The Eternal Beauty of William Morris Designs
"If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it:
Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful." Wm. Morris
William Morris "Patterns" Coasters
A Few Words About William Morris
William Morris is regarded as one of Britain’s most celebrated designers from the 19th century. Considered an outlier by his contemporaries, who were busy either extolling Britain’s growing industrial might or profiting directly from it, Morris was dismayed by the increased mechanization that he felt robbed workers of their dignity and the potential for creativity in their work. He also believed that mass-produced goods were inherently inferior, that their manufacture led to waste and environmental degradation, and that their shoddiness reflected poorly on the household for which they were purchased. He became famous for drawing on nature as an inspiration for his designs developing his own unique taste and is credited with creating more than 50 unique wallpaper designs and producing some of the most famous and celebrated textile patterns during the 19th century. His design philosophy is summed up with his belief, "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."
Arts & Craft Movement
William Morris is generally regarded as the most influential designer associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain. The name Arts and Crafts was given to the style of architecture and furnishings that Morris developed, and the movement spread to northern Europe and North America in the late 19th and early 20th century. This movement gained popularity due to concerns about the negative impact of industrialization on Britain’s traditional crafts and design. As a response to industrialization, artists, craftsmen, designers, and architects started turning to new ways of working and living and adapting to new ways of creating decorative art. To this end, throughout his career, Morris aimed to revive and protect the traditional handmade techniques replaced during the industrial revolution by machines.
William Morris, “Patterns” Cloth Napkins, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Patterns & Motifs
Inspired by nature, and his belief that patterns should have “beauty, imagination and order”, William Morris' designs have a certain timeless quality featuring fruit tree branches, rose-filled trellises, thieving birds, and swirling leaves. Morris’ designs famously depict repetitive patterns of flora and fauna. For example, Sunflowers and other plants from the aster family (Asteraceae) appealed to Morris. He was drawn to their simple-petalled, open flowers and they appear in many of his designs. Morris's 'Sunflower' wallpaper, seen below, is an example of this. His Tree of Life patterns are also illustrative of his focus on subtle stylized patterns instead of life-like illustrations.
Reference: Morris's 'Sunflower' wallpaper, printed in 1879, featuring scrolling leaves, vines and tulips
Art de Lys, Tree of Life Tapestry Pillow Cushion Covers
Colors ‘To Dye For’
Morris not only drew plants, he also used them in dyes for his wallpapers and textiles. He rejected the recently introduced artificial colors made from coal tar, considering it ‘one of the most useless inventions of modern chemistry.’
Instead, he chose to return to natural dyes derived from plants, such as madder (red) and weld (yellow), contained in a 15th-century French dye book. One of his biggest challenges was dyeing with indigo which he proclaimed to be ‘the only real blue dye’ and wrote about his arms and hands being stained blue from his experiments.
Examples of William Morris Products Today
Metropolitan Museum of Art Silk Scarves
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has over the years reproduced several of Morris’ iconic designs and patterns into a high quality silk William Morris scarf. These scarves highlight the beautiful designs that are heavily patterned with fruits, leaves, and flowers. These scarves are delicate, soft, and lightweight, making them a favorite accessory for many.
One of their most popular scarves is the Compton Oblong Silk Scarf. This scarf echos the lush colors of an 1896 wallpaper design entitled Compton, featuring a rich floral botanical motif. It’s colors of brown, beige, with a dash of red make it extremely versatile.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, William Morris, Compton Scarf
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Morris, Pink & Rose Scarf
Another popular reproduction from The Met Collection is the Pink and Rose Oblong Scarf. Adapted from Pink and Rose, an original Morris & Co. wallpaper (ca. 1890), this contemporary take on the pattern updates it in pretty pastels.
The Met’s, “William Morris Floral” English Garden 52” square scarf / wrap invites you for stroll through an English garden with it’s floral motifs adapted from The Met Collection. This pretty wool scarf celebrates two botanical patterns by Morris & Co. The center features the linen textile Trent (ca. 1892), and the border is taken from the hand-block-printed wallpaper Pink and Rose (ca. 1890).
Metropolitan Museum of Art, William Morris, Floral Scarf
Pimpernel Trays, Placemats & Coasters
The British company, Pimpernel, now owned by Portmeirion, is regarded by many as the premier brand for placemats, coasters, trays and tabletop accessories. They too have now produced several William Morris collection pieces, the most popular being his Strawberry Thief design in both blue and red. Perhaps the most recognizable of Morris’s textiles, Strawberry Thief design dates back to 1883 and celebrates the thrushes in Morris’s garden. This whimsical design has a folk-inspired scene depicting a pair of sly birds pecking away at strawberries, amongst the lush plants and foliage. This pattern perfected Morris’s indigo-discharge process, which required the entire cloth to be dyed blue before it was bleached and block printed, in this case with more colors than any of his other textiles.
Art de Lys French Tapestry Pillow Covers, William Morris Collection
Art de Lys, William Morris inspired Tapestry Pillow / Cushion Covers
Art de Lys For over 125 years, the Art de Lys has created, woven and manufactured collections of upmarket, jacquard patterns for decorating present day and future interiors. Their workshops, located at Lys-Lez-Lannoy, in the heart of the historic textile area in northern France have produced an extensive collection of William Morris inspired tapestries and pillow / cushion covers. Fabricated with signature high quality craftsmanship, amongst their most popular Morris-inspired cushion covers are the Tree of Life, Rabbit series, and Bird patterns. We are a firm believer that quality of craftsmanship gives interior a timeless look – and these classic decorative pillow covers will complement most home interiors, making them a great gift idea and an easy go-to option.
Beauty is the Key to Happiness
Morris’s iconic patterns that have continued to be relevant and captivate today, as we celebrate over 150 years of the iconic British brand. How should we remember William Morris? Of course, through appreciation of his beautiful patterns reproduced by quality companies like those discussed above. But to fully understand him, perhaps we should revisit a few of his “food for thought” quotes –
First, “The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life”, second, "I do not want art for a few any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few”, and lastly, “My work is the embodiment of dreams in one form or another.”