Published: March 3, 2004
Finally recognized as the world’s first professional industrial designer, Christopher Dresser (1834-1904) spent his career in England supplying good design ideas to dozens of firms for mass production. Through July 29, the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum will present the first full-scale retrospective of his work, “Shock of the Old: Christopher Dresser.” The exhibition will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the designer’s passing.
More than 300 major works, drawn from the diverse media in which he worked, will travel to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in September 2004. These venues are significant because Dresser – who had visited the United States during the Centennial of 1876 – had urged American industrialists to establish their own museum of design similar to what was then called the South Kensington Museum in London.
His designs were for teapots and toast racks, proof that Dresser realized the permanence of the Industrial Revolution that was taking place around him and the growing demand for innovative designs to satisfy middle-class consumers. Unlike other reformers of the period, he resolved to work with these trends, rather than against them.
Dresser also followed up on his designs to ensure that the correct processes were being followed to execute them. Van Dyk continues, “A key thing to remember with Dresser is that he liked materials; he’s experimenting with new materials. He also knew the manufacturing process so well, which is a real plus. If you knew how things were manufactured, you could manufacture them better.” This quality control allowed Dresser to have the final works the firms sold signed or designated as his work, very much in the way that designers of today might produce a signature line.
Several biographical events influenced Dresser’s work. He was born in Glasgow to parents from yeoman Yorkshire families who were nonconformist Methodists. His father was an excise officer, so they moved around a good deal, but Dresser showed an early talent for art and was sent off to attend one of the newly established Government Schools of Design in London. These had been set up to train designers for industry because good design was seen as the key to commercial success for British products abroad, in an age of international expositions where one nation’s products competed directly against another’s.
At the design school, he began to study botany and published a number of papers in the field, in which he would eventually receive an honorary doctorate. Some of his work, particularly wallpaper design, reflects this botanical training. He also came in contact with the work of the older architects A.W.N. Pugin and Owen Jones, who published his influential The Grammar of Ornament in 1856.
“Dresser was a great synthesizer of forms; he was not the originator,” notes Van Dyk. “His mentor Owen Jones created that wonderful The Grammar of Ornament, where he’s starting to look at the ornament of all cultures, not just western cultures. Japan was a major influence and a craze at the time. Dresser was also interested in Persian and Egyptian and English Medieval and Chinese and Peruvian motifs. He was a true Victorian, and Victorians had a real love of novelty. They loved curious things — unusual teapots, toast racks and cruet sets, and they loved color.”
Dresser went on to publish his own ideas in The Art of Decorative Design (1862) and Principles of Decorative Design (1873), which became handbooks for consumers who wanted to improve the artistic quality of their surroundings. So Dresser was already known through these writings when he paid a visit to Philadelphia in 1876 to see the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition and lecture at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The visiting Englishman used his time there to come to an agreement with Wilson & Fenimores on Market Street to produce Dresser’s wall covering designs.
While other Victorians merely admired the Japanese exhibits they saw at various expositions, Dresser actually visited Japan in 1876-1877, the first tour by a European designer since the country had been opened to the West in 1854. Not only was the sojourn a catalyst for change within Dresser’s design vocabulary, he published his discoveries in Japan: Its Architecture, Art and Art Manufacture in 1882, a book that ultimately had a major influence on other artists.
As a combined result of this study, travel and the intense fermentation between designers of the day, Dresser’s body of work for various manufacturers, as expressed in the exhibition, was extremely diverse. While some works – like the ceramics for Minton and Wedgwood in the 1860s – are almost archaeological in appearance, others – like the silver plated teapots for James Dixon in the late 1870s – seem proto-modern in their abstraction, although the forms may actually reflect forms he saw in Japan. Later ceramics, such as those designed for the Ault Pottery of Derbyshire in the 1890s, are all glaze and usual forms more in line with the American art pottery tradition. An 1870s line of cast-iron furniture created for the Coalbrookdale iron foundry shows a Persian complexity of ornament even busier than other designs in this medium.
Van Dyk comments, “The goal was to make good design available and even affordable to many people. Dresser understood his clientele. Some of his materials were very avant-garde for the time, but many of them fitted into this new emerging middle class that was looking for new things. They were looking for affordable, modern and curious things to furnish their home.”
As a permanent record of the exhibition, a catalog – Shock of the Old: Christopher Dresser’s Design Revolution – has been published by Cooper-Hewitt and V & A Publications in collaboration with Harry N. Abrams. The volume is edited by Michael Whiteway, an expert in Nineteenth Century design, and includes essays by a number of scholars in the field. (Available in bookstores this month, the book is $55 hardcover and $39.95 softcover.)
Van Dyk says in conclusion, “I like the fact that he was a self-made man. He studied and worked his way up the ladder. He was also an entrepreneur. In the 1870s he had one of the largest design firms in England and was supplying designs for around 50 companies. Here we had a man who was so prolific and innovative, and after he died in 1904, there was this obscurity.”
While other designers like Tiffany created a more enduring organization that kept their memory alive, Dresser received little attention until a 1937 article, “Minor Masters of the XIX Century: Christopher Dresser, Industrial Designer,” published by Nikolaus Pevsner in Architectural Review. Only in the Twentieth Century, after the term “industrial designer” gained its present connotation, was Dresser recognized as its first proponent. The scholarship on Dresser’s life since that wake-up call has been summarized and embodied in the current “Shock of the Old” exhibition and catalog, which make information on his work available to a much wider group of admirers.
Collectors and researchers are invited to attend a symposium devoted to Dresser at the Cooper-Hewitt on Saturday, March 27. The program will include lectures by international authorities, such as D. Widar Halen, who will present “Christopher Dresser and the Cult of Japan” and a series of “object study sessions” with museum curators. For information or reservations, 212-849-8380.
The Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution, is at Fifth Avenue and 91st Street. For information, 212-849-8400 or www.ndm.si.edu.
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