Among the first of the independent industrial designers, Christopher Dresser championed design reform in 19th century Britain while embracing modern manufacturing in the development of wallpaper, textiles, ceramics, glass, furniture and metalware. To say he was ahead of time is something of an understatement. His radical designs were a breath of fresh air in the weighty and sombre world of late Victorian style. Considered an early pioneer of what would become the 20th Century style his work is greatly admired and collected all over the world.
By the end of the 19th Century Dr Christopher Dresser was a household name, who was famed for his extensive array of industrial designs used for furnishing ordinary people with well-made, efficient and engaging goods. Over his career he designed literally hundreds of objects including textiles, wall coverings, ceramics, glassware and metalware. His commercial success is all the more remarkable as Dresser also pioneered what we now recognise as the simple modern aesthetic. Radical for the time, some of Dresser’s products, notably his 1880s metal toast racks, are still in production today.
Born in Glasgow in 1834 into a non-conformist family, Dresser was an exceptionally talented child. At the age of 13, he won a place at the newly established Government School of Design. This new system of art training was set up to improve the standard of British design for industry by joining the disciplines of art and science.
Having specialised in botanical studies, Dresser became a lecturer in botany when he left the College in 1854. However after failing to win the Chair of Botany at the University of London in 1860, Dresser turned his efforts towards design – setting up a studio at his home in St Peter Square, Hammersmith. This study of plants had a profound effect on his approach to design. Seeing nothing superfluous in nature, where every beautiful thing had simplicity of form and a clear function, Dresser applied the same principle to design.
By 1868 Dresser had a number of roles: working as a designer, an advisor to manufacturers, and as an author and teacher. Increasingly successful, he moved to a large house in the fashionable and artistic Campden Hill area of London in 1869. By 1871 Dresser declared that “as an ornamentalist I have much the largest practice in the kingdom” and produced designs for wallpaper, textiles, stained glass, ceramics and metalware.
Dresser also became a passionate advocate of Japanese culture and was partly responsible for the cult of Japan that raged through Western artistic circles during the 1880s. In 1876, he became the first European designer to be commissioned to visit Japan, which had reopened its borders in 1854, in order to view craft and manufacturing techniques for the UK government.
Much of Dresser’s most influential work was produced from the late 1870s when he worked increasingly as an adviser and designer to smaller firms which allowed him greater control over a range of products. While he still provided designs anonymously, his stature was so great that many manufacturers now used Dresser’s name as a marketing ploy. The ceramics he designed for the Linthorpe Art Pottery had a facsimile signature impressed on the base. Some of his electro-plate designs for Hukin and Heath bore the mark Designed by Dr C. Dresser and the modest tin wares produced by Richard Perry, Son & Co., were marked Dr Dresser’s design.
At a time when the fast-expanding Victorian middle classes were enthusiastically furnishing their homes, Dresser designed all the effects necessary for the family table: claret jugs, tea services, serving dishes, toast racks, candlesticks and cruet sets. He received contracts to design silver and electroplate for Hukin & Heath of Birmingham and for James Dixon & Sons of Sheffield in the late 1870s.
Dresser’s designs were radical in the context of a period when many designs combined a heady mix of cultures and periods with the highly decorative Rococo revival style dominating silverware. His reduced, geometric forms revealed the influence of Japanese and Islamic silverware and a desire to be economic with the use of costly materials. Maintaining an acute awareness of function, Dresser also became adept at utilising standardised components for handles and lids to reduce costs for manufacturers.
In 1880 Dresser was appointed art manager for the newly established Art Furnishers’ Alliance founded to “carry on the business of manufacturing, buying and selling high-class goods of artistic design”. A shop was opened at 157 New Bond Street, London, supplying “everything for the home” with all items either designed or approved by Dresser. This was the pinnacle of Dresser’s design career and the Alliance had financial backing from most of his manufacturers including A. Lasenby Liberty, founder of the Liberty store.
Despite positive reviews, the Alliance went into liquidation in 1883. It is thought that the initial capital was inefficient to fund the project and that the design of the wares was too advanced in taste for the time. Liberty acquired most of the stock and assumed the Alliance’s role as the leading retailer of “modern taste”. Dresser returned to designing surface pattern for manufacturers, mostly for textiles and wallpapers.
Although he never regained the renown of the early 1880s, Dresser continued to run his studio and produced designs for another twenty years until his death in 1904. His achievements were great – not only in his fresh and exciting body of work, but also in his total commitment to and understanding of machine manufacturing. Christopher Dresser strove to produce the best design he could using industrial processes and this confidence in new technology led the way for future designers.
Towards the end of Christopher Dresser’s life, a tribute appeared in an 1899 issue of Studio magazine describing him as “perhaps the greatest of commercial designers, imposing his fantasy and invention upon the ordinary output of British industry.”
Over the last 20 years Fieldings have sold a huge amount of Christopher Dresser items at auction. So whether you are buying or selling please contact Will Farmer for further advice firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted on 13 October 2020