In a recent article for Vogue, interiors writer Elise Taylor sought advice from top designers around the world. She asked these designers which wallpapers work in today’s modern homes. Quoting celebrated British interior designer Kathryn M. Ireland, Taylor wrote “you can never go wrong with William Morris.” 160 years following the founding of his eponymous design company Morris & Co, William Morris and his botanical prints remain relevant and regarded. Grounded by an unwavering commitment to craftsmanship, conservation and human welfare, Morris’ work reflects many concerns harbored today. Philosophy and politics aside, William Morris’ sensitive depictions of the natural world are simply stunning. Decades later, heritage Morris and Co wallpaper like the 1883 Strawberry Thief adorn the walls of historic homes and contemporary apartments alike. Upon the 160th anniversary of Morris and Co’s founding, follow below to learn more about the iconic company. We will also delve into the history of the founder himself and a few original Morris & Co wallpaper designs reissued this year.
UNDERSTANDING WILLIAM MORRIS’ ENDURING IMPACT ON DESIGN
William Morris and Post-Industrial Victorian England
British textile designer and philosopher William Morris lived before the Victorian Era (1837 – 1901) in the last years of the Industrial Revolution (1760 – 1840). His life began during a period of intense turmoil, unrest and dissatisfaction as lower class Englishmen struggled to establish safe, sustainable lives for themselves. Born to wealthy parents in Walthamstow, Morris escaped much of the pain and suffering wrought by the Hungry Forties. Until his death, Morris’ father served as a senior partner for the brokerage Sanderson & Co, affording Morris and his siblings a peaceful upbringing.
As he grew older, however, Morris became keenly aware of industrialization’s negative impacts on people and the natural environment. His childhood obsession with nature and literature drew Morris towards environmental conservation and social activism as an adult. At university, Morris studied theology, sociology and architecture. After completing his studies, Morris fell in with a group of Pre-Raphaelite artists and thinkers, who believed in the spirituality of nature. It was in his friendships with Pre-Raphaelite artists like Dante Gabriel Rossetti that Morris began exploring social issues of his day. These included the poor treatment of laborers and destruction of the natural environment.
Founding Morris & Co in Response to the Ills of Industrialization
Aged twenty-seven, Morris co-founded Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co as a response to industrialization’s destruction of craftsmanship and artistry. According to The William Morris Society’s entry on Morris’ life, the company quickly “became highly fashionable and much in demand.” Guided by Morris, the company “profoundly influenced interior decoration throughout the Victorian period.” William Morris designed everything from stained-glass windows to wallpapers, contributing heavily to the company until he “assumed total control” in 1875.
During the 1860s and ‘70s, Morris used the company and its wares to popularize tenets of the Arts and Crafts Movement across Britain. These tenets eventually spread to the United States. The Victoria & Albert Museum article “Arts and Crafts: An Introduction” notes that the British public knew about the harms of industrialization. It had recognized “the damaging effects of machine-dominated production on both social conditions and the quality of manufactured goods” since the early Victorian Era.
Morris Provides Momentum for Arts and Crafts Movement
It was not until Morris and others intervened in the “1860s and ’70s that new approaches.” Artists and craftsmen used these new approaches “in an attempt to correct the problem.” According to the V&A, “the movement in Britain emerged of an increasing understanding that society needed a different set of priorities.” This was especially true “in relation to the manufacture of objects.” Morris fought “to develop products that not only had more integrity but which functioned in a less dehumanizing way.” William Morris was not a founder of the Arts & Crafts movement, championing the movement later in the last decade of his life. However, his life and practice reflected the principles of the Arts & Crafts Movement for many decades. His involvement drew artists, designers and craftsmen across the world.
The V&A notes that “his ideas were hugely influential to the generation of decorative artists whose work it helped publicize.” Morris’ commitment to craftsmanship, artistry and social welfare served as a defining theme for both his life and for the Arts & Crafts Movement. Later in life, Morris would found the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, the Hammersmith Socialist League and the Kelmscott Press.
