contributed by Denise Homme, PhD, ASID, IIDA, IDEC, FCSD, NCIDQ Certificate Holder [DISD program director / practicing professional / itinerant traveler]
During a public address delivered to the Trades’ Guild of Learning in London in 1877, William Morris spoke passionately to those in attendance about the decorative arts and their deep association to a simple, enjoyable life. An intense, multi-talented man who believed in a deep connection between artistic beauty, fine craftsmanship and domestic happiness for all – including and especially the common man – Morris eloquently explained: “To give people pleasure in the things they must perforce use, that is one great office of decoration; to give people pleasure in the things they must perforce make, that is the other use of it.”
Always referring to himself as a “designer” when asked of his true profession, William Morris is widely celebrated for his artistic genius whether his chosen media was stained glass, woven tapestries, carpets or wall coverings. A socialist revolutionary who set out in his poetry, writing and political speeches to reform the world, Morris believed that personal happiness is directly linked to a beautiful environment.
Remembered most often for intricate, engaging patterns that reveal his deep love for the natural landscape, Morris left an indelible fingerprint on the pages of design history fittingly earning himself the title of the Father of the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain.
Intrigued by the extremely disciplined and ordered designs typical to the art of the medieval period, Morris set out to diminish the complexity of the natural forms he loved by re-ordering them into highly organized visual patterns. Although seemingly charming and unpretentious, Morris’ iconic floral patterns point to his highly sophisticated sense of symmetry.
The wildly popular “Daisy” wall covering – designed in the early 1860s and sold by The Morris Company consistently for over 50 years – is a perfect example of Morris’ mastery in manipulating the inherent asymmetry of natural elements into engaging symmetrical patterns.
The “Daisy” wall covering [shown in Figure 1] is a beautifully controlled pattern of floral elements organized visually by horizontal lines. Morris’ masterful play of symmetry in this intriguing pattern can be further seen in the subtle effect of odd-numbered quantities in the application of an uneven number of flowers and leaves on each of the plants.
Although he was not formally trained as an architect, Morris’ Arts and Crafts design ethic had a profound effect on the design of furnishings and interiors. Following the lead of two notable design reformists of the time – Owen Jones and Henry Cole, who rallied against the prevailing Victorian theme of mass production witnessed by The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London – William Morris understood the need for a new rationale involving simplicity of design and fine craftsmanship in material and finish.
Besides aligning with his personal determination to bring fine craftsmanship and good design to the common man, paring down the visual excesses and ornamentation of the Victorian style allowed for a refreshing new aesthetic of simplicity and comfort.
The iconic Morris Chair [shown in Figure 2] epitomizes the effects of Morris’ interpretation of the Arts and Crafts aesthetic. A pioneering version of our present day “recliner”, the Morris Chair is intriguingly simple in design and detailing. With its padded armrests and notches, which allow adjustment to the degree of the slant of the back, the chairs unique visual appeal lies not in an excess of ornamentation but rather in its craftsmanship and its inherent sense of lightness, adaptability and comfort.
The influence of the Arts and Crafts design aesthetic is also strikingly evident in the architecture and interior detailing of Red House, Morris’ home in Blexleyheath in Southeast London. Although his later residences tended to be more highly detailed in terms of interior finish, Red House at Blexleyheath is especially notable for its striking level of simplicity as compared to the heavily ornamented Victorian style popular at the time.
Designed by the architect Phillip Webb in 1859, the interior of Red House is distinguished for its unpretentiousness and lack of period detailing – true hallmarks of the Arts and Crafts aesthetic. When the house was completed in 1860, it was described by the painter Edward Burne-Jones, a friend of Morris, as “the beautifullest place on earth”.
Through the use of unassuming materials and finishes it is clear that Phillip Webb, like Morris, understood the visual impact and underlying sense of comfort associated with a lighter, less ornamented style of decoration and detailing. With its simple, unassuming styling, Webb’s interior concept for Red House clearly set the standard for the English country house vernacular that remains popular today. In addition, the modest interior framework of finely crafted wood details and exposed brick offered a fitting visual counterpoint to Morris’ more complex pattern statements in wall coverings, tapestries and carpets. [See Figure 3, entry door to Red House.]
Clearly a radical design statement at the time, the Arts and Crafts aesthetic paved the way for the Art Nouveau movement in France and the Arts and Crafts movement in the United States. It is not at all surprising that Morris’ Arts and Crafts design aesthetic was also reinterpreted by Walter Gropius and his colleagues working and teaching at the Bauhaus school in Germany, where Morris’s design principles were the inspiration for furniture designs and various machine production technologies.
In which the hand of the craftsman is guided to work in the way that she does, till the web, the cup, or the knife, look as natural, nay as lovely, as the green field, the river bank, or the mountain flint.
– William Morris
Visit Red House!
If a visit to London and the opportunity to tour William Morris’ Red House while you’re there interests you, please consider joining Dr. Denise Homme’s 2013 Interior Design Study Tour – Passport to England: Discovering London. The travel dates are May 18-26, 2013. CLICK HERE to download a PDF of the complete itinerary and information regarding how to apply for a place on the tour. You won’t want to miss it!