Minimalists in History: Designer William Morris

william morris

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

– William Morris

William Morris is well-known among minimalists for the above quote, but most of us don’t know anything else about him. Born in England in 1834, he became an artist, writer, textile designer and socialist.

Morris trained as an architect, but soon tired of his architecture apprenticeship and, after trying his hand at painting and poetry, began a decorative arts business, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., with six partners.

The company, which later reorganized as Morris & Co., quickly became known as a producer of high quality handmade stained glass, wallpaper, textiles, and furniture.

Morris, often called the father of the Arts and Crafts movement, personally designed patterns for wallpapers, textiles, embroideries and stained glass. He also wrote and published poetry, fiction, and translations of ancient and medieval texts.

“I do not want art for a few any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.”

– William Morris

Morris was deeply disturbed by the inequities of Victorian society – including those created by his own decorating business. Because of the cost involved in creating handmade products of high quality natural materials, Morris’s own company sold products only the rich could afford.

Although Morris felt guilty that he was “ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich,” he also believed art is vital to society. He condemned capitalism not only for widening the gap between the rich and poor, but also for diminishing the role of art in people’s lives.

Seeking a return to a nostalgic ideal of medieval craftsmanship and quality, Morris believed that, where possible, the designer of an item should manufacture it.

“Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization.”

– William Morris

Morris said the industrial factory system, full of mind-numbing repetition, alienates workers from the products of their labors. He believed that workers designing and producing their work from start to finish would create a more egalitarian society as well as higher quality products.

He tried to translate this vision into reality in his own company, though he employed wage laborers along with artisans. As a result of Morris’s concerns, he became active in socialist politics, founding the Socialist League in 1884.

 “With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty.”

– William Morris

Morris & Co. dissolved in 1940, but  Arthur Sanderson and Sons Ltd. bought the assets and operated the brand until 2003, when “international luxury interior furnishings group” Walker Greenbank, purchased Sanderson, including the Morris & Co. brand.

Walker Greenbank continues to sell wallpaper designs created by William Morris, as well as new patterns, under the Morris & Co. brand.

4 thoughts on “Minimalists in History: Designer William Morris

  1. Hello Christy, What an interesting post! I’ve always admired the William Morris designs.
    Wishing you well, Carol

  2. I knew Morris only from the first quote. I have been questioning capitalism myself as of late, or rather the type of capitalism we are seeing with protected industries. As for a factory work I couldn’t agree more with Morris. Many of my family members have worked in shops with production lines and when one person was out sick very few people knew how to do their job and several of my family have corporal tunnel from years of repetitive work.

    • I’ve noticed that many of the minimalists in history I’ve researched and written about question capitalism, at least the particular iteration of it that’s out there. Perhaps there are other versions that are better – not an issue I’ve studied.

      I have never done any type of factory work but know that I very much enjoy the sense of accomplishment that comes from completing a project. I can’t imagine doing just one little bit over and over; it seems incredibly depressing.

I'd love for you to share your ideas and experiences.