WHY WILLIAM MORRIS WALLPAPER REMAINS RELEVANT TODAY
Sustainability and Social Welfare Are Top of Mind for Contemporary Consumers
Today’s attitudes towards equality and environmental responsibility resemble those of the 19th century Arts & Crafts Movement. In recent years, consumers have become more conscious of their purchases, prioritizing “green” goods in an attempt to lessen their impact on the planet. Social issues surrounding workers rights, racial equality and wealth disparity have also received renewed and heightened attention. In 2019, an international, cross-generational survey found that 93% of respondents “indicated a general concern for the environment.” The same survey noted 77% wished to learn how to live more sustainably.
Following the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers believe this number to be even higher. An international survey conducted by BCG in late 2020 found “in the wake of the pandemic, people are more concerned about addressing environmental challenges.” They are also more committed than before “to changing their own behavior to advance sustainability.” BCG noted that “70% of survey participants said they were more aware now than before COVID-19 that human activity threatens the climate.” The same number noted that they were more aware “that degradation of the environment, in turn, threatens humans.” Even following a global health crisis, 75% of respondents to the survey “said environmental issues are as concerning as health issues.”
William Morris Championed Environmental Conservation through Art 160 Years Ago
Nearly 160 years after Morris released his first botanical wallpaper, the artist’s designs remain incredibly relevant. William Morris wallpapers are an ode to the unparalleled artistic ability of man and the unmatched beauty of nature. Morris’ wallpapers encourage us to appreciate the simplicity and majesty of our environment.
In her article “The first eco-warrior of design” for The BBC, Andrea Watson elaborates. She notes that Morris “obsessed over the pollution, congestion, and squalid industrial waste produced by the Industrial Revolution.” To escape it, Morris “retreated artistically into a medieval utopia” filled with the richness of an undisturbed natural world. Though most remember Morris for his romantic depictions of flora and fauna, Watson writes that “his deeper passion was for sustainability.”
FIVE ICONIC MORRIS & CO WALLPAPERS WE STILL LOVE TODAY
#1 Fruit from 1864
The V&A article “William Morris and wallpaper design” notes that Morris’ “Fruit” pattern was one of the first produced by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. According to the Victoria & Albert Museum, Morris began producing wallpapers upon recognizing its “accelerating popularity” in England and across the pond in the Americas. First, Morris designed his “Trellis” print. Morris based this print on the rose garden of his Red House in Bexleyheath, a property now owned by The National Trust.
Original drawings for Morris’ “Trellis” wallpaper published Gillian Naylor’s biography William Morris by Himself: Designs and Writings. Next, Morris designed his “Daisy” print which was the very first wallpaper to be circulated by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. According to the Met, “Daisy” was inspired by medieval “‘millefleurs’ tapestries.’” It may also have been inspired by “early printed herbals and even a textile used in an illuminated copy of Froissart’s ‘Chronicles.’”
Morris’ Early Illustrations of British Gardens Capture the Public
William Morris’ 1864 “Fruit” pattern resembles “Daisy” and “Trellis” as it replicates the “same informal naturalism.” The V&A notes that Morris achieved the saturated colors and precise lines of his early wallpapers through an unusual technique. He did this by printing them with “hand-cut woodblocks loaded with natural, mineral-based dyes.” Despite the fact that sophisticated botanical illustrations were unpopular at the time, Morris’ wallpaper achieved a certain fame. Prints like Morris’ “Fruit” were popular in England because they “celebrated the simple forms he saw in British gardens.” This set his work apart from typical designs, which featured “exotic, imported blooms.”
#2 William Morris Blackthorn from 1892
In true Pre-Raphaelite fashion, several of William Morris’ wallpaper designs inspired by legend and mythology. Morris & Co’s “Blackthorn” print from 1892 is one such design. Sometimes referred to as the “Mother of the Woods,” the British blackthorn tree has deep roots in Celtic lore. In her article “The Fairy Trees: Blackthorn, Hawthorn and Rowan” for Folklore Thursday, Lisa Schneidau elaborates. Schneidau writes that Blackthorn trees “crop up in unusual places, in towns and cities as well as the countryside.” Their ability to spring up in polluted, over-crowded cities made the Blackthorn tree “an effective political device.” This was particularly true “during the enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries.” It is likely that Morris and Dearle would have been aware of this history given their support for worker rights and environmental conservation.
