September 22, 2010

A Golden Rule for Decorating

“Have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

-William Morris

For all the complexity of his career and the intricacy of his designs, the decorating philosophy of William Morris can probably be summarized in one word: simplicity. The older he got, the more enamored he became of whitewashed walls and bare floors (“If we really care about art we shall … choose honest whitewash … on which sun and shadow play so pleasantly.”)

His work is the embodiment of dreams in one form or another, this Victorian designer of just about everything. In an age that thrived on ponderous draperies and endless bric-a-brac, Morris’ “less is more” credo (a man after my own heart) made him something of a maverick. But it also meant that the design born of his imagination transcended his own age. His wallpaper and fabrics are sold today, and look at home in  modern settings.

While most decorating trends have come and gone, William Morris’ lyrical vines have quietly and sinuously crept into our contemporary notions of the beautiful. Morris loved all that was unpretentious and natural. He felt beauty played an important function in the house, as a spur to the creativity of those who lived there.

I have never been in any rich man’s house which would not have looked the better for having a bonfire made outside it of nine-tenth of all it held,” he once said. His mission was, quite simply, “to restore the dignity of art to ordinary household decoration.”

He succeeded-brilliantly.

Morris' spectacular success with printed cottons was a direct result of his experiments with natural dyeing, a craft rescued from near-obscurity.  Morris' dye recipes are shown in this 1880's workshop book.