Walls of fame: Business is still booming for Victorian designer William Morris' company 150 years on

Click to follow
The Independent Online

William Morris prints were very big in the 1970s. Households up and down the country were gripped by the trend for co-ordinating wallpapers and fabrics. It wasn't enough to have a swirling floral print on the walls, to get the complete look you needed to cover your curtains, chairs and bedspreads in it, too. At its peak the Morris & Co fabric "Golden Lily" was selling 5,000 metres a month in tasteful shades of brown and orange.

As a result of this relatively recent brush with fashion, William Morris tends to divide opinions today. Yet he's probably the only textile designer in the world who people can not only name, but whose work they cancan identify. As the company heco-founded celebrates its 150th anniversary this year a new collection of archive prints, wallpapers, weaves and embroideries is being produced to further its legacy.

"It's an interesting brand to work with because it is so recognisable," says design director Liz Cann. "It could only be Morris." What makes Morris & Co unique is that, unlike other companies of a similar age, it hasn't really grown or developed over the years. Morris was such a key part of it that when he died the company went very quiet. "It doesn't date because it's never been moved on," adds Cann. "It's like a time capsule."

What remains is an archive of wallpaper and textile patterns which capture a moment in time. "Everything we work on comes from that era between 1860 and 1910 when Morris was at its peak," says Cann. "We're not doing things in the style of Morris – we're actually always going back to Morris as a starting point for the collection. So by definition we are very limited with what we can do."

This is not as easy as it sounds. There are two lines of thinking: the purists, who live and breathe Morris, and want everything absolutely reproduced from the originals, and the people who see it as just another pattern and want it in different colours or on a smaller scale. In this new collection, Cann says, they have tended towards the purist line and gone back to the original block prints and by re-working the colours and using a new faster printing technique they have got them closer than ever to the original look.

What Morris would have made of this new technology is a matter of debate as he famously championed the skills of hand-craftsmanship over factory production. His friendship with the pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones and architect Philip Webb led to the formation of the Arts and Crafts movement which sought to revive traditions lost in the industrial revolution. He co-founded his business, referred to as "The Firm", in 1861 with seven partners including Burne-Jones and Webb.

They initially concentrated on ecclesiastical decoration such as stained glass, architectural carving, embroidery and furniture; experience of which Morris and his friends had gained while completing the Red House in Bexleyheath, Kent. Designed in 1859 by Philip Webb, for Morris and his wife, Jane Burden. For furnishing the interior he was unable to find a shop he liked, so he did it himself.

Morris was a radical thinker of his day. A prolific artist, poet, author, publisher, campaigner and socialist reformer he went against the prevailing Victorian belief that ornamentation and design were the same thing. Skilled workmanship was being replaced by machines and in the late 19th century goods were flowing out of factories into the new department stores. Many embraced the revolution and decorated their homes in the new flamboyant colours and luxurious fabrics.

But not Morris – he loved nature and his designs always featured naturalistic imagery of birds, flowers and leaves. He had an ideological belief in the value of craftsmanship to bring pleasure in work, and in the integrity of objects. His beliefs have had a fundamental impact on the course of design in the 20th century. The principles of "truth to materials" and "fitness for purpose" which form the basis of modern design can be traced back to this period.

"People who decorated their homes with Morris in the 1860s wanted their homes to reflect the fact that they were forward thinking," says Cann. And while it may seem fussy look to us, he brought everything back to a kind of simplicity. "At the time there was no concept of co-ordination; they would put five or six Morris patterns in a room," adds Cann. "It's just layering of pattern upon pattern. But it works. If you see a Morris interior it all goes together beautifully."

By 1875 Morris had gained full control of the business and this was his most prolific period designing wallpapers and textiles, and experimenting with natural dyes, with his assistant John Henry Dearle. He mastered the labour-intensive technique of wood-block printing and at its height the company was selling wallpapers, textiles, ceramics, glazed tiles and furnishings and taking on interior decorating commissions.

It wasn't to last – Morris died in 1896. Dearle became art director, but when he died in 1932 all artistic prowess was lost. It was all looking very bleak for Morris & Co and during the Second World War the company went into liquidation. In 1940 Sanderson, which was already printing the wallpapers, bought the lifeless business from the receivers for £400 and with it came the extensive collection of samples and pattern books. In an effort to save money Sanderson produced a pattern book with machine-printed, rather than block printed, Morris wallpapers at a fifth of the cost.

Finally Morris designs were available at affordable prices, but by now were considered deeply unfashionable. Sanderson launched the psychedelic wallpaper collection in the 1960s in bright purples, oranges, electric blues and pinks, causing much distress to Morris purists, and it bombed.

It wasn't until the wallpaper patterns were printed on to the fabrics – a bold move since Morris didn't believe the same design would work for both – that things really started to turn around. In the 1970s the sales of wallpapers were faltering, but the fabrics were gaining momentum for use on upholstery. That, and the revival of Victoriana, meant Morris & Co had inadvertently landed on a fashionable decorating trend.

By the 1980s Morris & Co was being marketed as an independent brand. The first machine-printed wallpaper and fabric collection was launched successfully. It was affordable and almost indistinguishable from the original block-printing technique. Today, the well-worn blocks are still in use, but only for bespoke commissions which sell for £1,000 a roll, mainly to the American market. The business now sits with Sanderson under the same umbrella company, but it could never be a free-standing brand as there is a limited number of archive designs.

"What's interesting is how Morris has inspired modern day art education," says Cann. "To look back and learn about what has gone before and bring it into your work. The way he approached design has been an inspiration." People today admire his perfectionism and the idea of keeping the old crafts going. "I don't think you can play around with Morris too much," adds Cann. "You have to be quite true to him."

Wall-to-wall style

* Morris & Co issued more than 100 block-print wallpapers, of which William Morris designed more than half and John Henry Dearle designed 33 –including the famous 'Golden Lily'.

* The most popular Morris design of all is 'Willow Bough' which was designed by him in 1887 and has never been out of production.

* Morris & Co went into liquidation in the 1940s and was bought by Sanderson for £400. However, they didn't secure the rights to the textile designs which is why other companies, such as Liberty, have produced Morris fabrics over the years.

* In the 1960s, in an attempt to keep up with the times, Morris launched the psychedelic collection in purples, oranges and pinks. It bombed.

For more details on Morris & Co's 150th Anniversary events, the new book"A Revolution in Decoration" by Michael Parry, and the 2011 "Archive" collection of prints and wallpapers, please visit: www.william-morris.co.uk