William Morris, a celebrated artist of the Arts and Crafts movement, created woven and printed textile patterns for wallpapers, fabrics and carpets. His wool wall hanging titled “Bird,” reproduced here, was designed around 1878 to display in the drawing room of his London-area home.
William Morris (1834–1896) is one of the most renowned figures in the decorative arts. As a textile designer, he developed an original style that charmed his contemporaries and has since become a point of reference for all those interested in design and decoration. His creative approach was characterized by his pronounced views on what constitutes beauty and a firm belief in the essential value of art and handicraft. The Arts and Crafts movement, inspired by the ideals of Morris and the social theorist John Ruskin, had as much of an anti-industrial ideological component as it did an aesthetic teaching.
Studying Classics at Oxford University, Morris developed an interest in the history, social values and art of the Middle Ages. His appreciation of the medieval theme found its way into his designs, with patterns often replicating the “millefleurs” style of the 15th and 16th centuries. Characterized by an abundance of small decorative flowers and plants used to fill the background space, this style is most closely associated with the tapestry-making traditions of France and Belgium.
Morris was also an influential writer and staunch social activist and was aghast at the effect that industrialization was having on human productivity. New methods of production eroded the value of individual skill and a sense of accomplishment that came with the process of handiwork. He perceived medieval crafts guilds to be an ideal arrangement, where everyone contributed according to their own skill, and art and creation were a lived experience for both craftsmen and consumers. When he founded an interior design business together with a few like-minded associates, it followed the guild model and relied on traditional labour-intensive methods of production.
Ultimately, Morris believed that traditional crafts ensured higher-quality products, and so he made his furnishings using traditional weaving and the old technique of hand woodblock printing. For motifs, he looked to nature as his primary source of inspiration, which for him had an added element of defiance to the corrosive Industrial Revolution.
This Morris Birds design reflects his abiding interest in naturalism. It is a reproduction of a pattern Morris registered in 1878. Originally designed to hang on the walls of the drawing room in his family home, Kelmscott House, this type of fabric was usually referred to as a “woven wool tapestry” by Morris, though it was technically a “doublecloth.” The pattern of this wall hanging is especially memorable thanks to its “millefleurs” design, a signature of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement.