Swirling willow leaves, strawberry-thieving birds, statuesque thistles and rose-filled trellises: the designs of William Morris are striking, busy and instantly recognisable. Today, Morris designs can be found in both mansions and modest houses, and have even inspired contemporary artists. One hundred and fifty years on from the creation of his company, it is not just Morris’s designs, but also his underlying ethos, that is being re-examined.
When Morris set up Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company (later known as Morris & Co) in 1861, his aim was to produce finely made, decorative items that would be available to all. Morris was critical of the mass-produced products of the industrial revolution and the damaging effect of industry on people’s lives. Two years earlier, Morris and his friends (who included the artists Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti and architect Philip Webb) had designed and decorated Red House, his first marital home, in Bexleyheath. The style was almost medieval; handcrafted tapestries and textiles, stone floors, oak staircases and stained glass. “To my mind,” says Michael Parry, archivist and former managing director of Sanderson (which now owns Morris & Co) “that [Red House] was the catalyst for him thinking ‘hang on a minute, I don’t like what I see in the marketplace, it’s all hideous Victorian stuff, let’s do something on our own’.”
Despite dabbling in embroidery, carpet-making, poetry, literature, politics and publishing, it is Morris’s traditional block-printed wallpapers for which he is most remembered, and which gained Morris & Co a following. Morris designed more than half the company’s collection of about 100 wallpapers, which were block-printed by Jeffrey & Company. Although Morris died in 1896 and Morris & Co was liquidated in 1940, Sanderson’s purchase of the company’s archives allowed the designs to live on.
The “flower power” movement of the sixties and seventies inspired Sanderson to replace the traditional Morris colour palette with browns, yellows and acid greens. Then, in the eighties, Sanderson made an economically savvy decision to convert some of the traditionally made block-prints (which were expensive to manufacture) into machine prints, and launched a collection of wallpapers and matching fabrics. Morris & Co had finally brought the designs to the masses – albeit using the sort of industrial production techniques that Morris had railed against.
Over the years the Morris patterns have enjoyed worldwide popularity. The most successful international market, by a long way, is Japan, according to David Walker, sales director of Morris & Co. He says that Morris & Co papers and fabrics account for more than 50 per cent of Sanderson’s total sales in the country. The designs are also popular in the USA, Sweden and Russia, and sales figures in these countries are higher than those in western Europe – in the UK, Morris & Co products account for about 20 per cent of Sanderson’s sales.
To mark the 150th anniversary, Morris & Co has launched archive collections of wallpapers and textiles, celebrating popular designs and drawing on textiles from Morris’s former residences. Helen Elletson, curator of Kelmscott House, Morris’s former London house and the home of the William Morris Society, believes Morris designs still have a real relevance in the 21st century, not just in terms of their aesthetic appeal but in terms of their ideals. “People have discovered a bit more about Morris – it is not just the patterns. Morris had strong beliefs in handmade items being produced to the best quality. People are appreciating this all over again.”
The new archive collections will not appeal to everyone. There are those who find the typically bright and bold florals in Morris’s designs too much – especially when overused. Parry says that this approach is by no means indicative of the look Morris intended to create. “Morris was really a minimalist and yet when people bought his products, they actually used it in that Victorian cluttered style,” says Parry, “which I would have thought would have been a bit of an odd thing for him to comprehend. If you go to Red House, it is really sharp. Simple oak, a bit of glass. Slick and smart.”
Peter Rolls of the interior design consultancy The Design House Winchester has seen an increased interest in Morris wallpapers in the past 10 years. He regularly uses the designs in both period and contemporary interiors, although, he stresses, quite sparingly: “The real McCoy 30 or 40 years ago was the matching wallpaper, the matching curtains – you’d walk into a room and you couldn’t see your way out, but now we use it more as an accent, to give a strong note in a room.” Rolls believes that it is the craftsmanship of the Morris designs which is attractive to people today. “There are very few things that have survived 150 years because most of them just look passé.”
Today, as in Morris’s time, handcrafted products come at a price. Morris & Co’s traditional block-printed wallpaper, still available on request, costs upwards of £200 ($327) a roll. In contrast, the latest archive collection, like the eighties collection, is machine-made and comes in at a substantially lower price (from £38 a roll). A century-and-a-half on, it seems Morris’s dream of handcrafted products for the masses has yet to be fully realised.