Britain had been the pioneer of the first Industrial Revolution. Beginning in the mid-18th century, inventors began developing processes to power machines with steam. Britain was perfectly situated to lead industrialization. Not only was it rich in coal deposits, literally sitting on the fuel needed, but its sprawling empire in Africa, Asia and the Americas provided it with further resources and riches.
While the Industrial Revolution strengthened the British Empire and propelled its economy, William Morris was keenly aware of its drawbacks. Division of labor in factory production meant that workers performed mind-numbing, repetitive tasks their whole lives, beginning in childhood, for very low wages. Urbanization meant dreadful living conditions in crowded slums. And aesthetically, products of the industrial revolution were generally shoddily produced, cheap and unimaginative imitations of historical styles.
For Morris, the worst aspect of industrialization was how it alienated workers from the products of their labor. He longed for the Middle Ages, which he idealized as a time when workers experienced joy in their labors, when they were empowered under the guild system, and could design and produce their work from start to finish. Morris therefore also hated the products of the Industrial Revolution: cheap, unnecessary goods that essentially relegated workers to a kind of slavery.
Morris had first been inspired in college by the art historian John Ruskin, whose philosophy moved Morris to change his course of study and pursue social change through the arts. Morris grew to detest modern civilization, and he believed that reforming the mode of production and the products of the industrial age would in turn reform society. He yearned for the simple beauty of an idealized Middle Ages, when craftsmen worked alongside one another in collaboration.
After graduating from Oxford, Morris gathered his architect and artist friends and started his company, later known as Morris & Co. Morris believed that "you should have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful." In pursuit of his goals, Morris' company produced decorative arts like furniture, tapestry and stained glass, with the various artists and craftsmen collaborating together to make things by hand, using traditional methods and materials.
Morris was not only interested in medieval European culture, but in traditional cultures in general, including Persia and the Islamic World. He looked to these pre-industrial cultures for a 'pure' and 'honest' aesthetic and sense of construction.
In the 1870s, Morris spent much of his time hand-lettering and illuminating new editions of classic texts like the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (image 14). He also translated and illustrated several Norse sagas, as well, after two journeys to Iceland to study the language and mythology of the traditional culture there. His love of making books was lifelong. In 1891, he founded the Kelmscott Press, which used traditional 15th-century techniques to publish slightly more mass-produced versions of the handmade manuscripts he had produced in the '70s (image 15).
During his lifetime, Morris was more influential as a writer than a designer, producing manifestos and original poetry. He was a dedicated socialist, and wrote passionately about the growing gap between rich and poor, which had been intensely accelerated by industrialization. He wanted to democratize the arts, to make good design available to all people, but ultimately his own furnishings — made painstakingly by hand using the best natural materials — were typically too expensive for anyone but the rich industrialists Morris hated. Despite this contradiction in his work, Morris' influence on design cannot be overstated. He not only established an Arts & Crafts aesthetic, but, more importantly, infused a sense of moral consciousness into the post-industrial design process, raising questions of workers' rights and environmental responsibility that we still grapple with today.
For more information on William Morris, I recommend The Beauty of Life: William Morris and the Art of Design, a comprehensive and highly readable compilation of essays on Morris by leading historians. I also adore this short video that shows the incredible process Morris followed to create his famous wallpapers.
Images: 1 Wikimedia Commons; 2 Britannica.com; 3-7 The wonderful William Morris Fan Club blog; 8 Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; 9 Victoria & Albert Museum, London; 10 & 11 The Arts and Crafts Home; 12 The Met, the Victoria & Albert, and the Met, respectively; 13 Victoria & Albert Museum; 14 Artpassions.net; 15 Designingwithtype.com.