Spotlight Stories

Art for All: The Vision of William Morris  

I do not want art for a few any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few. - William Morris

More than a century after his death, the words of revolutionary artist and social activist William Morris (1834 – 1896) still provoke and inspire us. Today, Morris is celebrated as one of the most influential and successful designers in history.

Portrait of William Morris (LIFE photo collection) 

He acted on his conviction that objects of daily use should be practical, as well as a source of beauty and delight.

In Morris' view, every part of our home - from the floors and furnishings, to the walls and lighting - should be well-designed and well-made. Their integrity would counter what he saw as both the moral and aesthetic 'ugliness' of mass production.

In the Tapestry Room at Kelmscott Manor, William Morris' home (collection: The J. Paul Getty Museum)
'Evenlode', William Morris (collection: Cincinnati Art Museum)

Morris was active during the second half of the 19th century, a period in which the Industrial Revolution threatened to destroy British handicrafts.

His textiles are technical masterpieces and among the most recognizable of all 19th-century designs. According to the experts at the Cincinnati Art Museum, "Morris, driven by both perfectionism and aesthetic vision, laid the groundwork for the rejection of mass production and the revival of the idea of the artist as designer." This vision led to the what is known as the British Arts and Crafts movement.

Original design for 'Wreath', William Morris (collection: Art Gallery of South Australia)

In his lifetime, he produced more than 600 designs for all kinds of interior decorations: from wallpaper and rugs, to furniture and books.

Carpet, designed by William Morris, manufactured by Morris & Co. (collection: Art Gallery of South Australia)

Morris, who opened his design firm Morris & Co. in 1884, believed in creating densely patterned interiors full of pattern and color based on Medieval designs.

'Bird' textile, William Morris (collection: Museum of Applied Arts and Science, Australia)

He decorated his bedroom with a dark and heavily carved Medieval-style bed with a densely patterned canopy. In this photograph from 1896, we can see that it's covered in a piece of his own 'Wandle' fabric.

William Morris' Bedroom, Kelmscott Manor (collection: The J. Paul Getty Museum)
'Wandle' textile, William Morris (collection: Museo Nacional des Artes Decorativas)

Mesmerizing and hypnotic, his designs feature fluid, interlacing lines and motifs drawn from nature, and re-imagined in rich color. The 'Wandle' design is distinctive for its strong sense of diagonal movement, suggested by the colorful striped ribbons and over-sized blossoms that move across its surface.

'Wandle' comes from name of the stream running through the Morris and Co’s. textile printing and innovative dyeing center in Surrey, England.

Detail of 'Wandle' by William Morris

The Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas, Madrid, notes that the 'Wandle' pattern was inspired by antique textiles: "especially Italian velvets from the 15th century, and just like these ones, the composition is marked by a strong diagonal with a winding branch shape, frequently used from 1883 on."

Wall or Pillar Panel, Italian, ca. 13the  -15th century, Silk velvet with gold metal thread (collection: Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

'Pimpernel' from 1876 shows the influence of East Asian aesthetics on Morris' work. Here, he explores Japanese artistic principles of abstraction, simplification and magnification in the design of the flowers and vines.

'Pimpernel' wallpaper design by William Morris (collection: Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas)

According to the Museo Nacional de Artes Decoratives, "Morris was particularly keen on curved acanthus leaves and climber willow and honeysuckle branches, which he used time and time again as the main theme or in the backgrounds." His transformation of their forms takes its cue from Japanese textiles.

Japanese robe or dressing gown circa 1725 (collection: Central Museum)

During his lifetime, however, William Morris was recognized less for his innovative designs, and more for his social and literary achievements. He wrote novels, poetry and even translated works from Icelandic to English. In fact, he even helped to establish the popular literary genre, Fantasy!

The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (The Kelmscott Chaucer), William Morris, 1896 (collection: Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University)

Morris was also famed as a committed social and political activist, and used his printing presses to produce political pamphlets for a variety of causes including workers' rights, issues with industrial production, and poverty in Britain.

Portrait of William Morris, 1884 (LIFE Photo Collection)

Morris intended for his artwork to break down barriers: between social classes; between the 'artist' and the 'designer'; between the 'fine' and the 'applied' arts; and between the general public and the beauty that he wanted for everyone.

A polymath and an idealist, Morris envisioned a utopian society, and designed a piece of this new world with every book, wallpaper and textile design.

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