Visual arts: The brilliant Doctor Who

He is perhaps the outstanding British designer of the last century. But history has not been kind to Christopher Dresser.

"IT'S SO unfair," laments Harry Lyons. "William Morris only designed 49 wallpapers and is revered for them, while Christopher Dresser could sell 30 designs to one client on his way through Philadelphia, and no one knows about any of them." It's a telling comparison. Dr Dresser is perhaps the most original and prolific 19th century British designer, a visionary of streamlined modernism and all the qualities held dear today; yet, while the infinitely fussier Morris is proclaimed the father of the Arts and Crafts movement, Dresser is merely considered a brilliant curiosity.

To promote Dresser, Lyons is putting on a selling exhibition at his New Century gallery in Kensington. Not content with providing a background for the 300-odd items, Lyons has refashioned his entire space, taking as his model Dresser's Bond Street showroom and the furnishings he designed for Allengate, a house near Halifax. The result is a tour de force of blastingly bright turquoise walls and grand ebony-style display cases tricked out with appropriate gold decoration - including a chorus line of crouching frogs.

Lyons turned Dresser-detective five years ago, searching out a huge range of previously unrecognised designs and objects and becoming ever more enamoured of Dresser's mission to improve the nation's houses. "It is by bringing to the homes of the people objects of Art and beauty at a low price that more good is done in refining the middle and lower classes than by all the museums in existence," he wrote in the Furniture Gazette of 1876.

As Lyons points out, while Morris and others looked into the past, Dresser was a man of the future and the people, one of the first to use affordable industrial techniques, designing for high-quality Victorian commercial manufacturers, using inexpensive materials - silver plate instead of silver - and championing the exciting doctrine of "form follows fashion".

Dresser was a consummate designer: born in 1834, he began his training at the age of 13, becoming a botany lecturer at 20 when his future wife got pregnant (they went on to have 13 children). In 1862 at the International Exhibition in London he was inspired by Japanese art shown for the first time in the West. He became an expert, visiting Japan and meeting the Emperor.

It was at this time that he began to design feverishly. The pieces he turned out - from metal spoon-warmer to blue cloisonne (for Minton) - were innovative and unfamiliar: In the first three years of Linthorpe Pottery (1879-82), for example, he created a range of wares that still astonish today with their space-age forms, experimental mottled glazes, electric yellow, red and green hues, influences from Inca to Egyptian to Greek and gargoyle-like heads on vases with tongues that arch into handles (these, critics declared, were manifestations of ectoplasm).

Dresser's metalwork, in particular, looks forward to Bauhaus and Art Deco. Nikolaus Pevsner couldn't get over the provenance of a pair of cruets he encountered when writing an essay on the origins of British modernism in 1936. How could they date from the mid-19th century and who on earth was this "Dr Dresser"? Thus he sewed the seeds of a Dresser revival and of rocketing prices for anything even resembling his work (last month, Bukowski's in Sweden sold a Dresser teapot for pounds 115,000).

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is planning a Dresser retrospective for 2002. All the more reason, as Lyons points out, why the V&A should in 2004 celebrate the centenary of the death of a seminal British designer.

Christopher Dresser: people's designer 1834-1904 is at New Century, 69 Kensington Church Street, London W8 4BG (0171-937 2410) from 2-19 June

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine