Saturday, January 23, 2010

William Morris, Tulip and Lily and Mass Production

 Illustration: William Morris. Tulip and Lily, 1875.

Tulip and Lily was a carpet designed by William Morris in 1875. The design is a typical example of the English Arts and Crafts movement. In both its intrinsic style and ideal, Morris was able to produce a pattern that summed up the best in his own interpretive style and that of the movement as a whole. This effortless repeat pattern is perhaps one of the simplest pieces of design work produced by Morris, but also one of his most creatively successful, perhaps because of its simplicity 

William Morris himself did not start carpet weaving until 1875, so Tulip and Lily would have been one of the first patterns to be produced by Morris and Co. However, Morris was not wholly responsible for the early carpets as they were produced on an industrial scale by commercially motivated companies, this particular carpet was initially manufactured in West Yorkshire. Admittedly this sat uncomfortably with Morris and his creative ethics, but he was pragmatic enough to realise that he had neither the equipment nor the talent to start wholesale production of carpet design. It would have been part of Morris long term plan, as it was with most of the mediums he and his company dealt with, to eventually rest production away from industry and take over production himself, under his own identity and ethics, which indeed he did do.

The move to hand, or at least a form of low-spec industrial production usually meant both a high rise in costs, which ultimately had to be moved on to the customer. By taking on the challenge of hand-production Morris had to tackle the intrinsic problem shared by many of the Arts and Crafts inspired companies that grew up around both the movement and that of Morris & Co. Hand production left little room for the core philosophy of the Arts and Crafts ethic, namely that good, honest, well-constructed and well-designed products should be made available to all classes and segments of society. By taking production away from the machine, the mass of the population were soon left far behind with no means in which to procure any of William Morris's products.

 Illustration: William Morris. Tulip and Lily, 1875.

Morris and other designers that supplied genuine Arts and Crafts accessories were painfully aware that they were failing in their goal and in the fundamental philosophy of the movement. It was a difficult and uncomfortable stand to take and the accusation of hypocrisy was always present. Perhaps in the long run the prodigious examples produced by William Morris over a long and varied career, are best seen as examples of the way production could be interpreted or even re-interpreted. As we begin to reach a crisis point where mass-production is being seen as part of the problem, and not necessarily part of the solution to life in the twenty first century, we may well have to re-examine the philosophy of Morris and that of the Arts and Crafts movement. It may well be time to begin making some painful decisions concerning the excesses of the consumer society and our own consumption. Indeed, it was the consumer society that was to develop and vastly multiply in William Morris own lifetime. A phenomenon that he spent much of his life actively trying to contain and guide, admittedly with little or no effect.


Von said...

A very fine post with great questions posed for our contemplation.Thank you.

John hopper said...

Thanks very much for your comment. It will be interesting to see how we and our society develop in this century and whether we ever will get around to making those difficult choices and decisions.