Illustration: William Morris. Honeysuckle printed textile design, 1876.
There are many that love, hate and are indifferent to the work and career of William Morris. However, to still be arousing passions, both positive and negative, one hundred and sixteen years after his death in 1896, must say something of the impact he undoubtedly made on the design, decoration and craft of not only nineteenth century Britain, but also of the twentieth and indeed twenty-first centuries as well.
Morris undoubtedly cast a long shadow within the decorative arts of Britain and much of his ethos concerning the meaning and integrity of hand production is still with us today. Although many see his opposition to both the industrialised process and the result of its impact on the commercialisation of the market place as that of a hopelessly naive, even romantic posture against the inevitable, this can only be seen as partially true. Morris was much more aware of the worrying underlying aspects of mass production and what the process did to fundamentally change both the structure of the community as well as that of the individual, than he has been given credit for. As he said himself:
'It is not this or that tangible steel or brass machine which we want to get rid of, but the great intangible machine of commercial tyranny which oppresses the lives of all of us.'
To Morris to be enslaved by the machine and the process of mass production really meant to be enslaved by both the beginnings of the world of the international corporation and ultimately to be ensnared in the illusional allure of commercial advertising which could promise everything and anything for a price. As with much of human history, it has been the power behind the throne, so to speak, that was important. Morris was never convinced that those who manipulated the considerable forces of mass production were altruistic and nor did the hand production platform that became the Arts and Crafts movement. However, the seemingly unconfined and positive benefits of the industrial revolution beguiled most, even though most of the benefits were confined to an intangible and unfocused point in the future. Much of the population found themselves literally stoking the furnaces of industry, while receiving little if any of the benefits.
Illustration: Irish linen weaver, 1912.
It could be said that in some respects at least, the life and career of Morris could be seen as one that reflected the critical problems that faced the industrial processes of the nineteenth century. These tended to be acutely focused by Morris on the subject of quality control. Some would say that Morris was obsessed with that control, spending large amounts of time and energy on specific colour variations that he always felt were never quite right. In some respects, this could be seen as an aspect of his commercial business which to be fair was almost exclusively limited to the few in society that could afford to purchase his work and therefore quality control was an important part of company policy and commercial enterprise. However, it was not always a simple matter of producing quality workmanship to pander to the rich and powerful, it was also a fundamental principal with Morris that he needed to consistently produce work of a higher standard than was expected from mass production. Although many would see, as they still do today, that any ideal of hand production competing with industry is a largely futile exercise, Morris still felt that it was important that hand production should be able to be publicly seen as registering a quality finish and that it should always be physically seen to be infinitely better than anything produced by a machine. This is an interesting point, as to be fair, hand production has not always been of the highest quality and there is no real reason to assume that because something has been produced by hand that it is somehow superior in quality. It might well be perceived as being superior in an emotional sense, but the technical quality of finishing can only ever be as good as the skills base of the individual. That the products of Morris and Co were consistently of the highest of standards was largely down to Morris and his insistence on the highest standards of quality control.
Illustration: Italian weaver, 1912.
Today in our own contemporary world we are still struggling with the concept of the near all-encompassing reach of machine production and our utter dependence on the process. There are also still the same arguments and pondering on what significant role hand production should play in the contemporary world and whether more of an impact should be made on both community and individual. The same arguments that Morris formed in the nineteenth century concerning the disproportionate power of corporations and their commercial aspects to mould and reform both society and the individual for their own benefit and profit, are still there and still have to be addressed. Added to this is the pressing concern of limited resources and invasive pollution which by its very nature places limits on the self-belief in an ever expansive commercial world, which is clearly unviable as a future prospect.
In a way all of this shows us two things. One is that Morris cannot necessarily be dismissed as just an historical figure limited to his own period. Morris can be seen as being as relevant today as he was in the nineteenth century. He addressed some of the fundamental weaknesses found within the industrial revolution, mass production and its commercial aspects. Its real Achilles heel always seems to have been its quixotic self-belief in an ever better and ever more expansive marketplace. That consumption could fuel growth which in turn would fuel more consumption and then more growth in an ever regenerating circle of wealth and happiness is clearly an illusion, but an ever more dangerous one. That politicians have become trapped in this same illusion is at least part of the reason so many see the system failing. Unfortunately, for Morris to have identified some of the major flaws of the industrial system in the nineteenth century and for us still to be dealing with those flaws in the twenty-first, surely must lead to some painful and acute examinations of who we are and where we are going.
Illustration: Ukrainians preparing hemp, 1912.
The second point is that Morris kept the fires of hand-production burning. He was by no means the only individual involved in the promotion of hand worked products, but he was a great and loud public orator and tirelessly promoted all aspects of human sourced design, decoration and craft. Although hand production still has many of the fundamental problems that it had in the nineteenth century, it still exists as a concept and is very much alive. In fact, for the first time perhaps in generations, it is being seen by many as part of the solution to the stranglehold of the commercial cycle of repeated consumption and production, largely fuelled by the concept of fashion which gives the illusion that products need to be replaced merely because they are no longer the latest model, and therefore fuelling ever more consumption.
Hand production can show us that there is a different approach. It can show us that beauty and timeless decoration can be found in one product, and that product can last not one but many generations, rather than until the next interior magazine issue shows us what is now fashionable and what must be thrown away as now unfashionable. In this respect, Morris fundamental mantra of 'have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful' touches on much more than just a theory on aesthetics. It taps into some of the most contemporary of ideas concerning localised environments, sourcing, recycling and sustainability. Therefore, despite the many inconsistencies and elements of hypocrisy that are regularly featured by critics as part of the life and career of Morris, he can still be inspirationally used to highlight many of the problems we face today, but also much more optimistically, he can be used to highlight many of the solutions that can also be found. That some of those solutions were being formulated in the nineteenth century does not make them any the less relevant today, and certainly if we ignore them as mere historical perspectives, we do ourselves a great injustice.
Illustration: Swedish wool carders, 1912.
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