Born in 1834, Morris was a poet, an expert in medieval art and a political activist. But it is his fabrics and wallcoverings that have bagged him a place in the hall of pattern fame. His signature style raided British nature for leaves, flowers, birds and animals, which he turned into flowing, detailed motifs.
He was a supreme colourist, using his own brews of plant-based dyes, such as cochineal, indigo, yellow from weld, and red from the madder plant. The effect is rich and saturated, but has a romantic softness.
In 1861, together with friends, Morris set up a business in London to make and sell his prolific output of wallpapers, furniture, stained glass and tapestries.
Fourteen years later, he took over as a sole trader, simply calling his company Morris & Co. His designs became wildly fashionable with Victorian decorators. They were rediscovered in the Sixties and have had a fan club ever since.
Indeed, Morris & Co still flourishes, owned by the wallpaper specialist Sanderson, who bought “the brand” in 1940.
Housed in a climate-controlled strongroom in Denham, Buckinghamshire, is a precious archive of original fabrics, wallpaper books and printing blocks/records, with a constant stream of pattern pilgrims.
“Interest in Morris is greater than ever,” says Alison Gee, head of design at Morris & Co. “The Morris philosophy of craft and making is an antidote to a fast-moving throwaway culture that’s dominated by technology. His work is beautifully crafted and long-lasting.”
This spring, there was a third Morris & Co collection of Morris designs, with fabrics and papers all made in the UK and with patterns also appearing on rugs and china.
Others are not so faithful to Morris originals. Designers Frieda Gormley and Javvy Royle run the wildly trendy House of Hackney, shaking up design in Shoreditch High Street. Now the Morris Gallery in Walthamstow has invited the pair to create furnishings and fashion inspired by Morris designs, which will launch in autumn.
A sneak peak reveals an in-your-face Morris revamp with bright colours on luxurious velvets. “We share a bold-nonconformist approach with Morris, and we have similar values, including respect for the environment,” says Gormley.
The Glasgow design duo Alistair McAuley and Paul Simmons have traded as Timorous Beasties for 25 years. These are the celebrated iconoclasts who added, for example, drug dealers and vagrants to their pictorial London toile fabric design. In their early days someone said their work was “like William Morris on acid”.
Now the Glasgow boys have mellowed somewhat to create three Morris tribute designs, printed digitally.
“Morris was ever the craftsman and it might seem ironic that we use digital technology,” says Simmons. “But the essence of our work remains emphatically in the realm of Arts and Crafts and the skill of the artisan.”
Mural specialists Surface View are also digitally recreating Morris designs, and have access to the Morris archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Morris, who died in 1896, continues to inspire fashion designer Joe Richards, who worked with Burberry, Dior and Lanvin, before setting up his own London label. He will base his autumn collection on Morris & Co.
“His techniques, references and colour combinations are almost shocking in their beauty,” says Richards.
See Morris this summer
- William Morris Gallery, Lloyd Park, Forest Road, Walthamstow E17. This Georgian house set in a park was Morris’s family home from 1848 to 1856. Beautiful rooms tell the Morris story, using original textiles, furniture, ceramics and paintings. There is a changing programme of shows, a café and a well-stocked shop.
- The Arts and Crafts House: a special exhibition (June 27 to September 13) at Compton Verney House & Gallery, nine miles east of Stratford-upon-Avon. The Arts and Crafts movement revolved around the home — see how, and why. Explore the work and ideas of Morris and his contemporaries and their effect on later designers.
- Red House, Red House Lane, Bexleyheath, Kent. This was Morris’s home from 1880. The National Trust, which bought it 10 years ago, has uncovered and restored many original features, including wallpapers and furnishings.