Art appreciation

The Artful Interior: A Review of Morris and Company at the Art Institute of Chicago

Illustration: May Morris, Vine Leaf design, 1896, embroidery by Morris & Co., London. Donated by the Crab Tree Farm Foundation

William Morris was simply the most important designer of his time. Reading a list of his interests and accomplishments, you wonder if he’s ever slept. A leader of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, he was a painter, author, architectural curator, fine press publisher, socialist and, as this exhibition reveals, a talented designer and businessman. Please be aware that this is not an exhaustive exposition of everything Morris has produced. This would have included handmade books, furniture, stained glass and much more.

The exhibition takes place in the galleries reserved for textile exhibitions and explores the fabrics and wallpaper designs of Morris & Co. Founded in 1861 as Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., after 1875 the company was owned only to Morris. The popularity of its products is suggested by the fact that it lasted until the start of World War II. He is committed to producing elegant homewares largely by hand using older, ‘medieval’ craft techniques. The company aimed to counter the poor quality waste produced by mechanical production. As seen in these pieces, global influences on his designs include Japanese art, Islamic decoration and most importantly nature itself. But there are also many references to England, including designs named for specific rivers and designs that reference children’s stories.

Morris had talented designers working for him, and what we call “Morris” designs are sometimes the work of these talented allies and employees. So not only those of his Pre-Raphaelite allies Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but also those of the underrated John Henry Dearle and even Morris’ youngest daughter, May. Her mother, who taught her to embroider, was the Pre-Raphaelite beauty Jane Burden Morris. May was so talented and savvy that at the age of twenty-three she was put in charge of the entire embroidery department of Morris & Co.. The fabric of a firewall showcases her sense of graceful design. Yet most of the fabrics and wallpapers here are by William Morris himself, and his genius for two-dimensional design is on full display. A dazzling “Peacock and Vine” tapestry displays almost magical visual effects. The “Pomona” tapestry, a collaboration between Burne-Jones and Dearle, is a pre-Raphaelite stunner. The slender, S-curved figure of the Goddess of Abundance is set against a jungle of leaves, fruit and flowers.

An entire gallery is devoted to the Morris & Co. designs that adorned Chicago’s John J. Glessner House, the 1880s Romanesque mansion on Prairie Avenue by Henry Hobson Richardson. A huge Persian-inspired rug that has long been in the home’s entryway takes center stage. It turns out that Frances Glessner was an embroiderer herself and bought Morris designs at Marshall Field’s.

Concise Morris quotes and production information adorn the handsome navy blue walls. Intriguing photographs from inside Morris’ Kelmscott home reveal what the fabrics and patterns in place looked like. All in all, it’s the perfect show for people who, trapped indoors by winter and the pandemic, have redesigned their own interiors. Morris’ advice? “Have nothing in your house that you don’t know is useful or that you don’t believe to be beautiful.” (Mark B. Pohlad)

“Morris and Company: The Business of Beauty” is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan, through June 13.