Visiting Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion?

You must join the virtual exhibition queue when you arrive. If capacity has been reached for the day, the queue will close early.

Learn more

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Christopher Dresser (1834–1904)

Associated with the design reform movement in the second half of the nineteenth century, Christopher Dresser is considered the first industrial designer. Dresser addressed the constraints as well as the strengths of the machine in the manufacture of domestic utilitarian objects. A prolific designer, he created forms and ornament for a wide range of manufacturers in Great Britain, France, and the United States. Profoundly influenced by the architect-designer Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812–1852) as well as the ornamentalist Owen Jones (1809–1874), Dresser was also inspired by botanical forms and the arts of Japan. In addition to providing designs for industry, Dresser was an importer and furnishings retailer. He published books and articles and lectured throughout his career on topics ranging from botany to appropriate design for industrial production. Influential in both Britain and the United States, Dresser’s books—The Art of Decorative Design (1862), Principles of Decorative Design (1873), Studies in Design (1876), and Modern Ornamentation (1886)—provide instruction and examples for the student, designer, and layperson on topics ranging from color theory and ornamentation to interior decorating. His comprehensive and landmark book Japan: Its Architecture, Art, and Art Manufactures (1882) helped perpetuate the fashion for japonisme in the last decades of the nineteenth century.

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, to English parents in 1834, Dresser studied from the age of thirteen at the Government School of Design in London under the influence of leading design reformers such as Richard Redgrave (1804–1888), Henry Cole (1808–1882), Owen Jones, and Matthew Digby Wyatt (1820–1877). During his studies, Dresser was exposed to the new scientific discipline of botany and in 1856 contributed a botanical plate to Owen Jones’ celebrated publication The Grammar of Ornament (NK1510 .J7 1868 Q). Continuing to focus on botany, Dresser lectured at the women’s School of Design from 1854 and published papers and books on the subject. In 1859, he received a doctorate in absentia in the field from the University of Jena, Germany. He was elected a Fellow of the Edinburgh Botanical Society in 1860 and a Fellow of the Linnean Society a year later.

Throughout the nineteenth century, morally based theories of design and construction suggested that deceptive or “sham” manufacture, such as veneering and the use of illusionistic decorative devices, corrupted the consumer by extension. Dresser believed that the ornamentalist could, through truthful or false design, “exalt or debase a nation.” In search of a moral design vocabulary, he established principles based on Truth, Beauty, and Power; Truth criticizes imitation of materials, Beauty describes a sense of timeless perfection in design, and Power implies strength, energy, and force in ornament, achieved through Knowledge. Finding inspiration in plants and their structures, which he determined were geometrically balanced, Dresser took a radically scientific approach to art and design. He believed that truth was founded in science and that art reflected beauty. Knowledge, the manifestation of Truth and Beauty, as Dresser resolved, is Power. However, rather than depicting plant forms in a naturalistic manner, he followed the guidelines set by Owen Jones in The Grammar of Ornament that “Flowers and other natural objects should not be used as ornaments, but conventional representations …” (Proposition 13). Equally important, Dresser took from Jones the precept that “All ornament should be based upon a geometrical construction” (Proposition 8) whereby stylizing or abstracting the “source” ornament through geometric reasoning removes all preconceived associations from the source and thus creates pure ornament.

Although Dresser stressed the importance of abstracting the essence of design to its most basic linear form, he, a true-to-form Victorian, also took inspiration from a wide range of Western and non-Western sources. Based upon his surviving oeuvre, he seems to have favored the latter, including Peruvian, Egyptian, Persian, Mexican, Moroccan, and Fijian objects, all of which he would have seen at the British Museum, the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum), and the Indian Museum. He may also have been familiar with illustrated travel accounts, such as E. George Squier’s Peru: Incidents of Travel and Exploration in the Land of the Incas (1877). Prehistoric and Bronze Age artifacts discovered at archaeological sites in Yorkshire in the mid-nineteenth century provided another design source. However, the most powerful influence on his work was to come from the arts and crafts of Japan. Unlike the Aesthete Edward William Godwin (1833–1886) (1991.87), who also found great beauty in the arts of Japan, Dresser had the opportunity to visit the country and, in fact, was the first European designer to do so following the opening of Japan to the West in 1854.

Although Dresser had encountered small quantities of Japanese decorative art throughout his education, it was not until the 1862 International Exhibition in London that he was exposed to a plethora of Japanese art objects. While other artists and dealers found the objects charmingly novel, Dresser was one of a handful of critics to find merit in the works in themselves. In the 1860s and 1870s, his designs echo many of the decorative motifs of Japanese art. His trip to Japan in 1876–77 would deepen his understanding of Japanese forms, which in his own work translated into greater attention to material, form, surface, and manufacturing techniques. While en route to Japan, Dresser visited the United States; in New York, he received a commission from Tiffany & Co. to acquire several thousand Japanese artifacts, and in Philadelphia he attended the Centennial Exhibition and lectured at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art.

Like his contemporary William Morris, Dresser strove to produce affordable, functional, and well-designed domestic objects. Unlike Morris, however, he recognized the benefits of the Industrial Revolution and designed specifically for the growing consumer market. Part of Dresser’s success came from his ability to produce designs for a wide range of merchandise, whereas Morris and his colleagues sought to produce only handcrafted pieces. In his effort to create good design for industrial production, Dresser operated as a freelance commercial designer, and at times as art director, providing designs for many different manufacturers. He designed wallpapers, textiles, and carpets for over thirty firms in Great Britain, Ireland, France, and the United States; ceramics for at least seven different companies, including Minton and Wedgwood; and cast-iron furniture and metalwork for a variety of companies. He also established a retail store that sold the goods produced by many of these manufacturers. His Art Furnishers’ Alliance opened in 1880 on New Bond Street, the center of the fashionable luxury district, with Morris & Co., Liberty’s (one of the AFA’s major shareholders), the Fine Art Society, and the Grosvenor Gallery all nearby. However, financial problems and Dresser’s progressively poor health led to the company’s demise in 1883. Not only did Dresser retail the goods that he designed, he also imported Japanese art from 1879 until 1882, with two of his sons acting as agents in Kobe, Japan.

Toward the end of his life, Dresser primarily designed for wallpaper and textile manufacturers. After his death in 1904, two of his daughters took over his design studio but were unable to maintain it.