Redesigning the World

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

William Morris (1834-1896) was one of the great Victorian polymaths. As an author, his earliest work appeared in the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, which he founded as an undergraduate in 1856. He wrote poetic romances, including The Defence of Guenevere (1858) and The Earthly Paradise (1868-1870); translated Icelandic sagas as well as the Aeneid and the Odyssey; penned an enormously popular Utopian novel, News from Nowhere (1891); declined appointment as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University in 1877, and was mentioned as a possible Poet Laureate in 1892. He painted frescoes in the Oxford Union, was apprenticed to an architect, and revitalized both calligraphy and typography. He designed wallpaper, stained glass, cloth, tapestries, and carpets—though not the furniture which his firm also produced, and which made his name a generic term for a popular style of chair. He was one of the founders of the Socialist League and editor of its monthly journal, Commonweal. In the 1890’s, he began both the Kelmscott Press and the Hammersmith Socialist Society. He was also a creature of contradictions—an atheist who designed stained-glass windows for churches, a lover of things medieval who opposed the movement to restore Gothic churches by reproducing their original decoration, a proselytizing Socialist (arrested more than once at open-air meetings) with a comfortable inherited income whose own capitalist business firm was both successful and profitable.

Morris embodied a particular constellation of attitudes that can still be recognized. In rejecting much of his own society, he was artistically avant-garde (responsible, in Peter Stansky’s opinion, for setting the course toward modernism in architecture and design), politically radical, and, at the same time, reactionary in many of his ideas about life and work. His vision originated in a romantic attachment to the past—a trait common enough in periods of rapid change and shared by many of Morris’ contemporaries who were distressed by the ugliness and social upheaval that followed industrialization. Going up to Oxford, in 1853, for a gentleman’s education, he was first drawn toward the pseudomedievalism of the High Church movement, then fell into company with poets, then decided on a apprenticeship with Gothic Revival architect G. E. Street, and soon became friends with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the poets and painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

In each case, it appears, Morris felt an urge to create, yearned for something in the past that seemed missing in the present, and wanted fellowship with like-minded people working together for similar aims. Eagerly reading the works of John Ruskin, he perceived the intimate relationship of art to the society in which art is created, and thus he arrived at a diagnosis: Ugliness results when industrial capitalism subdivides tasks and separates work, beauty, friendship, and pleasure.

The practical direction of Morris’ life took shape when, on his marriage in 1859, he commissioned an architect to build a house to his design. Designing a house and then planning its furnishings, decorations, and details, he became potently aware of the relationship of “material, working process, purpose, and aesthetic form.” He also saw that a process which should be a single creative act had been subdivided. Architecture was an art, and an architect primarily a gentleman—but how could an architect create a functional dwelling unless he understood lighting and heating and plumbing? Furthermore, the artificial division between art and craft—and the specialization of individual crafts—made it almost impossible to harmonize the dwelling with its furniture and decoration. Frustrated by trying to put together the unsatisfactory and unrelated bits and pieces available in the marketplace, Morris eventually built or designed almost every object in the house for himself.

The immediate result was the formation, in 1861, of the design firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company, a collection of artists and craft workers working together—both individually and in collaboration—to produce mural decoration, stained glass, metalwork, furniture, wallpapers, textiles, embroidery, carpets, and painted tiles. Morris himself set out to become a master of as many of the crafts as possible.

In theory, Morris had found his key in the relationship between history, the working process, and aesthetics. He believed that the debased nature of industrial products was not necessarily the fault of machines themselves but arose from the division of labor between design and manufacture. He believed that work and production could be made harmonious—and satisfactory—only if workers had control over the whole of the objects they produced. He did not quite manage to put all of his principles in practice: Running the firm as a successful business required divisions of labor (and women...

(The entire section is 2031 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

The New York Review of Books. XXXII, April 25, 1985, p. 22.

The New York Times. February 20, 1985, p. 19.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, March 10, 1985, p. 18.

Publishers Weekly. CCVII, June 15, 1985, p. 65.