“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
William Morris was a poet, artist, manufacturer, and socialist during the mid to late 19th century. He was most active as a wallpaper and textile designer and later in his life a graphic designer. William Morris was born March of 1834 in Walthamstow, which was near London. He lived with his family near London and learned to read at a young age. He later went to Oxford where he met his friend, Edward Burne-Jones, who would later become one of the greatest Pre-Raphaelite artists. William Morris started at Oxford wanting to become a clergyman, but soon joined an aesthetic circle. Morris liked medieval art and architecture because it was art that was made by people and for people with great skill and craft instead of art that was made by mass production. After graduating and inheriting his father’s money, Morris started working as an architect. After a few years, Edward Burne-Jones influenced him to become an artist instead. Morris started as a poet and painter, but later in his life became more interested in politics, tapestries, graphic design, and textile designs.
In October 1857 William Morris met Jane Burden, a working-class woman, at a theatre performance and asked her to model for him. He was attracted to her. Soon he entered a relationship with her and they were engaged in spring 1858. Burden would later admit however that she never loved Morris. They were married in a ceremony held at St Michael at the North Gate church in Oxford on 26 April 1859. William Morris wanted to build a new home for him and his wife, resulting in the construction of the Red House in the Kentish hamlet of Upton near Bexleyheath, ten miles from central London. The building’s design was done by William Morris and Webb. Morris worked mostly on the interiors of the house and Webb worked on the exteriors. For Webb, the House represented his first commission as an independent architect. Named after the red bricks and red tiles from which it was made, Red House rejected architectural norms by being L-shaped. Influenced by various forms of contemporary Neo-Gothic architecture, the House was nevertheless unique, with Morris describing it as “very mediaeval in spirit”. Situated within an orchard, the house and garden were intricately linked in their design. It took a year to construct, and cost Morris £4000 at a time when his fortune was greatly reduced by a dramatic fall in the price of his shares. Burne-Jones described it as “the beautifullest place on Earth.”
“In April 1861, Morris founded a decorative arts company, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., with six other partners: Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Webb, Ford Maddox Brown, Charles Faulkner, and Peter Paul Marshall. Operating from premises at No. 6 Red Lion Square, they referred to themselves as “the Firm” and were intent on adopting Ruskin’s ideas of reforming British attitudes to production. Morris was primarily active as a wallpaper and textile designer. The flower motif was a favorite in his work. He would often make his designs simple and stylized and inspired by traditional folk art. Morris’s emphasis on the importance of skill and craft and making art for the people contradicted his expensive textiles that only the wealthy could afford. Morris worked to restore the art of fine fabric printing and often experimented and researched different methods in making fabrics. Strawberry Thief is a colorful design where Morris used an indigo discharge technique to create it. “Morris believed that a pattern should not be at once entirely self-revealing and should hold some mystery for the viewer, being sufficiently complex to maintain his attention.”
Morris soon realized that his paintings didn’t have a sense of movement, so he soon stopped doing them. All his paintings were done before 1862. He started becoming more interested and focused on designing wallpapers because he knew that’s what he was good at. The first wall paper he designed was called “Trellis”. 2 years later, he got extremely annoyed living in the red house because road from his house to “the firm” was 3 to 4 hours. He sold the house and moved into the flat that was right about the firm’s shop. During these years the Firm carried out a few high-profile designs; from September 1866 to January 1867, they redecorated the Armory and Tapestry Room in St James’s Palace, in the later year also designing the Green Dining Room at the South Kensington Museum (it is now the Morris Room at the Victoria and Albert Museum). The Firm’s work received increasing interest from people in the United States, resulting in Morris’s acquaintance with Henry James and Charles Eliot Norton.
In July 1874, he had a falling out with one of his friends and the other partners were drifting away to work on their own projects. William Morris decided to pay each of them $1000 as compensation to rename the firm and replace it with Morris & co. He now took more interest in the company and just started designing and experimenting with different techniques. His creations include silk and wool yarn fabrics, embroidered textiles, a woven tapestry made of wool, and cotton warp floor coverings like hand-tufted rug textiles. He also produced printed cotton which was a generally affordable material at the time. In the spring of 1877, he opened another store in London which led to an increase in sales and popularity among Britain’s upper and middle-class families.
He was also known for his simple and plain furniture designs. He usually used white or red oak and dark leather for the coverings. The Morris chair was a revolutionary version of a recliner chair of earlier times. It had armrests and notches to adjust the degree of slant wanted.
As Morris pursued other interests, notably socialism and the Kelmscott Press, day-to-day work at the firm was delegated. One of Morris’s daughter May became the director of the embroidery department in 1885 when she was in her early 20s. Dearle started designing repeating patterns for wallpapers and textiles in the late 1880s and was head designer for the firm by 1890. He was handling interior design commissions and supervising the tapestry, weaving, and fabric-printing departments. Dearle’s contributions to textile design were long overshadowed by Morris. On Morris’s death in 1896, Dearle became Art Director of the firm, which changed its name again to Morris & Co. Decorators Ltd. in 1905. Dearle managed the company’s textile works at Merton Abbey until his own death in 1932. The company was finally gone in the early months of World War II.
The firm’s designs are still sold today under licenses given to Sanderson and Sons part of the Walker Greenbank wallpaper and fabrics business (which owns the “Morris & Co.” brand) and Liberty of London.
William Morris designed over 600 wallpapers in his life time and its crazy to think that they are still for sale to this day. “William Morris believed that everybody has the right to a beautiful house. As custodians of the incredible Morris & Co. archive, we continue to fulfil his legacy by curating beautifully crafted products inspired by his original designs. Morris & Co. belongs to everyone, which is why it earns a place in family homes, grand country houses and boutique hotels worldwide.”
William Morris. (2018, September 28). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Morris#Queen_Square_and_The_Earthly_Paradise:_1865–1870Lomas, A. B. (2016, March 24). Who was William Morris? The textile designer and early socialist whose legacy is still felt today. Retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2016/03/24/william-morris-the-influential-designer-and-radical-thinker-whos/
A. (2018, April 10). Famous Furniture and Textile Designers (19th Century) Michael Thonet and William Morris. Retrieved from https://owlcation.com/humanities/Furniture-Textile-Designers-19thCentury
William Morris Research Paper. (2016, Sep 27). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/william-morris-research-paper-essayThe History of Morris. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.stylelibrary.com/morris&co/#Morris. (2018, April 06). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morris_&_Co.