Thursday, 5 May 2016

Learning about Surface Pattern Design from William Morris?

William Morris

William Morris was not only the 'leading light' of the Arts and Craft movement, that sought to promote a return to handicrafts, as opposed to machine-made goods, in the late 19th Century. 

He was probably one of the greatest surface pattern designers (amongst other things!) of all time! And those of us who make patterns for home furnishings and wallpaper can learn a lot from the study of his work!

William Morris is probably best known for his wallpaper and household fabric designs. But he was skilled in many crafts, such as weaving, embroidery and stained glass. 

You can read a full account of his life and accomplishments -


Unlike Laura Ashley, William Morris was a skilled draughtsman, as you can see from these detailed working drawings for his 'Bluebell' design. 

William Morris working drawings

Also, unlike Laura Ashley, Morris's pattern designs were intended for use in the home, rather than for fashion textiles.

But there is a similarity! Like Laura Ashley's, William Morris's design theories were firmly rooted in his beliefs and attitudes to life. 

He was horrified by the poor quality and design of the products of mass industrialisation. And his ardently socialist views led him to want to make 'art' for everyone, not just for those born into wealth, like himself.

"I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few." William Morris.

This earlier blog post, by the way, explains a large part of the reason that I still like to create Greeting Cards! 

Morris had some very strong views about design and because he wrote about his views as well as giving lectures, it's not too difficult to gain some insights into his guiding principles and the way he worked. 

I'm sure that most of us, hearing or reading the words, 'William Morris' will immediately think of his floral patterns for wallpapers and curtains, many of which are still available and popular today. 

In the 1970s I decorated a bay-windowed bedroom in our Victorian house in Sevenoaks with William Morris wallpaper and matching curtains, available at that time from Sandersons. The room was not as big as I would have liked and the matching curtains and walls made it appear quite a bit larger.

Then, in the late 1980s, our Edwardian Norwich home had William Morris wallpaper in the hall, stairs, landing and cloakroom - by this time, bought from habitat, as far as I remember! 

And a different Morris pattern for the curtains of a small and cosy living room. Wisely, the new owners of the house asked to keep the curtains when we moved out! 

But I took the beautiful Laura Ashley lace curtains (on the left) with me and finally had to replace them with something much inferior a couple of years ago because, having provided nearly 25 years good service, they were about to fall to pieces!

Now I just have a couple of cushions and a tablecloth with William Morris designs that have been re-coloured at a later date - and a set of Garden Hand Tools from the V & A! (Far too pretty to use!)

What these all have in common is that they are floral patterns. 
I don't think I've ever seen a William Morris design that isn't about flowers or fruit! I think it's very strange that we tend to shy away from using floral patterns or designs for men, as I pointed out in an earlier blog post - HERE! 

William Morris loved Nature and saw it as the antidote to the effects of industrialisation. 

I have an old book about William Morris, written by Ray Watkinson in the 1960s and it contains some Morris quotes about Nature, such as:

"The fields are all butter-cuppy. The elms are mostly green up to their tops; the hawthorn not out, but the crabs beautiful, and also that white-beam (I think they call it) with the umbelliferous flowers. In the garden we have lots of tulips out looking beautiful; the white bluebells and some blue ones; some of the anemones are in blossom and they all soon will be; they are very lovely. Apple blossom for the most part only in bud, but that cherry tree near that arbour opposite my window is a mass of bloom. The heartseases are beautiful; a few of the Iceland poppies are out; the raspberries are showing for blossom." William Morris

I think he must have written this at about this time of year, early May!

Interestingly, the author of my book, describes William Morris's intentions when it comes to his home furnishings in a way that certainly resonates with me.

"Although for him repose is an essential quality which the designer should pursue, this does not mean that designs should be blank and static; rather that they should give us something of the relaxed pleasure of a garden. A wallpaper should be able to turn a room into a bower, a refuge, without insisting on its presence in a room with us." Ray Watkinon

Later, the American architect/designer, Frank Lloyd Wright, also believed it was important for our well-being to 'bring nature inside', though his methods were very different. Here's another blog post I came across about the therapeutic properties of 'bringing the outside in'!

And I can wholeheartedly agree with this. You may have noticed that when in doubt, I design florals for the home!

But at the same time, William Morris didn't believe in letting Nature run riot in his designs. 

Another passage from my book:

"Entirely at one with his contemporaries in his recognition of the part played by geometric order, Morris required a design to play on the imagination for him, therefore there must always be some image." Ray Watkinson

So - Morris's patterns are representations of Nature but they are also based on some kind of geometric grid or structure, and I think it is largely this which has made his surface patterns so successful and timeless. Here, in this pattern, named 'Lodden', you can clearly see the traditional 'ogee-shaped' grid on which the pattern is constructed.

Lodden by William Morris

Nature, Geometry and one more 'ingredient' is ever-present in William Morris designs - Depth.

Arbutus by William Morris

"Wallpapers, he says in his lecture on Pattern Designing, must operate within a little depth. There must be a slight illusion - not as to the forms of the motif, but as to relative depth. And quite consistently we find in his patterns that one element is developed and spread like a net over another, with differences of scale and weight as to parts, so that we are always aware of a major pattern playing over a minor one." Ray Watkinson.

Daisy by William Morris

This third point is something that Morris developed over time but even in his earliest known wallpaper design, Daisy, he did not leave the background plain but added texture that immediately gives depth.

It looks to me as if he was influenced by his work in textiles - weaving and embroidery - but that's just my theory.

So there we have three important points to bear in mind when designing for home furnishing fabrics and wallpapers:

  • Bring Nature inside in a way that is restful to the eye.

  • Organise your patterns on a geometric grid.

  • Add depth by overlaying your main pattern on a secondary pattern.

I wish I had been taught these things on the Surface Pattern course I did three years ago, instead of having to do my own research more recently. 

Not that I would have wanted to try to imitate William Morris, of course! But these are three worthwhile principles to bear in mind when designing patterns for the home, even though we are bound to interpret them to fit our own style. Quite by chance, I think my 'Morning Glory' pattern has incorporated these three 'rules' to some extent, at least in the main pattern, which is based on an 'ogee' layout. 

Here are the fabrics I've designed for the collection, each of them coordinating with the main pattern, as you can see from the Faux Patchwork!

You can find more Morning Glory fabrics here:

The Morning Glory is the September Birth Month flower. 
So you might like to make someone's September birthday that little bit extra-special by choosing a greeting card or gift with Morning Glories!

Click on the image below to see the full collection -

I very much hope that any pattern designers reading this will have learnt something helpful. 

But I'm sure that anyone, designer or not, will have found something to interest them in this brief look at some of the theories behind the pattern designs of one of world's greatest surface pattern designers!