i weep every time i read fiona maccarthy’s brilliant and seminal biography of william morris. in the end morris always dies. no matter how many times i read it, it always happens.
morris’ life, though short, has been a source of constant inspiration for me. and not just the design work, but the writing, the poetry, the activism, the politics. it’s only his relationship with the smudgy-eyed rosetti (and his wife’s betrayal with both rosetti and wilfrid scawen blunt) that makes me feel squidgy.
but as i get older my attachment to, and understanding of, morris becomes (to me) more profound. this insight has less to do with morris’ mediæval æsthetic than it does with his processes. don’t get me wrong, there are certain parts of his output that i am enthralled by (i find his wallpapers particularly fetching).
my understanding of morris’ processes comes to me partially from maccarthy’s descriptions and from my observations of his work.
i remember tony mann (one of my profs at nscad) describing morris as the first modern designer because he looked at both materials and process himself, rather than contracting this investigation out to the allied trades as own jones and christopher dresser.
i can see morris unpicking ancient tapestries, dying materials by hand until he looked like violet beauregarde, scattering broken wood engraving tools about him as he worked, running brushes through his beard to gild letters he was working on.
he installed a loom in his bedroom.
think about that. no, really think about it. he. installed. a. loom. in. his. bedroom.
by doing all this stuff, morris is trying to understand materials, techniques and process. and rather than slavishly recreating the past, he fused it all into a unique style that we call (somewhat dismissively, i think) arts & crafts.
but only by understanding all three can you really design something. up until that point you are guessing. morris seemed driven to deeply understand all the things that he touched in this way.
when he became an anarchist, morris took to the street to preach to the masses. he wrote, edited and financed political publications. he got into the meat of what he believed in. many critics have dismissed morris’ politics, but i see it as an extension of his design work. a life designed.
so, why should we care now?
because we have seemingly and seamlessly transitioned into a digital world, i think this exploration still matters—perhaps in a more profound way than it did before.
the digital world has not come to us fully formed. it takes its cues and influences from all sorts of places. going forward, whatever new media that develops does exactly that : develops. it does not come into being fully formed.
you can see an unbroken chain of communication from the cave painters to the folks who announced variable type yesterday.
when you tell people you are interested in calligraphy, or letter carving, or letterpress, printing, or bookbinding, or books, or typography; they seem to assume that you are bound to, or lost in, the past.however, if you are tied to the materials of design you will understand that a stone is the same as a skin as a piece of handmade paper as a digital workspace.
i do not intend to sound alarmist when i say that we are losing this understanding to exist only in the world that we currently inhabit.
i think it’s a fundamental of life that things change, but the careful observer will be mindful of the moral influence our new technologies exert on us, and try to explore, use, and live with them in a more considered way.
we are particularly fortunate to be living when we are because of the sheer weight of technologies, materials and approaches open to us to solve problems and create stuff.
people can get lost in many places along the way, but if we fully explore and constantly examine and re-examine, then we will always remember where we are, and more keenly observe where we should be going.