What Would William Morris Have to Say Now?
In an 1877 lecture to the Trades’ Guild of Learning, London, British artist, designer and writer William Morris said, “…if you cannot learn to love real art, at least learn to hate sham art and reject it.”
Morris was railing against industrialization, machines and Victorians with bad taste, but it was the decline of traditional trade skills that he and his socialist contemporaries were swatting at when they began the Arts and Crafts Movement in the 1870s.
“Sham” art, more or less, represented any decorative item, though specifically wallpaper, textiles, glass, furniture and ceramics, not manufactured primarily by hand or elevated to the level of fine art. Morris’ lecture to those unnamed artist-designers of English domestic culture was well received and later published under the title The Lesser Arts of Life.
19th century textile and decorative paper pattern samples:
Two decades after Morris’ death in 1896, art and industry were finally able to play well together during the Art Deco movement of the 1920s and 30s. Deco and industry made a happy marriage of two worlds. Art emulated streamlined mechanization and machines provided artists and designers with new surfaces and structures, appliances and vehicles on which to experiment.
View more examples of Marimekko designs here.
The marriage has carried on since. At times though, it’s been rocky, and the offspring haven’t always been attractive and above average.
Mass-produced products that would have horrified Morris, like patterned vinyl flooring, Formica counters, pleather bean-bag chairs, Chinet plates and foil wallpaper became so commonly used that it’s a bit hard to grasp what all his anti-Victorian fuss was about in comparison.
After recently re-reading Stafford Cliff’s The English Archive of Design and Decoration, as well as The Lesser Arts of Life, I was reminded of how much Morris loathed mechanization. I couldn’t help wondering what he would have had to say about the computers and software that are now integral to every aspect of all things “designed.”
I’m pretty sure, however, that if he saw Cristian Zuzunaga’s fabric prints for fashion designer Peter Smith and textiles furniture manufacturer Moroso – or Pea White’s “Smoke” tapestry from the 2010 Whitney Biennial, he’d be at peace with the idea, if not completely pleased.
What he’d have to say about foil wallpaper… we can only imagine.
© Markus Horak, 2010