Learn all about William Morris, pioneer of the Art & Crafts movement

Think ‘pioneer of modern design’ and chances are the first names that come to mind are Charles and Ray Eames, Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe. But one of the most influential modernists in design history is actually someone who worked nearly a century before the mid-century Scions: William Morris. As a pioneer of the Arts & Crafts movement, Morris fundamentally believed that “decorative and household items are as important as the art on the walls of our national galleries,” says Keren Protheroe, archivist at Morris & Co., the company that Morris was founded in 1861, and now owned by Sanderson Design Group.

Morris in 1875.

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He’s certainly the only 19th-century designer whose work can be found on the collections of Williams-Sonoma, Dockatot, and covering the walls of trendy candle supplier Diptyque and trendy shoe startup Sarah Flint. The recent wave of “cottagecore” style has spurred increased commercial demand for its designs, but it has also remained very influential in art and design.

“Kehinde Wiley noticed how William Morris’s designs inspired some of his work,” says Protheroe. “Set designers continue to feature the designs – we’ve seen them most recently in the Jungle Cruise movie, Queen’s Gambit, and even new holiday movies including Love Hard and Castle for Christmas, to name a few.”

So what’s so enduring about William Morris? “Even those unfamiliar with Morris’s politics, research into traditional techniques, literary works, and campaigns for the preservation of ancient buildings can understand that Morris was a heroic figure of a Romantic era who brought out the value of artisanal values ​​against the mechanization and dehumanization trends of the time, ”explains Protheroe.

To put it simply: “He looked to the past and created something totally modern.

Who was William Morris?

Born in 1834 in Essex, England, William Morris was a multi-trait British designer who redefined traditional textiles and contributed to a range of other creative and academic disciplines. Morris studied classics at the University of Oxford, where was part of the “Birmingham Set”, a group of creative students who would found the Arts and Crafts movement. In 1861 Morris founded Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. with other members of the Birmingham Set. The business would become Morris & Co. after Morris took control of the creation in 1875.

archive wallpapers

Morris & Co.

archive wallpapers

Morris & Co.

What exactly did William Morris design?

In the design world, Morris is known for his textiles (and the wallpapers that go with them), which tend to feature romantic patterns inspired by nature. But, as it was at the heart of the ethics of the Arts and Crafts movement, these goods were part of a much larger ecosystem, an ecosystem that connected art and design (and the past and the present, and the way of life with the goods that surrounded it).

“Woven textiles – their design, structural ingenuity, and the role they play in creating pleasant and comfortable spaces – have been instrumental in Morris’s larger design vision,” explains Protheroe. “The first wallpapers took their patterns and arrangements from medieval tapestries and other woven and embroidered wall hangings. These, in turn, were influenced by the Middle Eastern motif, so Morris’s design credentials were quite varied. Morris founded

What else was he known for?

small acorns
Morris designed this membership card for the Democratic Federation, Britain’s first socialist party, of which he was a member (probably cardholder).

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Part of the reason Morris’s textile designs are so symbolic is that Morris himself was a great mathematician: in addition to designing fabrics and patterns, he was a published poet and novelist, avid naturalist and advocate. of architecture, and a passionate social activist. None of these interests existed independently: they all educated each other, resulting in a layered, rich creative output.

archive wallpapers
An original woodcut from the Morris & Co Archives.

Morris & Co.

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What techniques is Morris known for?

A scholar at heart, the always curious Morris was known for his experiments in several disciplines. As Protheroe said, “Morris was a technical specialist.”

In the 1870s Morris began experimenting with vegetable dyes; his interest in natural dyeing techniques was fueled by his work with Thomas Wardle, a printer and businessman specializing in Indian dyeing techniques. Morris then turned to the use of indigo as a natural dye, which resulted in the rich blue colors that can be seen throughout his work. “It was a triumph for Morris and the culmination of his research when he set up his Merton Abbey Mills workshop beside the River Wandle in London,” said Protheroe. It housed the tubs of indigo dye that Morris used to print his most famous indigo discharge prints. ”

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A Morris & Co. employee repairing an original Morris design on a loom in 1931.

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Why are his designs so durable?

In England, Morris is somewhat of a father figure in several disciplines. “Morris’s life and work has been taught in our art schools since the 1960s, and even before that his example shaped the practices of Britain’s most progressive manufacturing industries,” says Protheroe. In this regard, there has always been an influential audience for his work. “

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Contemporary prints from Morris & Co.

Morris & Co.

But her influence is also felt across the pond, with artists, brands and designers revolving around her often fantastic, nature-centric prints. “Morris & Co. pattern prints are intelligently constructed with a strong sense of geometry underlying their organic forms, making them solidly elegant and harmonious to live with,” says Protheroe of their continued relevance.

But still, she said, that doesn’t mean their popularity has remained constant. “They’ve seen seismic surges in visibility and popularity over the years, and it must have something to do with the chemistry of some time. We’re at a political point in history and we want big ideas and remarkable beauty. “

bright bedroom with patterned wallpaper
A kitchen covered with Fruit Landscape from the Simply Morris collection by Morris & Co.

Morris & Co.

Where can you find his work now?

Morris & Co. continues to produce original Morris designs, as well as updates that riff on patterns and fundamentals in the seminal designer’s work, such as the Simply Morris line, which has distilled some of the most well-known designs from Morris down to simpler patterns, resulting in a more modern take on romantic designs.

“Each new Morris collection begins with the design team visiting the archives and discussing the purpose of the project, be it a house, a person, a landscape, a a color story or some other particular Morris theme, ”says Protheroe. That is, nothing is too far removed from Morris himself. And that’s not too difficult, given his immense influence and prolific production. “We’re lucky Morris’s interests are so diverse, so there’s never a shortage of ideas.”


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