Who was Dr Christopher Dresser

Christopher Dresser, born in Glasgow in 1834, probably has the greatest claim to be called the world's first industrial designer. From the late 1850's he designed functional, yet beautiful objects across a whole range of domestic items, including wallpaper, ceramics, metalwork, textiles, carpets, glass and furniture.


While most other professionals at this time were designer-architects working on unique projects for rich clients, Dresser concentrated on producing commercial designs for industrial manufacturers. He was one of the first people to run a large freelance design studio.


"As an ornamentist I have much the largest practice in the kingdom; so far as I know, there is not one branch of art-manufacture that I do not regularly design patterns for, and I hold regular appointments as 'art adviser' and 'chief designer' to several of our largest art-manufacturing firms" (Christopher Dresser, 1871).


Dresser was a man of strong opinions, which he expressed in a great many articles and publications, as well as in radical designs. He became a well known Victorian personality and extremely wealthy, and influenced a generation of designers in Britain, Europe and America. However, after he died in 1904, his work was largely forgotten.


Today many of his designs look truly contemporary even though they are more than 100 years old.


Roots in Botanical Studies


Christopher Dresser was one of the first people in Britain to study industrial design. In 1847, at the remarkably early age of 13, he was enrolled at the new School of Design at Somerset House, London. The School at this time was concerned with the need to produce designers for industry.


As part of the course, Dresser also studied botany, specialising in 'art botany', and the two subjects had much in common. Dresser published three books on botany in the 1850's and applied for the chair in Botany at London University in 1860. If he had been offered this post, the world of design would probably have been very different.


Dresser had already been quite successful in selling wallpaper and carpet designs, and he abandoned all thoughts of an academic career, concentrating instead on establishing himself as a freelance designer. He quickly developed a style based on those of his early mentor, Owen Jones, who taught at the School of Design.


He was able to translate his knowledge of botany and the natural world into a radical new approach to functional and decorative design. Dresser's designs proved so successful that he was able to establish a business employing several other designers. His studio attracted contracts from a large number of firms, especially wallpaper, textile and carpet manufacturers.


Fit for the Purpose


Dresser was perhaps unique in his understanding of all the industrial processes he designed for. His articles on the 'Principles of Design', published in 'The Technical Educator' between 1870 to 1872, show the breadth of his knowledge.


He took the application of simple ornamentation in metalwork to new levels, being aware that it could serve a double function of beautifying an object and at the same time strengthening it.


He was always keen to raise the standard of workmanship but within the context of better design. All the items he designed had to be pleasing to the eye but also 'fit for the purpose' for which they were made. Abhorring bad design, exemplified by objects that didn't function well, Dresser put as much thought in to the pouring ability of a simple teapot as he did into the complex pattern of a textile.


Dresser prided himself in finding out about the latest industrial processes. He designed for many firms that were leaders in the application of new technologies of the day, such as the mass production of wallpaper and electroplating of metalware.


A Passion for Design


Ornament, shape, colour and function were all important to Dresser. He derived much inspiration from his early botanical studies, seeing perfection in the adaptations of nature. Dresser however, did not encourage direct copying from nature, but rather used it as inspiration for abstract forms.


In 1860 he was conferred Doctor of Philosophy by the University of Jena for his services to botanical science, and the following year elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London.

Dresser was keen to raise the awareness of design amongst the general population, stating "it is by bringing to the homes of the people, objects of art and beauty at a low price that more good is done in refining the middle and lower classes.." By embracing industrial manufacturing Dresser was able to fulfil this ambition. The industrialised society was also providing a rising market of people with money who needed 'guidance' on how to decorate and furnish their homes.


The number of designs produced by Dresser's studio must have been enormous, probably amounting to several thousand. The output of his contemporaries in the Arts & Crafts Movement, such as William Morris, was meagre by comparison.


He did his most radical designs in metalwork, but his re-working of Oriental styles in ceramics, and naturalistic forms of the Venetian glassmakers, also left a legacy of true innovation. Many of these pre-dated and informed the ideas of the Modernist movement of the 1920s that adopted his doctrine of 'Form follows Function'.


