The William Morris Ouevre: Why Once-Radical Designs Still Intrigue

A vine weaving through a trellis. A flock of playful thrushes steal strawberries. A scrolling acanthus. These are just a few of the nature-inspired designs that William Morris, the designer, artist and thinker, conceptualized in the second half of the 19th century. Today we might call such odes to the outdoors timeless, but at the time Morris’ attraction to simple, handmade forms, natural ornamentation, and medieval and neo-Gothic imagery was considered as almost radically old-fashioned.

When the multidisciplinary firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. (renamed Morris & Co. in 1875) made its furniture debut at the 1862 International Exhibition in London, the designs were The Illustrated London Newswho reported: “Medievalists tire us enough when they seek to interest us in emblems whose meaning has been forgotten for ages.”

It was the end of the Industrial Revolution, which had ushered in mechanical innovations and mass production along with clouds of polluted air and a decrease in life expectancy. Morris, together with a group of artists, writers and thinkers who called themselves the Pre-Raphaelites (they were critical of the neoclassical style, drawing inspiration from medieval and early Renaissance art), aspired to the contrary : a return to nature, a revival of the handmade and social reform. These ideas would lay the groundwork for the Arts and Crafts movement, which Morris long championed, as well as those textile designs – wallpapers, fabrics and embroidery – that enjoyed a prolific afterlife.

In the Victorian getaway of Markham Roberts on Puget Sound, the seaweed wallpaper by William Morris envelops the dressing room.

Photo: Nelson Hancock

Today, as society continues to deal with unprecedented scenarios of all kinds (pandemic! war! Amazon!), Morris’ work is enjoying a fitting resurgence. “We’ve seen a drastic increase in nostalgic design,” says Claire Vallis, design director at Sanderson Design Group, owner of Morris & Co. took off.

These days, you can spot Morris & Co. flora and fauna (many of which were developed with Morris’s longtime collaborator, painter Edward Burne-Jones) on film and movie sets. TV shows : The Queen’s BetBeth Harmon’s Parisian hotel room is wrapped in Bullerswood wallpaper. In Hocus Pocus 2, a Morris & Co. pattern encloses an interior in Mayor Traske’s home. And next week, the iconic botanical flourishes will bloom on plates and linens in a new cooperation with Williams Sonoma.

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