Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Good Influence: William Morris

“If I were asked to say what is at once the most important production of art and the thing most to be longed for, I should answer, a beautiful house.” William Morris
I have been thinking about who I am and what our family life should look like lately....woah, deep, I know. But, since it is my job to keep house here, I've been contemplating what our environment should consist of. Admittedly, our possessions are primarily family cast-offs and craigslist scores, but I'm wanting to establish a feel for our home right now, so as we grow into an aesthetic in the coming years (in many years, that is, ahem), we won't continue with the mish-mash look we've got going on right now. Mish-mash look has got to go.

I have always been drawn to William Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement of the 1880s and '90s in Britain. When I was choosing my area of concentration for my master's program in art history, my top contenders were, in fact, the Arts & Crafts movement and late-medieval feminism. And now, I return to William Morris for inspiration for beautiful, warm, soulful home design.
William Morris was a jack of all trades: talented at crafting textiles, hand-painted wallpaper, soundly constructed furniture, architect, and proselytizer of his moral platform, demanding greater integrity in the construction of the ephemera of daily life. In his words, “More universally…[there should be] a quality that is hard to put your finger on but that is undeniably there in all great work, whether it be a painting, a pot, a roll of wallpaper or a fine tapestry—an inherent quality that derives from the pride, expertise and creative freedom of its maker. It gives craft or good workmanship, and the pleasure we take in it, a moral dimension, so that it is no longer a purely sensory phenomenon.” (Lucia Van Der Post, p. 15).
Morris' demands for a home designed with the integrity of the medieval artisans was timely; the Industrial Revolution was at its height in Great Britain during Morris' youth, and the production of textiles and furniture had shifted from artisans' hands to the assembly lines in factories. London's air had become polluted with the choking smoke, steam and dust from the ever-growing construction of railways, roads, and factories. The poor lived in crowded tenements, while the rich grew increasingly decadent.
Throughout Morris' upbringing, he grew increasingly disillusioned by the culture, or lack of it, that surrounded him. As biographer Lucia van der Post explains, "As a sulky seventeen-year-old heir to a City fortune, William Morris had refused to enter the Crystal Palace to see the Great Exhibition with his family. He already had a horror of the meretricious furniture and decoration that ‘new money’, such as his father’s, had made fashionable. It was only when he got to Oxford, however, that he found the intellectual armoury that helped him articulate his distaste…the writer John Ruskin blamed the degradation of modern taste on the enslavement of workmen to industrial process. Ruskin was sure that ‘the difference between the spirit of touch of the man who is inventing, and of the man who is obeying directions, is often all the difference between a great and a common work of art’. He believed the solution lay in the revival of handcrafts and the abolition of false distinctions between the designer and the maker, the artist and the craftsman."
Here we are in 2010. To me, it seems as if we are right back in 1880. We have collectively witnessed the same explosion of industry (that of the technological sort), the growing decadence of our society, and the cheap, flimsy goods that surround our lives (sorry, Ikea, but seriously...). And then, we see little sparks of William Morris resurface: it seems as though there is a cultural longing for hand-crafted, well-made, simple things again. You know, the good stuff!
So, William Morris, I tip my hat to you! I may not follow you in your socialistic slants, but I do love your commitment to craft and extraordinary home design!

"Have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."
William Morris


Kristy said...

Whenever I see you have posted, I get so excited. Thanks for sharing the good stuff. It really inspires and uplifts me.

I've been looking for a botanical pattern to make some curtains for our bedroom. I love the fabric in the third picture down. You don't happen to have a clue where it came from, do you? If you see something similar in your browsings, let me know!

Robyn said...

I'm moving in with you.

Jill said...

Oh Becca. What a great post. Thank you for inspiring me with your knowledge and art wisdom! What true statements. It is so easy to get caught up in the "I want now and inexpensive mindset". And I must say, that your home was always so welcoming to me. It's not the stuff--but you and your sweet family!

Jill said...

p.s. I just read this interview and really liked what she had to say about crafting and trying to change her mindset about always creating "things". You may have seen it, but just in case

dakotapearl said...

wow. you've blown the dust off the old art history brain with a vengeance! I think all the paper presentation prep you were doing last month is paying off for the rest of us, your gentle readers. gracias.