- William Morris in the Twenty-First Century
Is there more to William Morris in the twenty-first century than the overfamiliar pattern designs we can now enjoy on almost everything from mugs, tea towels, and PVC tablecloths through notebooks and mouse pads to garden [End Page 377] tools or even gum boots? Does the fact that the works of most distinguished designers flexibly adapted for a variety of daily uses are now widely available through prestigious public institutions really mean that we have, after all, reached Morris’s ideal of “beauty for all”? Or is this only another chapter in the story of “our obsession with stuff” that resulted in nothing else than production of what Morris used to call “makeshift”? 1
The contributors to William Morris in the Twenty-First Century clearly believe that there is much more to the legacy of one of the most influential British designers than “Morris kitsch”—as one of the contributors, artist David Mabb, refers to the above-mentioned items (165). Their stance is reflected in the overview of Morris’s work and philosophy that the essays introduce, covering his views on architecture, urban planning, crafts, environmental issues, politics, and technology as well as his literary works and utopian writings. Indeed, it is exactly this holistic aspect of Morris’s thought and work that makes his legacy perhaps more compelling now than ever before. As the editors Phillippa Bennett and Rosie Miles point out in the book’s introduction, many of the crucial economic, ecological, cultural, and social problems that alarmed Morris are again (or perhaps still?) of great concern almost one and a half centuries later. Hence, this timely book of essays by leading Morris scholars and a couple of emerging authors appears to have come at the very right time to show that there is still a lot to be learned from a man who, in reality, went much further than designing pretty patterns.
William Morris died in 1896 at the age of sixty-two of “simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men.” 2 Quite contrary to the habitual depiction of him as an escapist dreamer, Morris certainly did not indulge himself in a retreat to the comfort of his own world (which could have been enjoyable enough given his talents and wealth) but, rather, spent most of his life in troublesome battles against the inconsiderateness and single-mindedness of the profit-based society of his era. The interdisciplinary view of the man offered by the contributors to William Morris in the Twenty-First Century exemplifies Morris’s holistic approach to life and the ways this translated to his manifold activities. Even though each of the five chapters of the book unfolds around a slightly different aspect of Morris’s thought and legacy, like Morris’s reasoning itself, the essays are very closely interconnected. Although they surely can be read selectively, again, as with Morris himself, one gets the very best when looking at the whole picture. [End Page 378]
The opening section, “Morris, Architecture, and Utopia,” deals with topical questions related to urban development and public space. Maria Isabel Donas Botto reflects on Morris’s views on the city and the countryside; and Ruth Levitas examines the difficult interactions between private and public space in social, spatial, and environmental developments of the twentieth century along with and in their relationship to democracy. Jan Marsh then explores the history of lost and preserved decorations in Morris’s Red House, drawing special attention to some intriguing new discoveries and the challenges in future presentation of the house to the public that the present owner, the National Trust, faces.
In the next section, “Morris and the Arts and Crafts Tradition,” Hillary Laucks Walter attempts to reclaim May Morris’s contributions to the future of craft practice from the shadow of her much more famous father. The author does so by reminding us of May’s leading position in the Arts...