According to Sanderson Design Group, “Blackthorn” designed by one of Morris’ proteges, the British artist and textile designer John Henry Dearle. Though he began as a teenage assistant, Dearle eventually became the company’s chief designer. Shortly after his promotion to chief designer, Dearle designed the ever-popular “Blackthorn” print. The “Blackthorn” print follows Morris’ Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic fairly closely, but also references designs common to Turkish and Persian textiles. Sanderson Design Group notes that Dearle’s design adapted for machine printed fabric in 1975, after which it found a new consumer base.
#3 Willow Boughs Wallpaper from 1887
William Morris Willow Boughs was originally produced for Morris & Co as a textile, but was later converted into a wallpaper. Many believe that Willow Boughs was inspired by the grounds of Kelmscott Manor, Morris’ 16th century holiday home. Manor was surrounded by gardens, trees and farms during Morris’ day. Today, the Manor is on the National Heritage List for England. According to the Society of Antiquaries of London, Morris considered Kelmscott Manor “‘Heaven on Earth.’” He adored the home as “a work of true craftsmanship, totally unspoiled and unaltered, and in harmony with the surrounding countryside.”
Sanderson Design Group describes William Morris’ “Willow Boughs” print as “the perfect expression of its creator’s love of nature and the English countryside.” The Group references a lecture Morris gave six years before releasing “Willow Boughs” and seven years after releasing his “Willow” print. In the 1881 lecture, Morris expressed his opinion that decorative patterns “should always retain an ‘unmistakable suggestion of gardens and fields.’” While “Willow Boughs” references his earlier “Willow” design from 1874, the 1887 version is far more sophisticated. With its “intertwining stems and gently overlapping leaves,” William Morris’ “Willow Bough” wallpaper delicately captures “a real sense of bucolic harmony.” Today, those interested in historic homes can view original Willow Bough wallpaper in the interior of Standen House, pictured above.
#4 Pimpernel Wallpaper from 1876
Another iconic William Morris wallpaper is the artist’s “Pimpernel” design. Though they always incorporated elements from the British landscape, many Morris & Co wallpapers and fabrics drew inspiration from international sources. Block-printed and simply rendered, William Morris’ “Pimpernel” print is a perfect example. According to the Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas, William Morris’ 1876 “Pimpernel” demonstrates the artist’s interest in “Japanese design. The Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas notes that “only plants coming from the East were chosen” for wallpapers at the time. However, Morris chose to render a flower native to Western Europe when he created his “Pimpernel” print.
Sanderson Design Group describes Morris & Co’s “Pimpernel” wallpaper as “a typical design from this period.” This is particularly true because of “its use of oversized flower heads to create a compelling three-dimensionality.” William Morris’ “Pimpernel” wallpaper can be found in Two Temple Place, William Waldorf Astoria’s neo-Gothic mansion in London. Morris was also quite taken with the print, featuring it heavily in his own Kelmscott Manor.
#5 Strawberry Thief from 1883
Initially designed in 1883, William Morris’ “Strawberry Thief” print was originally intended as a furnishing textile rather than a wallpaper. The whimsical print was later adapted as a wallcovering, much to the delight of consumers. According to the Victoria and Albert Museum, Morris based the pattern on “thrushes which frequently stole strawberries” from the Kelmscott Manor kitchen garden. Because the pattern was carefully hand-printed by the ancient Eastern “indigo discharge method,” this particular print was one of Morris & Co’s most expensive.
However, Morris adored the “depth of color and crispness of detail” the method created, as did Morris & Co’s many clients. The V&A notes that “Strawberry Thief” was the very first indigo discharge method-produced design to apply red and yellow dye. Typically, prints were produced solely with a base of blue and white. Those interested can view original “Strawberry Thief” fabric and the blocks used to print the first editions of this pattern in the V&A Museum.
CELEBRATE 160 YEARS OF MORRIS AND CO WALLPAPER WITH “OWL & WILLOW”
In honor of 160 years of unparalleled quality and evocative imagery, delve through Sanderson Design Group’s collection of iconic patterns from Morris & Co. The company recently released a new pattern in honor of the exciting anniversary, entitled “Owl and Willow.” Pictured above on the right, this new design captures the medieval and Pre-Raphaelite origins of Morris & Co’s early imagery. Created in the style of William Morris, this idyllic wildlife scene fills horses, dogs, peacocks and lions. It dots sweeping trees and delicate flowers. Find dozens of heritage Morris & Co wallpapers and fabrics at L.A. Design Concepts.
Written by Elizabeth Burton