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.
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The Independent Culture
"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