William Morris – A Visual GuideDesign Practice
“Beauty mingled with invention, founded on the observation of nature, is the mainspring of decorative design. If it is not beautiful, it has no right to exist; if it is not invention it becomes wearisome; if it is not founded on observation of nature it can hardly be either beautiful or inventive. It is apt to become merely strange and monstrous when it departs far from nature.”
Morris’ political leanings and ideological principles fully informed both his style and his process. With a bit of help from Lewis Foreman Day, I have analysed aspects of Morris’ style to create a simplified guide.
Stick to Nature
The stylistic approach of William Morris can be best described as naturalistic – in every sense of the word. The abundance of floral motifs found in his work is not a coincidence. Morris’ perception of beauty was very much based on his observation of nature as it created a stark contrast to the Victorian-era post-industrial revolution London. Morris used nature as a visual theme to underline his anti-industrial rhetoric and to illustrate his utopian socialist ideology.
This does not mean he copied nature exactly. His work is largely asymmetrical, with imperfections worked around rather than corrected and aesthetic considerations taking precedent over accuracy of depiction.
Fitness for Purpose
There is a reason why so much of Morris’ work is ornamental. Ornament, to him, was the default state of art and the be-all and end-all of design. If purpose of art was to create beauty, then ornament is the medium best suited to carry art’s purpose. Morris therefore dismissed all art unfit for ornamentation as unfit for purpose and therefore pointless.
His work with patterns was a logical extension of this mindset. The pattern is seen as not a superficial feature but a necessary part of the object it was used to decorate.
Avoid Vagueness and Abstraction
Morris’ dislike for the industrial revolution extended not only to the ideology of humanism and the art movements of Renaissance but also to the society and ornamental artwork of ancient Greece. He saw the simple geometric imagery as a limitation and strongly disliked abstract shapes that did not represent a specific motif.
While a lot of Morris’ work does fall into the category of ‘art for art’s sake’ and does not seek to convey any meaning or purpose other than being aesthetically pleasing, Morris’ infatuation with nature did lead him to see any alternative approach to his own as inferior.
Make the Underlying Logic Visible
Morris’ patterns often display a very clear geometric structure. While this is never abstracted, there is a visible logic to how the individual elements of the pattern connect with one another and how one part of the pattern feeds into the next one. The construction of the pattern is always on display, with use of negative space balancing the composition. The result is easy to follow with a clear visual hierarchy.
For added complexity, Morris often layered two different patterns on top of one another. The background pattern tended to be a lot simpler and used more subdued colours for the sake of clarity.
Colour Theory is Useless
Modern colour theory principles such as the colour wheel had no place in Morris’ creative process. In a rare stroke of tolerance, Morris saw value in all hues on the spectrum and combinations thereof; however, there were colours which he preferred to use over others.
Yellow, for example, he found exceptionally difficult to work with and made sparse use of as a result. He also preferred vivid, bright colours and almost never opted for de-saturated, muddy shades. That said, he never worked with a set of clearly defined rules and principles when it came to colour and acted solely on feeling and preference.
Avoid Soft Shading
When working with flat surface design, using shading to simulate depth is not recommended. Morris stuck to flat colours and, occasionally, simple flat shading.