William Morris was a 19th-century socialist, textile designer, writer and speaker. During his career as a public intellectual he wrote and spoke at great length on the destruction of artisanal production in the age of the machine.
Morris had similar ideas to us here at Modern Folk: he was railing against a pattern that has continued since. He hated mass production, uniformity and dull, smooth, architecture and objects. He saw the beautiful hand-made objects disappearing from the world around him and he objected.
The decorative arts, Morris believed, were important. He valued a time – before factories – when household items were decorated in order to be beautiful, not just to help them retail at a higher price. Morris argued that, historically, every item produced for the home was embellished with carvings and artwork to make the space more pleasant to live in. Artisanal beauty would have existed in every home – every artisan was an artist.
Every historic craftsman cared about every item he made, and his pleasure and pride was evident in the decor on every chair, barrel, spade or plate that he made. These beautiful items are now considered "folk art", and many of the most intriguing pieces in our store were decorated for this purpose: to be pleasant to have in the home, to be used and to be enjoyed.
Morris believed - and so do we - that the disappearance of beautiful items from the average home is a real loss. He wrote, in an essay called 'Gothic Architecture', about how utilitarian buildings are dull, whereas the big, grand, cathedrals produced hundreds of years ago are charming because of their intricate detail, and how irregular they are. The Gothic revivalism of his own century (the 19th) was much less charming to him because it didn’t look or feel like something organically created by a town of craftsmen. Next time you take the Eurostar, compare the Notre Dame de Paris with St Pancras to see exactly what he meant. Neo-Gothic sculpture looks identical, every stained glass window matches. Original Gothic architecture was created, visibly, by many individuals, it was not a Lego-style mass production where everything neatly slotted together.
Morris made an aggressive point about his fear that all embellishment, all Art and all arts, would eventually disappear from society if life continued getting more mechanised. If household objects stop being beautiful, next we stop constructing pleasant buildings, then the interior design of homes gets less exciting, then the words that describe things lose their sheen, then music becomes irrelevant, then poetry, then paintings, then society itself, for what is the difference between an ants' nest and a city without culture?
As beauty becomes depreciated, the world risks losing everything that makes humans more elevated than insects. There is some truth in this - think about how many people you know who dress in ugly but practical clothes or have used the same cheap cutlery for decades. Isn't it sad that we don’t care about how beautiful the things we use every day are? Wouldn’t life be nicer if our kitchen table was as pleasing to the eye as an Old Master painting?
William Morris believed that we would all be happier and more fulfilled if we lived surrounded by beautiful, hand-made objects. And so does Modern Folk – click through to our Online Store and fill your home with gorgeous works of decorative art.
A longer and more political version of this essay was originally posted on The Triumph of the Now.