William Morris saw the art world through the idealistic lens of socialism. He and the like-minded designers who clustered around him wanted nothing less than to redefine art by restoring "craft" to a place of value. True art for them was... [more]
William Morris saw the art world through the idealistic lens of socialism. He and the like-minded designers who clustered around him wanted nothing less than to redefine art by restoring "craft" to a place of value. True art for them was based in time-honored, populist traditions; the sometimes raw beauty of hand-made objects seemed more honest to them than the elaborate exactitude of academic art work. In reasserting individuality, simplicity, and usefulness as the major principles of design, Morris and his friends birthed the Arts and Crafts movement, whose influence is felt to this day.
Morris was born in Walthamstow in 1834 and studied theology at Oxford. As a student he was drawn to the ideologies of socialism; when he embarked on a career as an artist, it was his intention to apply socialist philosophy to his work -- from conception to design to production. This goal is probably what led him to abandon painting in favor of architecture and then the decorative arts. During university and after, Morris associated with the Pre-Raphaelite artists of the period, men such as Dante Gabriel Rosetti and Edward Burne-Jones. These relationships would bolster his allegiance to socialist values and influence his roles as poet, artist, and businessman.
A collaborative effort to decorate the interior of Morris' own home in 1861 led to the formation of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, and Co.-- which was essentially Britain's first design firm. The group included many of Morris' Pre- Raphaelite peers. Together they set out to disrupt the conventional world of Victorian design: Morris and his colleagues opposed the prevailing taste for ornamentation and excess. It was their desire to return design to a place where function and form come into balance.
Morris' company produced all manner of materials for home d'cor: wallpaper, stained glass, tiles, carpets, furniture, and upholstery. Inspired by Medieval art (which he rediscovered in part through the writings of John Ruskin), Morris covered surfaces with spiraling vine patterns and carved Celtic-looking animals onto furniture legs. Organic forms, rather than classical motifs or Victorian curlicues, prevail in his work. Each piece also revealed the handicraft of its maker. At Morris' design firm, machine-produced regularity was anathema.
It is an irony that only the wealthy could afford Morris' hand-crafted-one-at-a-time products. Still, Morris spoke out on behalf of socialism in his utopian writings and through his support of the British Labour Movement. While the works of the designer and his company may not have been available to the masses, his struggles to preserve the individual identity of the craftsman, and to emphasize simplicity and utility of design, left an important mark on Modernism and, in some senses, on the modern workplace. [show less]