lived firm founded a year before Morris&Co., itself). They’ve got, not only the rights to Morris designs, which they purchased in 1927, but they still use his original woodblocks, to reprint his designs today. Well done, Bill, that’s what I call a well-made woodblock.

In a nutshell: Poet, pol
itical theorist, designer, and pioneer of the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris worked to bring the classics, craftsmanship and an egalitarianism back to the arts. His style lives on today, not only in reprints of his work, but as inspiration to modern decorative design.

Online Field Trip: Discovering William Morris

Design getting too digital, too lifeless, too predictable? Get inspired - go on an online field trip and discover William Morris again, or for the first time.

Morris at a Glance - A Wikipedia Commons William Morris search yields a wealth of imagery available at a glance.

The Wallpaper – The famed wallpaper is now, unsurprisingly, available as desktop wallpaper from the William Morris Gallery in England.

Morris & Co. – They’re still making wallpaper (among other things).

The William Morris Gallery – No need to be in the UK to check out the gallery. A virtual tour of the building, complete with 360 degree panoramas is available on their site. More useful perhaps is the on-line exhibition with a sampling of his works in different media, from chairs and tiles to windows and fabrics.