From the April/May 2023 Issue  

William Morris

An Arts and Crafts legacy

William Morris packed an impres-sive number of creative pursuits into his 62 years, and although he died more than a century ago, his influence is still felt today.

Morris, born in 1834 in the eastern English county of Essex, was known in his day primarily as a poet and socialist activist. Today, he is remembered—and revered—more for his distinctive tapestry, wallpaper, textile and stained glass designs that came to define the British Arts and Crafts Movement. He’s also known for this advice: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

A typical textile design by William Morris features subtly stylized leaves, vines, flowers or all manner of fauna. The designs may appear “busy” to modern eyes, but they held great appeal to those who were tiring of the heavy ornamentation of Victorian designs.

LEFT | The “Blackberry” pattern by William Morris shown on wallpaper. From the online collection of the Brooklyn Museum. RIGHT | “Strawberry Thief” is one of Morris’ most popular patterns.

In addition to disliking Victorian designs, Morris felt the Industrial Revolution was flooding the country with low-quality, machine-made products. He began to immerse himself in the ways and thoughts of the Middle Ages. “Morris rejected the popular interior decorating trends of his day,” historian Emily Snow says in a 2021 article written for, a community for scholars, classrooms and enthusiasts. “He believed mainstream textile art and household goods strayed too far from the design principle [that] ‘form follows function,’ which dictates that the shape and look of an object should directly relate to its intended use, and that designers should embrace the inherent qualities of the materials they used instead of disguising them with excessive ornamentation. Through research and travel to historical sites, William Morris found that medieval craftmanship better embodied the aims of the Arts and Crafts Movement.”

In 1861, Morris and like-minded creatives launched Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. to create medieval-inspired, handcrafted home décor. The company’s hand-carving, stained glass, fabric and metal designs drew praise during the International Exhibition of 1862.

Despite the company’s success, Morris wanted to restructure the partnership in 1874, but his partners did not. They dissolved the company, and Morris soon launched Morris & Co. with himself as the sole owner. His work was voluminous. He is credited with producing more than 600 designs for wallpaper, textiles and embroidery as well as 150 designs for stained glass windows, three typefaces, and about 650 borders and ornamentations for books, including those printed at one of his own companies, Kelmcott Press.

For his textile designs at Morris & Co., he insisted on using good quality raw materials, almost all natural dyes and hand processing, often reviving techniques that had become obsolete during the Industrial Revolution. Some of his textiles were machine made, including intricate, double-woven fabrics in which two sets of warps and wefts are interlinked to create complex gradations of color and texture. For this reason and more, Morris aficionados say his designs need to be seen in person to appreciate the rich colors and textures.

“The philosophies and aesthetics of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement quickly gained popularity throughout Europe and the United States through the start of the twentieth century,” Snow says. “While the rise of Modernism ultimately surpassed the Arts and Crafts movement in mainstream popularity, interior designers recognize its vital influence today.”
After the founder’s death in 1896, Morris & Co. remained in business until closing in 1940. The company’s designs are still sold today under license to Sanderson & Sons and Liberty of London. Original Morris designs, as well as imitations, are available in everything from fabric and wallpaper to furniture, decorative pillows and notecards.