Among the first independent industrial designers, CHRISTOPHER DRESSER (1834-1904) championed design reform in 19th century Britain while embracing modern manufacturing in the development of wallpaper, textiles, ceramics, glass, furniture and metalware.
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.”
At the time Dresser was a household name, who was as famed for his championship of industrial design as a force for furnishing ordinary people with well-made, efficient and engaging goods, as for the hundreds of objects he had designed as 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 spruce, simple modern aesthetic. Radical for the time, some of Dresser’s products, notably his 1880s metal toast racks, are in production today.
Born in Glasgow in 1834 into a non-conformist family, Dresser was an exceptionally talented child. As his father was an excise officer, Dresser moved frequently with his family during his childhood until, at 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. During his studies there, Dresser met many of the most important design reformers of the day: Henry Cole, Richard Redgrave and his mentor, Owen Jones.
Having specialised in botanical studies, Dresser became a lecturer in botany when he left the College in 1854. He wrote three text books on botany which were well received. 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.
He also promoted design through his writing and lectures. Speaking to the Royal Society of Arts in 1871 he argued: “True ornamentation is of purely mental origin, and consists of symbolised imagination only… Ornamentation is even a higher art than that practised by the pictorial artist, as it is of wholly mental origin.” In Dresser’s early designs for wallpapers, fabrics and his ceramics for manufacturers such as Minton and Josiah Wedgwood, he created abstracted reinterpretations of natural forms and historical patterns.
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. Dresser also acted as an envoy for the South Kensington Museums by presenting a gift of recent British manufacturing to the newly opened Tokyo National Museum. The visit was also a commercial venture. In 1873 Dresser had founded the Alexandra Palace Company and became art adviser to Londos, both importers of Japanese goods. Tiffany commissioned Dresser to collect Japanese goods which, when displayed in 1877, were the hit of the New York exhibition season. As well as lecturing about Japan and Japanese craft techniques on his return to the UK, he published his acclaimed book Japan, Its Architecture, Art and Art-Manufactures in 1882.
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. He also designed brass and copper for Benham & Froud, and “japanned” metal for Richard Perry of Wolverhampton.
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.
The contrasts in his designs for different materials showed how his approach to design was also shaped by the properties and nature of a material. In 1879 Dresser was appointed art director at the newly established Linthorpe pottery, near Middlesbrough. Founded by John Harrison, a local businessman, the pottery’s aim was to use local clay to provide jobs for local men. Dresser’s design for the moulds for the pottery were inspired by a wide range of cultures from Japan, Peru, Mexico, Morocco and Ancient British forms. These pieces were very striking at the time, with the metal oxides in the complex and innovative glazes providing the only decoration. By then, all his designs were impressed with a facsimile signature. When Linthorpe closed in 1889, its moulds were acquired by a rival, Ault Pottery in Derbyshire. In 1893, Dresser signed a contract with Ault for new designs specifying that each pot should be marked with his facsimile signature.
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.
He also designed some beautiful and graceful art glassware for the Glasgow manufacturer James Couper. Named Clutha Glass, meaning cloud, it was sold by Liberty in the 1890s and was marked Clutha, Designed by C.D Registered. The forms drew on ancient Roman and near Eastern glass forms which emphasised the fluidity and the liquid character of glass being blown. However, they also looked forward to the exaggerated natural forms of Art Nouveau. The streaks and striations were deliberate and produced in a wide range of colours.
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.
Design Museum + British Council
1834 Born in Glasgow. Dresser’s father works as an excise officer with posts in Yorkshire, Glasgow, Sussex, County Tipperary, County Cork and Hereford.
1847 Attends the Government School of Design at Somerset House London where he is awarded a scholarship and numerous medals.
1854 Marries Thirza Perry of Maidley and is appointed as a lecturer in botany at the Government School of Design.
1856 Supplies plate XCVIII, the geometric arrangement of flowers, to Owen Jones’s book The Grammar of Ornament.
1859 Receives a doctorate from the University of Jena for his contribution to botanical science.
1860 Sets up a design studio.
1862 Publishes his design manifesto, The Art of Decorative Design. Exhibits at the 1862 London International Exhibition.
1869 Moves to Tower Cressy, a large house in Campden Hill, London.
1873 Principles of Decorative Design, a series of articles written for Cassell’s The Technical Educator, a self-improvement magazine, is published in book form.
1874-1876 Publishes Studies in Design in twenty parts “to bring about a better style of decoration for our houses”.
1876 Travels to Japan to deliver a gift of British design to the newly opened National Museum in Tokyo.
1880 Appointed art manager of the Art Furnishers’ Alliance on Bond Street, London and as art editor of The Furniture Gazette, a post he holds for a year.
1882 Designs the interior and furniture of Bushloe House, Wigston Magna, near Leicester, for his lawyer, Hiram B. Owston.
Publishes Japan: Its Architecture, Art and Art Manufactures.
1883 The Art Furnishers’ Alliance goes into liquidation and Dresser moves to the London suburb of Sutton.
1886 Publishes Modern Ornamentation featuring work by his assistants and students.
1889 Moves with his family to Elm Bank, Barnes.
1904 Christopher Dresser dies in Mulhouse, while on a business trip to France with his son, Louis.
Design Museum + British Council
Michael Whiteway, ed, Christopher Dresser: A Design Revolution, V&A Publications, 2004
Widar Halén, Christopher Dresser, Phaidon, 1990
Stuart Durant, Christopher Dresser, London and Berlin, 1993
Richard Dennis and John Jesse, Christopher Dresser 1834 -1904, London, The Fine Art Society, Exhibition Catalogue, 1972
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run as a collaboration between the Design Museum and British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain
Design Museum + British Council