The persistent power of William Morris' design principles

by Patricia Cove
Posted 9/25/20

Each century, each year, each political, social or industrial movement can create its own design direction r philosophy. There is no movement for which that is more true than the period known as the …

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The persistent power of William Morris' design principles

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Each century, each year, each political, social or industrial movement can create its own design direction or philosophy. There is no movement for which that is more true than the period known as the Arts and Crafts movement that spanned from the1880s into the 1920s. One of the prominent artists associated with the period is William Morris.

As a boy, William savored the extensive grounds and forest of his home outside London. He did not enjoy traditional schooling and spent much time absorbing local history, the countryside and making detailed observations of the architecture, artifacts and the natural landscape·. His creativity was reflected through poetry and many   other creative endeavors as a lover of nature, history and design.

Today, William Morris, the poet, is second to his work as a designer and pattern maker. His designs have become synonymous with a flowing and  intense evocation of the natural world, which occurred at a time of rampant industrialization, during  the late 1800s. A Morris design celebrates the natural world with its emphasis on harmony with our natural environment that is particularly timely today.

Elizabeth Wilhide, a writer who has studied and published numerous books on design said of Morris: “His patterns also display the value of artisanship and the intimate connection between form, function and beauty. It is a unique combination that holds particular attraction and relevance for us now."

Morris' love of nature and his distinctive designs were expressed in a wide variety of media. The Sanderson Company has represented his patterns in fabrics and wallcoverings for many years. You can also distinguish his designs in stained glass, hand-painted tiles, tapestries, woven textiles, embroideries., rugs and carpets, as well as the exquisite and well-loved hand­printed wallpapers and chintzes with which he transformed the cluttered interiors of many homes in the Victorian style, becoming a household word for "good taste.”

Not only were Morris’ designs distinct in their artistry, he completed much research and practical experiments in the use of natural dyes and regarded dying as another of the endangered crafts he was seeking to revive. Devising his own formula for vegetable dyes, his patterns became a panoply of distinct coloration, combination and technique.

His most distinctive patterns include all forms seen in nature – willow boughs, birds and anemones, honeysuckle, acorns, vines and chrysanthemums -- His tile designs are used as backsplashes, fireplace surrounds and cornices. His tapestries adorn walls and windows and display uniquely as upholstery on chairs and sofas. The specificity of Morris' patterns is most appropriate within the Arts and Crafts architectural style but can easily be combined with smaller, more modern patterns or fabrics more textural in construction within other architectural building styles.

Once you discover the overall beauty and fluidity of Morris’ patterns, it becomes easy to want to use them everywhere. Their natural simplicity also contains elements of complexity, so although mixing patterns is encouraged, a more William Morris "statement" can be made by sticking with one

pattern used in its various mediums. Either way, the use of fabrics, wall coverings and other decorative elements exhibiting his signature style can bring the warmth of nature into any environment.

Patricia Cove is Principal of Architectural Interiors and Design in Chestnut Hill and can be reached at patricia@pat riciacove.com .

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