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William Morris: The Ideals of Design

by Sarah S, August 8, 2022

William Morris was born nearly two centuries ago but his ideals and concepts of design have possibly never been more relevant. William, born in 1834 to a privileged family in Essex, would never feel forced to work. He developed strong opinions on design from an early age, even refusing to enter the Great Exhibition at age 15, believing it didn’t match his level of taste.

"Not on one strand are all life’s jewels strung." – William Morris

While at Oxford, intending to join the church, he met several other artists including Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Phillip Webb. They created a group called The Set which focused on the arts and literature. The Set not only changed the course of William's professional life but also opened his eyes to the deep societal divisions occurring in his country.

"Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful." – William Morris

William married Jane Burden in 1859 and decided they would build a home in Kent. They designed their home as an artist community that aimed to experience the “joy of collective labor.” They commissioned Phillip Webb to build a multi-family mansion and named it the Red House. William found inspiration there creating stained glass, textiles, furniture, and wallpaper. Morris along with Burne-Jones, Rossetti, and Webb founded Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. which concentrated on arts and crafts interior design inspired by the Red House.

"The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all details of daily life." – William Morris

They eventually found success and William was able to purchase his own textile factory. Morris felt strongly in intertwining the design and production of an, likening himself to a “designer-craftsman.” He insisted on learning the means of production in his factory before designing and revived classic techniques when printing and dyeing. He believed in a "from scratch" process that earned esteem from both his artistic peers and employees. He became a manufacturer "not because I wish to make money, but because I wish to make the things I manufacture."

"There is no square mile of Earth’s inhabitable surface that is not beautiful in its own way, if we men will only abstain from willfully destroying that beauty." -William Morris

William found inspiration from the English countryside, mainly gardens and hedgerows, and mixed it with a preference for medieval textiles. He was self-taught, even learning embroidery techniques from his wife and sister-in-law; these techniques maintained his quest to revive “dead” arts He gained international popularity after designing wallpaper for the St. James Palace. Queen Victoria took notice of his work, personally commissioning Morris to design wallpaper for Balmoral Castle.

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

During this time Morris also focused on writing. His most successful work, The Earthly Paradise, is an anti-industrial epic poem. This piece gained him respect in the Socialist community, and at the time of his death, he was most famous for his writing over his design work. Morris believed in ending class division and started the Socialist League which believed in a “romantic revolt.” William could often be found giving street-corner speeches or organizing marches. These beliefs became the primary focus for the rest of his life, while still working in textiles.

"The past is not dead, it is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make." -William Morris

Despite suffering from gout and epilepsy, Morris continued to travel in his later years. He eventually died of tuberculosis in 1896 at the age of 62. His wife and two daughters continued his textile production. His beliefs in equality between classes, between designer and manufacturer, have remained relevant to this day. His love for nature, storytelling, fantasy, and art are a cemented inspiration to artists and writers alike. SEO firm

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