William Morris

In previous articles, we talked about different movements in home furnishings design.  Every movement had a beginning, usually one particular person of vision, but styles changed as the ideas moved from culture to culture, from place to place.  We’ve talked before about the American Arts and Crafts movement and the pivotal role that Gustav Stickley had in its design, this time we’ll talk about what preceded the American style and that’s the Arts and Crafts movement in England.

The Arts and Crafts movement was started in England in the latter half of the 19th century by William Morris. William Morris, born in 1834, graduated from Exeter College in Oxford with a specialty in architecture but quickly moved towards interior design.  While at school he met the heavy hitters of his day including Dante Rosetti, John Ruskin and Ford Madox Brown and formed one of his first companies, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company, with these guys.

Morris was a bit of a jack-of-all trades, and in addition to his designs, he wrote poetry with lots of doomed lovers and medieval wanderers, but he was best known for his wallpaper and fabric designs. He and his group of friends formed an artistic movement known as the Pre-Raphaelites Brotherhood. Their aim was to reject what they considered the mechanized movements of the Renaissance and adopt a style more lush and natural.  Their four basic tenets were:

  1. To have genuine ideas to express;
  2. To study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them;
  3. To sympathize with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote;
  4. And, most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.

At this time in history, furniture was machine made, very ornate Victorian Style. The quality of furniture at this time was poor because of mass production. William Morris and the Pre-Rafaelite brotherhood wanted to see a return to hand-craftsmanship and honest design.

William Morris went on to form William Morris and Company specializing in the production of stained glass, carvings, furniture, wallpaper, carpets and tapestries. Their style was influenced by nature. You can still purchase wallpaper and fabrics inspired by the designs of William Morris.  One of their more famous works is the stained glass window “The Worship of the Shepherds” at Trinity Church in Boston.

The British Arts and Crafts movement was inspired by gothic design, wallpapers that showed medieval themes. The American Arts and Crafts movement tended to showcase the materials being used to make the furniture. Earth tones were use for walls and fabrics. This is a far less expressive and lush style than the English Arts and Crafts movement.

Once the movement came to America it was also sometimes called mission style furniture. Arts and Crafts furniture is plain and simple in its design. It was usually made at of white or red oak. Chairs and tables were made with slats, straight legs supported by stretchers. If the furniture was upholstered dark leather was used. Quality craftsmanship, good proportions, showing off the quality of materials used and rich colors are all tell tale signs of Arts and Crafts style.

William Morris was a major influence to the arts and craft movement and helped to inspire the furniture houses such as the Stickley furniture.

Special thanks to my sales associate Tammi Hilton who put most of this article together (I just added a few extra nouns and verbs).  In addition to working at Furniture Works, Tammi teaches interior design atHighline Community College.