“Unity in Variety, Christopher Dresser, Pioneer of Modern Design 1834-1904” by Matthew Winterbottom.

Christopher Dresser was celebrated during his lifetime as one of the great pioneers of modern industrial design, straddling ceramics, textiles, furniture, metal ware and interior design.  In fact everything needed within the modern home of the late 19th century.

Born in Glasgow in 1834 into a lower middle class family he won a place at the Government School of Design in London aged only 13 years. These schools were set up to encourage young talent to become designers in the booming British manufacturing industries.  Here he was taught by some of the most influential designs of the time, including Owen Jones who became his mentor.  It was from Owen that he forged the idea that “all ornament should be based upon geometrical construction.”   He was particularly interested in botany, breaking down plants to their constituents.  Indeed he was a contender for the Chair of Botany at UCL in 1860.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 provided the 17yr old Dresser a great platform to exhibit his imaginative modern designs and Matthew drew a comparison with William Morris, who, born in the same year, but having been born into a much more wealthy family was at Oxford reading classics.  Dresser’s reputation was constantly growing and in 1859 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Jena in Germany.  By this time he was publishing on decorative and ornamental art and set up as a freelance designer he worked for over 50 companies focusing on the mass market for the rapidly growing middle classes: affordable but not always cheap.  His designs included textiles for Liberty, carpets for Crossley, wallpapers for Sanderson and ceramics for both Wedgewood and Minton.

He became increasingly interested in Japanese and other Eastern designs following exposure at the London International Exhibition of 1861 and the influences were seen in the examples shown.  In 1876 he was commissioned by the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) to tour Japan and he returned with a collection for the museum as well as procuring some 6,000 items for Tiffany in New York.  What he saw in Japan led to him setting up the Linthorpe Art Pottery in Middlesborough in 1870 with John Harrison who owned the local brickworks. With Henry Tooth as artist/manager they produced over 1,000 shapes and designs utilising the new new gas fired kilns to experiment with unusual colours, shapes and ‘flowing glazes’.  While these unique styles were very popular the business closed after 19years, however Ault Pottery bought the moulds and continued to produce Dresser’s designs.

His next venture was the Art Furnisher’s Alliance in Bond Street showcasing his more expensive furniture and products however it only survived for three years.  Nevertheless he continued to design and write until his death in 1904, but his fame had faded.  Indeed all his paperwork relating to his work was destroyed by his daughters who did not appreciate the significance of his influence.  He was virtually forgotten until Sir Nikolas Pevsner rekindled scholarly interest in his contemporary designs that look as modern today as they did 150 years ago.

A testimony to his talent is that a Dresser electroplated teapot sold for £94,850 in 2004.

The talk was illustrated with many pictures of Dresser’s work and particularly the grotesques and motifs he included in some of the ceramic designs showing his sense of humour.   An extremely interesting and informative talk on a major influence on design and it was much appreciated by the attendees.