William Morris – beauty of practicality


William Morris

Born March 24, 1834

Known for Wallpaper and textile design, fantasy fiction / medievalism, socialism

Notable work Textile and typographic design

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or beautiful.”

That was the rallying call of the nineteenth-century designer, William Morris, a British designer and social reformer.  He aimed to rid the world of shoddy mass-produced goods and replace them with objects that were designed and made by artists.

He has long been considered on the great Victorians and has been referred to one of the most influential British designers of the nineteenth century.

While at Oxford he became genuinely interested in the ritual architecture of the middle ages.  However, his most significant influence came through the readings of John Ruskin, whose ideas on aestheticism and social progress he gradually adopted.

william morris quote

Morris believed his responsibility was “to revive a sense of beauty in home life, to restore the dignity of art to household decoration.”  His designs were much-loved by the aesthetic movement of the time including Oscar Wilde and Rex Whistler.  In 1861 he established his firm to design and produce wallpaper and textiles. Morris produced his first printed textile design in 1873 and although today many of his designs are still used. His original designs are still re-coloured and re-worked and marketed under his name.  Some of his carpet designs were used by other makers, but Morris also established looms in Hammersmith, London, where craftsmen hand-knotted carpets in the traditional Asian manner.  Morris helped improve the overall standards of design as the styles that emerged began to mirror the general artistic trends of the period.

Art Noveau

William Morris became as familiar to the Art Noveau aficionados as were those of Picasso and Matisse to the more general public.

There is a story told about Morris, that as a young man on a walking trip in France, he had a vision of a perfect house.  So vivid was the image that the 26-year-old scribbled notes describing the property on the only thing he had at hand the back of a French railway timetable.

The home he built in the hamlet of Upton, near Bexleyheath, South East London – known as the Red House — revolutionised British taste.

By William Morris – Planet Art CD of royalty-free PD images William Morris: Selected Works, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2441266

Typography – Kelmscott Press

The Kelmscott Press was the forerunner to the modern printing press whose influence for present day print typography is attributable.  The typeface of the Victorian era was ugly, and the notions of ‘visual communication’ were not a significant consideration.  The printers lumped an array of different typefaces on the same page that ended up as more of an obstacle than an aid to communication.  There seemed to be an aversion of leaving any white space, and a vast number of rococo embellishments were kept to provider fillers of whitespace.

William Morris articulated his vision, as he wrote in a note on the founding of the Kelmscott Press.

“Letter pure in form: severe, without needless excrescences; solid without the thickening and the thinning of the line which is the essential fault of the ordinary modern type and which makes it difficult to read; and not compressed laterally as all later type has grown to be owing to commercial exigencies.”

Kelmscott Press
Title page of Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair, 04-13988 Fine Print, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Morris designed his own typeface based on the fifteenth-century face of Nicholas Jenson.  He studied Jenson’s type in great detail, he had it photographed and enlarged and made drawings of it over and over again.  The resulting type he called “Golden.”  Apart from this face he worked on three others: “Troy” and “Chaucer”.

To the contemporary eyes, Morris’s books would perhaps, seem rather than the distilled essence of beauty.  The pages of his books appear to be close-packed and the type heavier than would be used today.  He also had a weakness for large and ornate capitals (sometimes they were hand-painted which gave a lopsidedness to the page.

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