William Morris was a Renaissance Man. By that I do not mean that he lived during the Renaissance, but rather that he followed a particular model that was believed to be ideal during that influential period of history—that of the multi-talented visionary, with a résumé in many fields. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call him one-half a Renaissance Man, since he was not an inventor and scientist like many of the others that bear that moniker, a class that included Leonardo Da Vinci and Leon Battista Alberti. Instead, he focused on the humanities, as a poet, writer, designer and craftsman.
Morris lived in a difficult time for one of his interests. He was born in 1834, and witnessed the height of the Industrial Revolution. Had he been a part of the musical scene, he also would have witnessed much of (in my opinion) the greatest compositions in history, during the late Romantic period, but that’s a completely different topic! It cannot be denied that the practical application of manufacturing and assembly have given us a far higher standard of living than what was once available to the average person, but Morris recognized, as we all do, that there are serious drawbacks to it also. The drawbacks were more than the obvious issues related to the Industrial Revolution—the smog, taking advantage of those desperate for work, children working 14-hour days in dim, dusty buildings, sometimes losing appendages to the massive machines.
If the modernists had their way, everything would be manufactured. Factories would be clean, safe, well lit, with happy employees working an assembly line. Products would be inexpensive, another step toward an egalitarian lifestyle. If only factories could be improved, the modernists said, everything could be so much better. Not so for Morris.
Morris had a completely different ideology. He took a step back and wondered if factories were the right way to go, at all. He looked askance at mass-production, and walked the other way. Instead of scheming for the future, he drew from the past. Rather than allowing himself to be dragged along with the zeitgeist, Morris opposed it. Morris didn’t lament the fact that the time in which he lived did not agree with him—he made a statement, stood up to the world, and spearheaded a movement.
As designers—no, simply living as human beings today, we have to battle many of the same ideas that Morris battled in his day. Industrialism has taken its toll on the society, and we live in a mass-production, disposable-minded culture. Even design has been influenced by the mindset. Concepts and even direct applications are borrowed and regurgitated over and over again. We follow trends only to realize that what we thought was the new thing goes out of style again in a few short years.
Morris teaches us an excellent lesson. It’s not about following trends and keeping up with the latest. We need to take a step back, and wonder if the fast-paced industry is really the way to go, at all. We should look askance when anything begins to look manufactured. It is not necessary to hold up Morris’s design style and the Arts and Crafts movement as the apex of design history, but there is so much in what they embodied that should ring true with what drives us as designers today. Focus on quality over quantity. Excellence over relevance. Value over vogue.
Design is a craft (editor’s note – Justin Mezzell actually wrote about this, here). Let us never allow it to mean less than what Morris believed it to be.