Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Design Reform

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In England, throughout much of the nineteenth century, a great debate on design and industry engaged artists, manufacturers, and consumers alike. The interest in design and its appropriate role in the industrial production of goods was sparked, in part, by an 1836 report of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Art and Manufactures. The committee expressed concern that British-manufactured goods were lacking in quality as compared to the output of France, Germany and the United States, and that, consequently, England risked losing the "export race." The economic argument calling for better design was joined by an aesthetic as well as morally based reaction against the rampant and indiscriminate use of ornamentation. As an example of poor design, critics lambasted the "deceptive" three-dimensional, illusionistic patterns that decorated the two-dimensional surfaces of carpets and wallpapers. Arbiters of taste complained that "on the carpet vegetables are driven to a frenzy in their desire to be ornamental" or that pictorial wallpaper patterns cause one to feel "instinctively obliged to map out grass plots, gravel paths, and summer houses, like an involuntary landscape gardener."


Design reformers attempted to help a new and rapidly growing generation of middle-class homemakers create artistic yet healthy homes.

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The Government Schools of Design were founded in 1837 to improve the education of designers, which, it was assumed, would in turn improve the output of British industry. But industry continued to respond to popular taste and a new wave of criticism directed at the low standards of British design was unleashed by the abysmal display of domestic furnishings at the 1851 Great Exhibition held in London. Among the critics were the designer and educator Henry Cole (1808–1882), the artist Richard Redgrave (1804–1888), and the ornamentalist and theorist Owen Jones (1809–1874) (152 J721). With the support of Prince Albert (1819–1861), these three developed formal guidelines for a modern yet morally conceived design vocabulary.

Their mission was to instill three basic principles: first, that decoration is secondary to form; second, that form is dictated by function and the materials used; and third, that design should derive from historical English and non-Western ornament as well as plant and animal sources, distilled into simple, linear motifs. (The first two principles would influence twentieth-century design.) These principles were mounted on placards and hung in the classrooms of the Government Schools of Design. For example, one placard read: "The true office of Ornament is the decoration of Utility. Ornament, therefore, ought always to be secondary to Utility." And: "True Ornament does not consist in the mere imitation of natural objects; but rather in the adaptation of their peculiar beauties of form or colour to decorative purposes controlled by the nature of the material to be decorated, the laws of art, and the necessities of manufacture." Although by the late 1850s, the Government Schools were encouraging the emulation of Italian Renaissance design, one former student of the system, Christopher Dresser, a disciple of Owen Jones, adhered to the school's earlier tenets and developed a design methodology that was visually as well as industrially progressive.

In contrast to the progressive approach of the Government Schools of Design, the Arts and Crafts movement rejected modernity and industry. The movement was founded by the socialist William Morris (1834–1896) in an attempt to reclaim the preindustrial spirit of medieval English society. It was rooted in the teachings of the designer August Welby Northmore Pugin (1812–1852) (1994.371) and John Ruskin (1819–1900), perhaps the greatest art critic and theorist of the nineteenth century. Following the ideas that a happy worker made beautiful things regardless of ability, and that good, moral design could only come from a good and moral society, the Arts and Crafts movement (well underway by the 1860s, although its name was not coined until 1888) looked to English sources, specifically medieval English and Celtic traditions, for inspiration. Morris' London retailing firms, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. and later Morris & Co. (established 1875) sold furnishings made by artist-craftspeople as well as by rural peasantry. Utopian in theory, Morris' intentions were to create affordable, handcrafted goods that reflected the workers' creativity and individuality (qualities not found in industrially produced goods). Ironically, in the end, high manufacturing costs made the objects too expensive for many to purchase. Morris' circle included the Pre-Raphaelites, especially Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898) (26.54), the ceramicist William De Morgan (1839–1917) (23.163.2ab), and the architect-designer Philip Webb (1831–1915) (26.54).

Another influence on design reform, specifically interior decoration, was the mounting information about health and hygiene in the nineteenth century. Germs had been recently discovered and cholera epidemics plagued the century. Bedbugs, which lived in wood bedsteads, walls, and floors, were common to all classes, including the aristocracy, and industrial soot soiled the interiors of urban homes. Design reformers attempted to help a new and rapidly growing generation of middle-class homemakers create artistic yet healthy homes. Among the many advice manuals that were written in the second half of the century, Charles Locke Eastlake's highly influential Hints on Household Taste (1868) was widely read throughout England as well as in the United States. Although Eastlake recommended strategies for a dust-free and more sanitary home, his name became associated with a particular style of furniture. Objecting to ornately carved furnishings that could trap dust and dirt, Eastlake called for a simpler style of furniture based on Renaissance and Gothic Revivals but with incised decoration that allowed for easier cleaning (1994.529) and promoted morality and honesty in craftsmanship.

New ideas about health, hygiene, and design reform also helped shape the Aesthetic movement from the 1860s through the 1880s. Edward William Godwin (1833–1886) (1991.87), one of the originators of the movement, deplored "fluff and dust … two of the great enemies of life" and designed innovative furniture without excessive carving that could also be readily moved for easy cleaning. Although designing with cleanliness in mind, Godwin's own aesthetic sensibilities were heavily influenced by the arts of Japan, antiquarianism, and the theater. The Aesthetic movement rejected outright revivalism and approached interior design and life itself as a multisensory experience. Following the dictum "art for art's sake" and challenging the idea that life imitated art, Aestheticism, of which Godwin, James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), and Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) were the most prominent champions, quickly became fashionable among the middle classes. The proponents of the movement found beauty in the mundane, the simple, and the exotic. Borrowing from Western and non-Western sources as well as from contemporary designers such as Morris and Dresser, the avant-garde Aesthetes sought to create a sophisticated ambience, filling their spaces with inexpensive Japanese fans, blue and white porcelain, sunflowers, and peacocks (1991.110.3; 07.122). The style quickly permeated popular culture-Aesthetic images could be found decorating the covers of sheet music, and it was regularly satirized in the widely read magazine Punch and parodied in Gilbert and Sullivan musicals, particularly Patience (1881).

The design reform movement of the second half of the nineteenth century never completely achieved its goals. Instead of refining and reforming the plethora of styles, the movement created more styles from which the consumer could choose. However, it did lay the theoretical foundation for numerous designers and artistic enterprises at the very end of the nineteenth century and into the early decades of the twentieth, including C. R. Ashbee, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Peter Behrens and the Werkbund, the Wiener Werkstätte, and the Bauhaus.

Sara J. Oshinsky
Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum/Parsons School of Design, New York