Born in 1834, he had the privileged education of a boy born into a successful stockbroker’s family.
At Oxford University his love of nature, beauty and ideas were honed by the Romantic poets’ cries of “liberty, equality and fraternity,” Ruskin’s belief in the moral basis of creativity and in the Pre-Raphaelite’s medievalism.
Though destined for the church, Morris rebelled. He was articled to an architect’s office, learned painting and wrote medieval romances. Aged 21, he inherited a fortune and put this to good use.
He discovered his talent as a designer when setting up home. When classical stucco houses were fashionable he commissioned a red brick house in an asymmetrical, vernacular style from the innovatory architect Phillip Webb. Unable to find beautiful, well made manufactured furniture and furnishings Morris collaborated with artist and architect friends to create his own.
He mastered the arts of embroidery, tapestry, weaving, stained glass and textile and wallpaper design and later turned his hand to typography, book illustration and book design.
Through this practical experience he developed the social and aesthetic principles of design which became known as the Arts And Crafts movement. In 1861 he founded the Morris, Marshall, Faulkner company to practise and promote his ideas.
His crusade was spurred by disgust at the aesthetic and social effects of the industrial revolution. Poorly made, fussily ornate goods in cheap materials masquerading as past styles were mass-produced in dirty, polluting factories by badly paid, slum dwelling workers who replaced traditional craftspersons.
Morris called for quality of materials and craftsmanship, simplicity of form, truth to materials and fitness for purpose. His printed patterns are an example, with their shapes simplified and flattened to echo the flatness of their surface materials.
Crucially, Morris called for unity between all visual arts. This critique of the hierarchy between the “high” arts of architecture, painting and sculpture and the so-called lesser, decorative arts challenged the dominant renaissance tradition and re-evaluated medieval practices.
A belief that beauty and creativity are essential to human happiness fired Morris to link the shoddiness of mass- produced goods to their ugly conditions of production.
This insight, combined with his growing interest in progressive politics, produced the most advanced socialist theory of decorative arts of his times.
From 1877 until his death in 1896 he threw himself into political activism, lecturing and publishing widely for the cause. The Lesser Arts, his first public lecture, presents the cogent argument that commercial manufacturers’ greed causes pollution, social deprivation and impoverishes the quality of life for maker and owner: “To give people pleasure in the things they must perforce use, that is one great office of decoration; to give people pleasure in the things they must perforce make, that is the other use of it,” he declared.
He did not oppose machine production per se, arguing that used under humane conditions it would liberate workers from unpleasant and repetitive tasks. What he objected to was dehumanising commercial factory production which robbed workers of creative pleasure.
Reading Marx’s Capital in French in 1883 finally clarified Morris’s submerged understanding of the class struggle. That year he co-founded the Socialist League and wrote for and edited its journal The Commonweal.
Texts such as Useful Work Versus Useless Toil bristle with truths still relevant today. Arguing that only a classless society could eliminate the exploitation and waste of human creativity and of the world’s resources, he exclaimed: “No-one would make plush breeches when there are no flunkeys to wear them!”
News From Nowhere, his Marxist romance, outlines a post-revolutionary classless society in which the practice of visual art is personified by a potter. She explains that professionalisation has disappeared as everyone now lives a balanced life in which creativity plays a part.
Morris’s influence has been enormous. The arts and crafts movement spread across Europe and the US. Bauhaus, de Stijl and Soviet Constructivist artists were indebted to his aesthetics, if not to the style of his designs, and their placing of the unity of the arts at the heart of design education continues to this day. Designers are still inspired by Morris’s works while his questions about the social role of art and creativity were so fundamental that they remain relevant.
Morris was aware of the contradiction that his hand-crafted products necessarily priced out the working class but he argued that this arose from capitalism’s inequalities and skewered values which he combatted.
That this problem still haunts our own crafts persons is, sadly, because the political system remains the same.
Morris’s work can be seen in the William Morris Gallery, the Red House, Emery Walker House and the V&A Museum in London and Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire.