Saturday, 22 September 2012

"Retrieving" William Morris

Blinded by my Bauhaus obsession about “Good Design for the Working Classes,” I got more and more irritated by what I falsely saw as the medievalism of the British Arts and Craft innovator William Morris. He hated factories! An unforgivable sin to this touter of Detroiter Albert Kahn, the greatest factory architect of all time. 

So when my favorite new weekly magazine, "The Economist,” commented on how the Brits were honoring Morris as part of London post- Olympic hoopla (“More than just a pretty swatch”,9/22/2012, p.84), I had to take a closer look at Morris. I loved his mostly rural villas, and the interior decorations that made their interiors dazzle. But I falsely suspected that his influential medievalist ideas exacerbated the visual mess that was nineteenth century England, not to mention twentieth century America.

Alas, could it be Morris speaking: “I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few,” he said bitterly in 1873, a decade before Walter Gropius was born, as he decorated still another villa interior. It dawned on him painfully that he had been spending his esthetic career “ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich.” Wow. He could very well be the idealistic voice of Cameron Sinclair, that Brit who over a century later came to America to organize a global fraternity, Architecture for Humanity, with its down to earth secular bible, “Design As If You Give a Damn.”

Like the later Sinclair, Morris thought himself In the late 70’S into a radical stance :the great expensive objects he and his associates created “were completely unaffordable for the people he wanted to help.” (How would he have loved the Swede who created IKEA.) Alone of his Pre-Raphaelite fellows, he crossed what he called “the river of fire” and joined the Socialist cause. 

The Morris devotees who have turned his teenage residence in Walthamstow into a Morris museum tells the whole story of his career, first the stuffy Shop of gew-gaws for the wealthy, followed by his political phase of activism in socialism, environmentalism and preservationism. Political pamphlets, Utopian novels, the excellent printing of his Kelmscott Press as well as reports of his campaigns to protect the Thames, Epping Forest, and London’s historic buildings. His teenage home turned Morris Museum is conveniently at the end of the Victoria underground subway line. 

The Tate Britain complements the new museum with a Morris show through January 13,2013, “Pre-Raphaelites : Victorian Avant-garde”. His 1860s aphorism is up-to-date! “It is the allowing of machines to be our masters, and not our servants, that so injures the beauty of life nowadays.”

Strangely, the German Foreign Office sent a leading German architect, Herman Multhesius, to spy on British superiority in industrialization in the late nineteenth century. He was a leader in the Deutsche Werkbund,(1909) which wanted its designers to learn how to catch up with the industrial leader Britain. Alas, he was so beguiled by Morris’s villas that he missed his innovations that the Bauhaus(1919-32) would try to improve upon. 

Alas, he missed entirely the first great British industrial designer, Christopher Dresser, who graduated from mere Victorian decorator at Glasgow University to lead British industry to its eminence.The Friedrich Schiller University even gave him an honorary doctorate for his first book in 1859. He gave a series of lectures at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts during our Centennial world’s fair. Then he went off to Japan to study their folk arts, forerunners of industrial design. He declaimed on his return: “I went to Japan a mere decorator and returned an industrial designer!” It would take Germany and America several decades to catch up.

In an America rattled by art auctions that allow billionaires to show off their illth. Where our everyday environments grow more and more squalid, the more we build expensive museums, the mature William Morris is an idealist worthy of emulation.

This essay is also published in Broad Street Review.

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