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