Design for living in the machine age

Victorian designers met mechanisation with 'modernism'. Mind you, how they fared depends on how you define the m-word
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The Independent Online

William Morris, Christopher Dresser and WAS Benson were three of the greatest Victorian designers. Morris, by far the most famous, wanted to change the world, not just the look of people's houses. He wanted social justice, as well as good design, for all, and hoped that one might lead to the other.

William Morris, Christopher Dresser and WAS Benson were three of the greatest Victorian designers. Morris, by far the most famous, wanted to change the world, not just the look of people's houses. He wanted social justice, as well as good design, for all, and hoped that one might lead to the other.

Dresser had no such vision. His writings broke little new ground. Yet his work successfully reached many more people than Morris's. He was the most prolific of the three, the first industrial designer in the modern sense. His glass and metalwork, ceramic, textiles and furniture poured into the middle-class market.

Benson was a darker horse. A shy man who committed few of his thoughts to paper, his manner was so hesitant that his friends called him by his initials: "WAS Benson?" In his metalwork, this is transformed into delicacy. There is no lack of confidence in the light-fittings, twining and fluttering into novel but natural forms, half plant, half insect.

The Fine Art Society's exhibition, Pioneers of Modern Design, is richly varied, showing how differently the three designers engaged with that great Victorian debate, the search for a modern style. Working on the eve of the machine age, each adopted a different stance in the face of mechanisation. To Morris, until the last phase of his life, industry was anathema. He rediscovered natural dyes, forgotten since the Middle Ages, and re-awoke the love of craftsmanship among his contemporaries. His textiles, though most are not handmade, glow with a depth and purity of colour. The patterns are rich but never elaborate.

Unlike Morris and Benson, who were public school and Oxford men, Dresser was the son of an excise officer, one of 16 children. With all the unembarrassed opportunism and bounce of the 19th-century entrepreneur, he was happy to use any means of production he could, including mass manufacture, in so far as it was available at the time. His electro-plated toast racks, teapots and cruets, in startling geometric shapes, were fashionable novelties in their day.

With the hindsight of the mid-20th century, they seemed uncannily prophetic of modernism. Nikolaus Pevsner lighted on them when he rediscovered Dresser and others in the Thirties. A reference to his book, Pioneers of Modern Design, lies behind the exhibition title. Yet, at the turn of another century, the theory has not worn well. It is hard to believe there was any consistent intention in Dresser's work. Many of his designs were as elaborately patterned and gilded as anything else in a Victorian drawing room, while some of the best, in glass and pottery, were handmade.

An undoubted star of the show is Dresser's ceramic watering can, which was made by Henry Tooth at the Lindthorp Art Pottery some time around 1880. Its comfortable, rounded form is complemented by the glaze, in iridescent blue-greens, as if water is constantly flowing over the surface. There is nothing proto-modernist, either, about Dresser's "Clutha" glassware, with its frilly, rippling edges and its ever-changing colours.

Considered as "pioneers", it is the quietly thoughtful Benson who emerges as the hero among the three. Dresser had no coherent theory of production and design. And while on the other hand Morris did, he failed to achieve his ideal of good design for everyone because his products were simply too expensive. Benson, however, who in fact had originally wanted to be an engineer, managed to marry Arts and Crafts standards of design to modern manufacturing methods. Visitors to his Hammersmith factory were surprised to find the dreamy, shy designer surrounded by a heavy stamping plant and power lathes.

Benson rose to the challenge of electricity, designing not only light-fittings with ingenious reflectors, but some of the first ever electric kettles, of which there is one in the exhibition. The handle is elegantly bound in wicker, the body streamlined, the feet ebonised for insulation. It stands poised between the Victorian tea table and the modern kitchen.

Since Pevsner encouraged us to reconsider the 19th century as a harbinger of the 20th, much has changed. We have come to think less of modernism, an ideal that failed more drastically than Morris's,and to think more of the Victorians. Pioneers of Modern Design shows them in all their ingenuity, variety and depth.

* Pioneers of Modern Design is at The Fine Arts Society, 148 New Bond Street, London W1 (020-7629 5116), running from 11 September-6 October

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