“If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
the leader of the Arts and Crafts movement
with a dream
William Morris was man disillusioned by mass produced goods. He was obsessed with beauty. Not just any kind of beauty, mind you, but one that harks back to the past — a romanticized sort that finds its roots in the poetry he so loved; and in the woman he fell in love with (and later married).
She was his ideal lady and he won her hand in marriage! How wonderful! In other words: he dreamt and obtained.
But did he, really?
History records that the fair maiden never did love him. She married him because Morris “made an offer she couldn’t refuse”. He was wealthy, you see, and she wasn’t, and in those days, it was probably difficult for women to move out of their social class outside of marriage. If she never loved him, can we say that he truly “obtained” the relationship he desired? Or was he satisfied with a superficial relationship with someone beautiful?
In a similar vein, then, is the question: Was Morris able to spread things of worth and beauty to people? Were the people able to easily access and have things of beauty? Or was he simply satisfied with, as with the fair maiden, a superficial relationship of creating things of beauty?
Morris believed that everyone should own something beautiful – something handcrafted, warm and human; not the calculating cold of mass produced goods. And so he set out to do just that. Advocating the craftsmen’s ownership for the work, and guilds for them to help one another, Morris had structured a system of great potential for creativity and artistic expression.
But what of the cost of
amount of care,
and time that each craftsman has dedicated?
Now let’s consider the background of England at that time. The Industrial Revolution has taken hold of the nation, and people are moving out of agriculture to work in factories which pay more. Even so, many aren’t living off a surplus of wealth, and some are just scraping by. Are these people able to afford Morris’ exquisitely made items? Of books have been painstakingly made, including the paper?
Moreover, according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, one would first seek to fulfill physiological needs – food, hydration and such. Extrapolating this to the large working class of Morris’ time, people would therefore aim to fill stomachs first, or meet tangible needs, rather than fulfill the intangible pleasure of owning something beautiful.
Morris was able to organise a structure that could make things of beauty, but these things of beauty, though made, could not make it to the masses. They never could, unless the craftspeople were willing to sell at much lower prices which discounts the effort put into one product. And even if they did, there would be the issue of demand and supply: would they be able to make enough in a reasonable timeframe for so many people? Hence, just like the relationship between Morris and his lady love; so also did his dream set off for the masses, but were not able to reach them. (Thankfully those who saw his work liked it though! That’s probably better than being tolerated by the woman you love..?)
Ironically, a couple centuries later, we’re here studying him and his artworks on mass produced goods (books and computers alike). And it is through these mass produced items that his works finally reach a much larger audience, digitally! How odd! Perhaps his dream did succeed, though not in a manner he envisioned.
P.s. Just a fun tidbit here: but something peculiar is that in the 1900s, another William Morris set out to become one of the greatest industrialists of his time, founding what is now known as the Morris Motor Company. Well now. Fascinating!