Why you should care
Because he was a 19th-century DIYer.
Originally surrounded by orchards, Red House, in the leafy London suburb of Bexleyheath, was built in the 1860s to reflect William Morris’ love of simple, medieval Gothic architecture and decorated as a testament to his rage against the industrial machine. It was also described as “the beautifullest place on Earth” by an artist friend who helped bring Morris’ vision to life.
Born in Walthamstow, Morris hated ornate Victorian decor and used his first marital home to show how art could be stripped back to the basics to celebrate medieval creativity. The stunning result — a uniquely designed functional home filled with handcrafted and wooden Gothic furniture, handwoven tapestries and hand-painted walls — was considered simplistic in the 1860s. But it spurred a design movement that continues to inspire artists to this day.
Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.
Morris, who hated mass-produced materialism and believed machines devalued craftsmen, had a golden rule for interiors: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” — a lyrical way of saying that form should follow function. But once his friend and architect Philip Webb designed this Gothic-arched, asymmetrical home, Morris struggled to find furnishings that lived up to his motto. So he called in reinforcements, and many attribute the birth of the Arts and Crafts Movement to when he “invited his friends and their wives to decorate the interior themselves,” says Helen Elletson, manager of the William Morris Society. Morris and others, including Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painted walls, tiles and glass, sewed tapestries and crafted furniture for Red House.
Morris was influenced by the renowned art critic John Ruskin, who believed men should find pleasure in their work, and that by dividing designers from craftsmen, “the free, creative and fulfilling work of the medieval artisan was destroyed,” writes Elizabeth Wilhide in William Morris: Decor & Design. He was also inspired by Ruskin’s love of the natural world — Morris is well known for fluid, floral designs — as well as Augustus Pugin, who pioneered Gothic Revival style. But Morris stands apart from those who influenced him, says Rowan Bain, curator at the William Morris Gallery, because “he had a practical output.” He practiced what he preached, enhancing the theoretical education he’d gained at Oxford by becoming a painter, weaver, typographer, illustrator and designer of stained glass, tiles and furniture.
A fervent socialist, Morris “hated the Industrial Revolution and everything it stood for,” says Elletson, referring to his disdain for the period’s poor factory conditions and what he saw as ugly products. That, combined with his belief that others might enjoy handcrafted furnishings like the ones created for Red House, led Morris and his colleagues to launch Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. They billed themselves as “Fine Art Workmen in Painting, Carving, Furniture and Metals,” offering tasteful alternatives to the mass-produced items churned out by sweatshops.
The firm thrived — its designs still sell — creating wallpapers, rugs and tapestries that rejoiced in the natural world, as well as medieval-style stained glass and furniture made in a simple Gothic style. And while Morris wouldn’t have known the term arts and crafts, he served as the movement’s inspiration, providing early glimpses of simple forms, an appreciation for various woods and other materials, a celebration of traditional craftsmanship and natural motifs. His designs would inspire generations of great artists, including Rennie Mackintosh, Frank Lloyd Wright and Gustav Stickley, who launched the American Craftsman style.
But Morris’ greatest artistic impact came long after his 1896 death, as arts and design schools opened toward the end of the century, giving rise to the Arts and Crafts Movement dedicated to functional interior beauty. In fact, many also consider Morris the founding father of Modernism — planting the roots that led right through to Bauhaus, Bain explains. There are parallels, she says, “with the stripping things back” so you can see how furnishings are made, as well as a faithfulness to materials. Even though modern processes like 3-D printing fascinate, says Bain, “there’s still something very appealing about having something you can see people have made and crafted themselves.”
Some of the original 1860s furniture survives in Red House, but most of the walls have been painted white, hiding the vibrant, medieval scenes created by Morris and his friends. But Morris’ furniture, wallpaper and textile designs, and those he inspired, have sprung up in homes all over the world — colorful symbols of a timeless, artistic era of endeavor.