Christopher Dresser: Design into Industry
On the 24th of November 1904, Christopher Dresser died in Mulhouse, eastern France. Unlike visual artists, designers leave a more palpable impression on our daily lives and yet, quite often, many of their discoveries fail to be attributed to them as the products they create get absorbed into the commercial circuit. Their ‘signature’ is lost in mass-manufacturing and, in time, their products evolve and are modernised, so that most of their work goes unidentified. Victorian designer Christopher Dresser was one of the important creative minds who helped shape our future lifestyle.
Born to Yorkshire parents in Glasgow, Scotland, he became the first independent industrial designer, promoter of the Aesthetic Movement in England and a major contributor to the allied Anglo-Japanese or Modern English style. Well-travelled, well-read and imaginative, his career was punctuated by consistent successes. The era in which he worked was marked by The Great Exhibition of 1851, the first World’s Fair, which introduced to the public the greatest innovations of the century. Its focal point was Crystal Palace, the unusually modern looking construction made of modular glass and iron framework, condemned by the conservative critic John Ruskin as the epitome of mechanical dehumanisation in design, but which later became the symbol of innovation in architecture.
For Dresser, a direct beneficiary of the Industrial Revolution, this was the perfect time for breathing new life into design – he became extremely prolific in various media such as textile, metalwork, pottery, ceramics, glass, furniture, wallpaper which were mostly inspired by botanical and exotic influences, especially Japanese. Dresser was distinguished from his contemporaries through his design for mass production. “He was in effect the inventor of the modern profession of product designer, radical in its time and still relevant today. (…) One of Dresser’s great strengths as a designer was his ability to understand the properties of materials and the processes of production and to adapt his designs and ideas on aesthetics to them” (Michael Whiteway, Christopher Dresser: A Design Revolution, 2004). Whilst his contemporary William Morris worked in a bespoke fashion, creating handmade craftwork available to a wealthy elite, Dresser’s work did not consist of unique pieces tailored for individual tastes, but of streamlined, modern-looking reproductions, accessible to the masses.
Dresser had an acute feel for three-dimensionality and seemed to have been able to project his prototypes mentally into their finished form without actually using a hands-on approach – allegedly, a series of assistants carried out such work for him. He had the ability to reinvent historical styles into a new, fashionable form attractive to his contemporaries. His talent did not lay in conjuring up new ergonomic shapes, or dealing with technical issues such as electrics, but at manipulating form and surface pattern to achieve commercial gain for the manufacturers who contracted him. The best known examples are perhaps his mass-produced appliances such as the shiny, silver electroplate teapots dating from 1878-80, some 40 years before the emergence of modernist Bauhaus geometry.
Dresser was a very theoretical person, merging his knowledge of botany, history and aesthetics in extensive intellectual research, which he flaunted internationally at conferences and lectures. Ken Tadashi Oshima noted that, “He took his aesthetic clues from a serious study of plant morphology, and from a vast array of different cultures including India, Persia, Peru, China and especially Japan.” (The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 146, No. 1215, Decorative Arts, Jun., 2004).
In many ways, the designer was as valid to his contemporaries in the principles he adhered to, as he would be to our contemporaries. In an era of rigorous Victorian values, “Dresser’s orientalist botanical evangelism, with its emphasis on rationality applied in all spheres, is not far away from today’s fashionable obsessions with sustainability, usability and interaction, all theories which serve to legitimize today’s consumer products.” (review by Paul Denison in Journal of Design History, Vol. 18, No. 4, Winter, 2005).