Cultural Influences


Dresser was influenced by what he considered good design from all over the world. Many of his designs show an appreciation for the legacy of the ancient world and he frequently studied the collections at the British Museum.


"I enjoy the power and vigour of Egyptian ornament, the
refinement of the Greek, the gorgeousness of the Alhambraic, the richness of the Persian and Indian, the simple honesty and boldness of the Gothic; but with the coarse Assyrian, the haughty Roman and the cold Renaissance, I have no kindred feeling, no sympathy."


He was particularly inspired by Oriental art and manufactures and jumped at the chance to visit Japan in 1876 where he stayed for over three months. Commissioned by the London import firm of Londos, Dresser toured the country visiting scores of potteries and other manufacturers. He was particularly impressed by the pride that Japanese makers took in their craft.


His visit seems to have dramatically changed his outlook. Even though Japanese designs were well known to Dresser before his visit, his return to Britain coincided with an outpouring of remarkable new designs for silver ware, pottery and glass during this period. Linthorpe Pottery was part of this post-Japan revelation and he instructed that the painting room should be adorned with Japanese silk hangings for inspiration.


Unfortunately Dresser was so far ahead of his time that the buying public needed time to come to terms with what he was trying to achieve and some of these items were far from being an immediate commercial success.


Success to Failure and Back


Dresser 's enthusiasm for new ventures, his incredible workrate and perhaps a lack of commercial flair almost led to his financial ruin.


In 1879, he set up a business in London with his friend Charles Holme, importing Oriental and Indian items for wholesale. In 1878/9 he helped John Harrison set up the Linthorpe Pottery in Middlesbrough and in 1880 was appointed art editor for the journal - Furniture Gazette.


At this time, Dresser was also a founder of the Art Furnishers' Alliance, an association of art manufacturers with premises on London's prestigious New Bond Street. This shop contained everything required for 'the complete artistic furnishing of a house'.


The pace of work probably caused Dresser's recorded ill-health at this time. The downturn in the national economy led to the demise of the Holmes partnership in 1882 and to Dresser selling his imposing house in the same year. In 1883 the Art Furnishers Alliance also ceased trading. These must have been serious blows to a man of Dresser's standing.


Arthur Liberty, a friend of Dresser, will have known of his plight. He commissioned Dresser to provide designs to the manufacturers supplying his London store. Many of these designs became extremely popular reviving Dresser's fortunes and restoring his spirit. In 1888, Liberty commissioned Dresser to design a remarkable range of glass, called Clutha, now highly collectable.


Untimley Death and his Legacy


By 1889, Dresser seems to have recovered much of his wealth and status. Although more time was spent relaxing, he was still signing new contracts, specifically in 1893 with William Ault for ceramic designs for his new pottery. This was to be Dresser's last real experimentation with new design, producing a number of unusual and innovative grotesque forms.


Dresser died of a heart attack in November 1904, on a trip to Mulhouse in France where he was visiting a local wallpaper manufacturer. He was buried there in an unmarked grave. His designs however 'live on' and continue to inspire.


Quotes About Dr Christopher Dresser


Nikolaus Pevsner 1936:

"One has only to follow the weird curve of the handle with its pre-Art Nouveau rhythm opposed to the firm roundness of body and neck and the queer angularity of the spout to
convince oneself of the exceptional character of Dresser's art."


Mervyn Levy 1986:

"...as early as 1879, the remarkable designer Dr. Christopher Dresser anticipated the nature of Cubism – and Purism – in much of his work (for Dixons) ..To my knowledge, no history of Cubism has ever made reference to the work of Dr. Dresser and its clear relationship to the new aesthetic vision.."


Michael Whiteway 1993:

"When his work was re-discovered…(by Pevsner)..it seemed so outlandish in the context of the conventional idea of
Victorian taste that it was assumed very few pieces had been made in any quantity. Modern research has completely
reversed this judgement."


Harry Lyons 1999:

"Quite simply, I believe that Dresser did more to ensure an
awareness of design in the objects.. (we) use in our daily lives than anyone else."

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