Morris & Co was founded by the visionary Arts and Crafts leader, William Morris (1834-1896), in response to cheaply-made, mass-produced furnishings of the Victorian period that, he believed, lacked any sense of beauty or style
The firm's timeless designs, which have a symmetry and structure that work happily in small or large spaces, seamlessly bridge the gap of 160 years. Today, they are sold in the US by Zoffany but in UK, where the interior design archive (see below) – including original blocks, logbooks and pattern books – are kept, Morris & Co forms part of Zoffany’s parent company Sanderson Design Group.
William Morris: the man behind the name
While at Oxford and during his early years in London, Morris made friends with founding members of the Pre-Raphaelites (see a recreation of the style for the 160th anniversary, below), including Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti; the group shared a love of nature, medieval aesthetics and Gothic architecture – and a dislike of mechanisation.
Born near Epping Forest in Essex in 1837, the third of nine children, William Morris was the son of a self-made businessman. He was educated at Marlborough College in Wiltshire where he claimed he learned 'next to nothing'. Instead, he spent his time exploring the landscape, medieval churches and Neolithic monuments that surrounded the school. It was an experience which sparked an early appreciation of architecture that was to prove instrumental to his career.
It was the process of decorating Red House (opens in new tab), Morris’s country house just outside London, that established many of the principles of Arts & Crafts interior design. In 1861, the friends founded the firm first known as Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co which championed hand-craftsmanship and traditional techniques with a strongly medievalist aesthetic.
Morris’s famous maxim, laid down in 1877, was that he didn’t want art for a few any more than education for a few or freedom for a few. Simplicity and craft lay at the heart of the movement. Values and sentiments which, now faced with the biggest technological changes ever experienced, resonate profoundly with many today.
In 1875, Morris took control of the company, and Morris & Co was born.
What happened next
Morris sought to revive traditional, labor-intensive manufacturing techniques and crafts such as woodblock printing, hand fabric dying (using natural vegetable dyes) and tapestry weaving. But few of these activities proved profitable and were eventually abandoned.
Interior decorating was the firm’s strength: wallpapers (see some original pieces, above) and fabrics the greatest success stories. Patterns typically returned to Morris’s favorite subjects of inspiration including medieval tapestries, animals in nature, English country gardens and the bucolic countryside that surrounded him.
Two commissions established the firm’s reputation in the late 1860s: one for St James’s Palace and the other for the 'green dining room' in what would become the Victorian & Albert Museum in London (this is now preserved as the Morris Room).
After his death, John Henry Dearle became the art director. The firm continued to work until it was dissolved in the early months of WW2. Their archive, including the original blocks for wallpaper designs, was bought by another British heritage brand, Arthur Sanderson & Sons (today known as Sanderson Design Group, Zoffany’s parent company).
Further ones followed including for Standen House (opens in new tab), a vast country house in East Grinstead built for a London solicitor (today owned by the National Trust, where wallpapers and fabrics still hang). Morris finished decorating another large project, Stanmore Hall, on the outskirts of London, before he died in 1896.
Morris & Co: the most popular designs
Among the most famous patterns are Willow Bough (opens in new tab) (1887) which is said to be influenced by a father and daughter strolling along the banks of the River Thames; Strawberry Thief (1883) (shown above) which features thrushes Morris caught stealing strawberries from his garden; Trellis, Morris’s first design in 1862, inspired by a trellis in his garden at Red House; and Golden Lily (opens in new tab) (1899) which was designed by John Henry Dearle.
In London’s Swinging Sixties movement, which saw a renewed interested in Victoriana designs, this pattern was photographed on a jacket worn by the Beatle George Harrison.
Morris & Co today
The interior decorator Ben Pentreath (above), who works for HRH Prince Charles on various projects and was responsible for the redecoration of Anmer Hall, home to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, says he includes a Morris pattern – either in a wallpaper or a piece of upholstery – in almost all of his interiors projects.
In 2019, Morris & Co approached him to recolor a selection of Morris’s original designs (above, including with Pentreath, and below). The project, called Queen Square (opens in new tab) in reference to the original London home of Morris & Co in Bloomsbury, resulted in 14 patterns across nine fabrics and eight wallpapers in a variety of colorways.
Zoffany/Sanderson had recolored many Morris designs during the Sixties in bold and intense shades which were typical of the era and produced a book with the results; it now lies in Morris & Co archive. Ben used this for inspiration. The result is a blend of the richness of the Morris patterns with the zing of fresh new saturated color note.
'For me, the whole collection is filled with nostalgia,' says Ben. 'There is a sense of comfort and happiness in these fabrics, which could not be more relevant today.'
The Morris & Co archive is held in Denham, Buckinghamshire, just over 20 miles west of London. Interior designers regularly draw on it for inspiration for their own collections. Rose Uniacke’s new linen Squirrel (opens in new tab) is inspired by William Morris (it’s currently for sale in the UK only).
To mark the firm’s 160th anniversary (opens in new tab) in 2021, Morris & Co have released more than 100 archival designs including Owl & Willow (opens in new tab), a new wallpaper panel. Inspired by the 1890 Holy Grail tapestries designed by Morris and Burne-Jones for the dining room of Stanmore Hall, Morris’s last and grandest project.
Arabella is a freelance journalist writing for national newspapers, magazines and websites including Homes & Gardens, Country Life, The Telegraph and The Times. For many years she has specialized in writing about property and interiors, but she began her career in the early 2000s working on the newly launched Country Life website, covering anything from competitions to find the nation’s prettiest vicarage to the plight of rural post offices.
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