From the June/July 2014 Issue:

Art & Antiques: Modern Ornament

    By: Leslie Gilbert Elman |

Christopher Dresser was a nineteenth-century designer with modern vision

Article Photo
enlarge | Produced by Minton France around 1867, this Modern Ornament vase shows Dresser’s ability to blend artistic inspiration from several sources into something stylish and original. The shape and some motifs come from Islamic designs. Other motifs derive from botanical and even ancient Egyptian sources. This vase is offered by New York antiques dealer Jason Jacques. Courtesy of Jason Jacques
H. Blairman & Sons Ltd., a London-based specialist in nineteenth-century English furniture and decorative arts, is one dealer I make sure to visit at TEFAF, the annual European Fine Art and Antiques Fair held every March in Maastricht, the Netherlands. There’s always something in the booth that I covet but could only dream of owning. At this year’s fair, it was a teapot designed by Christopher Dresser. Although I didn’t go home with the teapot, I did go home with renewed admiration for its designer. If Christopher Dresser had his way, I would have owned one of his teapots, and many more of his home furnishings besides.

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, on July 4, 1834, Dresser was a contemporary of William Morris, who led the Arts & Crafts design movement. Their design aesthetics were similar; they both promoted simplicity of style in decorative arts.

They also supported the notion that objects should be both useful and beautiful. As Dresser wrote in his 1873 book Principles of Decorative Design:

“...that which is useful is often ugly, and that which is beautiful is often inconvenient to use. This very fact has given rise to the highly absurd fashion of having a second poker in a drawing-room set of fire-irons. The one poker is ornamental, possibly, but it is to be looked at; the other is for use, and as it is not to be looked at, it is hidden away in some corner, or close within the fender. I do not wonder at the second poker being required; for nineteen out of every twenty pokers of an ornamental character which I have seen during the last few years would hurt the hand so insufferably if they were used to break a lump of coal with, that it would be almost impossible to employ them constantly for such a purpose.”

Where Christopher Dresser differed from William Morris was in his attitude toward industrial manufacturing. Morris despised it, believing that it removed the human element from the decorative arts. Dresser, on the other hand, embraced the rise of commercial manufacturing in the nineteenth century. He saw it as an opportunity to provide middle-class people with beautifully designed yet affordable furnishings for the home.

Article Photo
enlarge | Teapot No. 2275 was a Dresser design for the English firm of James Dixon & Sons sometime around 1879. Made of electroplated nickel silver with an ebony handle, the design never went into full production, so examples of it are rare and valuable. There’s one in the National Museum of Scotland. H. Blairman & Sons offered another one for sale at TEFAF this year. Courtesy of H. Blairman & Sons Ltd.
Design for Production
Christopher Dresser is regarded as the first true “industrial designer,” drafting designs for pieces that would be produced in a factory rather than in a craftsman’s workshop. He favored moderately priced materials such as electroplated nickel silver (a coating of silver over a sturdy base metal). Some of his metalware designs even deliberately exposed the rivets that held them together, proclaiming his commitment to the machine age.

Throughout his lifetime, Dresser’s design reach was enormous: ceramics for companies such as Wedgwood and Minton; cast iron garden furniture for Coalbrookdale; tableware for James Dixon & Sons; and wallpaper, carpet and textiles for a number of firms in England, Ireland, France and the United States. In 1880, he opened a store on New Bond Street in London to sell the wares he designed.

Artist, visionary and businessman, Dresser also held a doctorate in botany. The inherent geometry in the structure of plants and flowers appealed to him. Defined lines and shapes characterize his designs as well, making them appear contemporary, even though they were conceived some 150 years ago.

So maybe it’s not a coincidence that some of Dresser’s most recognizable teapots and tableware have a scientific quality. For the methodical and mathematically inclined thinker, Christopher Dresser is a kindred spirit. “A principle of order must prevail in every ornamental composition,” he wrote. “Confusion is the result of accident, while order results from thought and care.”

Article Photo
enlarge | Designed to hold toast at the breakfast table or letters in the study, this rack was produced in 1881 by Hukin & Heath in Birmingham, England. Simple components and exposed rivets celebrate the fact it was machine-made and intended for sale to middle-class consumers. This Dresser design is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Influences Everywhere
Dresser was a dedicated museum-goer, drawing inspiration from every place and time period. “Visit the Indian Museum at Whitehall, and consider the beautiful Indian shawls and scarves and table-covers,” he wrote. “...observe the manner in which small portions of intense reds, blues, yellows, greens, and a score of tertiary tints, are combined with white and black and gold to produce a very miracle of bloom. I know of nothing in the way of colour combination so rich, so beautiful, so gorgeous, and yet so soft, as some of these Indian shawls...”

Japanese design was another strong influence on his aesthetic. He visited Japan in 1876, stopping first in the United States to attend the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and to lecture at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art.

Practical, versatile and broad-minded, Dresser built a veritable design empire in his lifetime. Today, you’ll see objects he designed in museums around the world, which might make him proud. They come up for sale by reputable antiques dealers and at auction. And the Italian design company Alessi still produces authorized reproductions of Dresser’s designs, making them available to the ordinary consumer, which might have made Dresser very happy.

Leslie Gilbert Elman is the author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous and Totally Off the Wall Facts. She writes about antiques and other subjects for Design NJ.