Tag Archives: arts and crafts

The Legacy of William Morris (East London in Flux V)

This blog was contributed by Elisa Engel, Architect and Director of ehk! (engelhadleykirk limited). ehk! publishes a regular blog on its website. Click here to read.

William Morris Gallery. Credit: Nick Bishop, Overview

William Morris Gallery. Credit: Nick Bishop, Overview

East London in Flux, an event series organised by Fundamental Architectural Inclusion and Birkbeck, met at the William Morris Gallery on Wednesday 18 June, for the third event in the series. A fascinating guided tour of the collection was followed by tea, cake and debate in the museum’s café.

The William Morris Gallery, at Morris’s former home in Walthamstow, houses an exhibition on the designer, poet and socialist’s life and achievements, alongside changing exhibitions. The museum was remodelled in 2012, coinciding with the Olympics, and has since gone from strength to strength, winning the prestigious Museum of the Year award in 2013.

William Morris (1834-1896) is most famous for his involvement with the arts and crafts movement. By all accounts, throughout his life he battled with two sometimes conflicting ideals.

The Ideal Book room at the William Morris Gallery. © William Morris Gallery

The Ideal Book room at the William Morris Gallery. © William Morris Gallery

The first ideal, that of beauty, diverted him from the career in the clergy that he had been destined for. It led him to study art and develop an almost obsessive interest in the details of craft. William Morris was not content to design objects and work with craftsmen in delivering his vision. He insisted on becoming a master in every discipline he touched – to know all there was to know about dyeing fabrics and printing patterns, of weaving tapestries and printing books. It seems almost unimaginable how one person would fit his level of accomplishment, combined with his vast output in different disciplines, into one lifetime.

The second ideal, that of social justice, led him to stand at the street corners of London’s East End, overcoming his fear of public speaking, to rail against inequality and poor working conditions. In his workshops, he offered decent pay and development opportunities for his employees.

William Morris aimed to make his products available to the wider population – he famously said: ‘I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.’

However, this is where his two ideals seemed to collide. Given the meticulous craft that went into producing his company’s artefacts, they would always remain out of the financial grasp of the “common person”. He tried to counteract this by offering a range of objects large and small, to ensure that the moderately wealthy would be in a position to afford at least more minor items that embodied his aesthetics. Commissions for his company, however, came largely from wealthy clients for their refined country homes.

Following the tour of the gallery, the group sat down to discuss how William Morris would have viewed today’s world, and more specifically the changes that East London is experiencing right now. Many of his concerns appear to be surprisingly contemporary – most notably, growing income inequality and the struggle to combine quality design with ethical considerations about methods of production at prices that make objects affordable to every sector of society. A question that sparked much debate was: what would William Morris have made of Ikea and its planned housing development in the Lea Valley?

Black Horse Workshop

© Black Horse Workshop

One development he would have surely approved of is the recent emergence of shared craft spaces in London. Black Horse Workshop in Walthamstow, an easy walk away from the William Morris Gallery, is one such workshop that offers open access to a fully equipped wood and metal workshop for people wanting to reconnect with the making of things.

One can also easily hazard a guess at what he would have made of the sales pitch that the company that still bears his name employs on its website: “The original William Morris and Co: The luxury of taste”…

The East London in Flux evening at the William Morris gallery very much chimed with another event, held at the London School of Economics and organised by the Royal College of Art, the following night. This was a panel discussion featuring Alex de Rijke (of dRMM architects),  Oliver Wainwright (architecture critic at the Guardian) and Katie Lloyd-Thomas of Newcastle University under the title Kapital Architecture: Commodity.  The panel discussed how the role of the designer has changed. Increasingly, architects specify proprietary systems, and merely design the interface between them. This is just one example of how architects are complicit in reducing and narrowing their role in the construction process (while simultaneously aiming to widen their role into other areas, such as social policy). In this way, they are moving further and further away from Morris’s ideal of someone who is intimately involved in the making of things. Not everyone is following this trend, but it is only logical that there is a certain economy to working with proprietary systems instead of bespoke solutions.

But maybe this is not as much of a contradiction as it may at first appear – proprietary systems are not a natural resource, they are designed just as much as a wallpaper by William Morris is. Maybe what needs to happen in order to reconcile William Morris’s two ideals is for those involved in the design of our homes and cities on a larger scale to work much more closely with those behind the designs of the components that make up their physical fabric – and in this way once again to create objects and buildings that are designed in a much more holistic way.

At this year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice, the 14th International Architecture Exhibition is looking at the evolution of building components from bespoke architectural solutions to manufactured components.  As its curator, Rem Koolhaas,  says: “There are whole sections of my buildings that I have no control over. I simply don’t know what goes into the soffits of my buildings!”

It appears that it is not just us here in East London that people are pondering these questions – East London in Flux is dealing with very topical issues that are being discussed at a global level, forming part of a much wider debate.

East London in Flux continues on 16 July.


Guided tour of the William Morris Gallery and discussion with local east London arts organisations (East London in Flux IV)

Session 3. Wednesday 18 June, 6pm-9pm

This post was contributed by Nick Edwards, an Architectural Educator and Co-founder of Fundamental Architectural Inclusion


Strawberry Thief printed textile designed by William Morris. (Identification from Linda Parry, William Morris Textiles, New York, Viking Press, 1983, p155)

After an informative guided tour of the William Morris Gallery we retired to the tea room for refreshments and some great conversations around a very loose topic: “What would William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement – with their commitment to social change via art, have made of the rapidly changing East London and its current wave of arts-led regeneration projects?”.

Group discussions covered East London’s rapid regeneration and how the arts and artists seem to be – perhaps rather unwittingly – part of the process of change. We talked about all sorts of issues and ideas, including the sudden new wave of Open Workshops in East London and how these seem to be funded by through regeneration such as the Mayor of London’s Outer London Fund, London Legacy Development Corporation and sometimes even developers.

Black Horse Work Shop in Walthmanstow

Black Horse Work Shop in Walthmanstow

We also debated the long-term phenomenon of the gradual drift Eastwards of artists, often to run-down short-term studio spaces in ex-industrial areas and now out into much wider surrounding neighbourhoods. Grayson Perry rather succinctly captured this pioneering in his R4 Reith Lecture “If you think of artists, we’re like the shock troops of gentrification…“ going on to say that he thought developers should pay artists to do their work for them!

The participants, a broad range of local people and representatives from arts organisations and the Gallery, threw these issues around the houses and gallery so to speak, ending up with the scourge of house prices again which seems to be a recurring theme at our sessions! There was a bit of a sense that although regeneration and beautification of areas can be beneficial, it also pushes prices up and out of the reach of many people who live and work in East London and that this has a knock on effect on older children becoming independent and on the wider community as a whole. Some people also felt that some of the new creative spaces were far too expensive and not really aimed at local people.

Having drawn somewhat of a blank with these big issues and as to whether there is a present day William Morris we all tried hard to think of solutions and good examples of arts and regeneration projects that had somehow overcome these economic and top down sometimes prescriptive pressures. Were there any examples where the ideas had genuinely come from within the community?

A few of the participants, including Anna Mason and Ines Pina from the Gallery had been to the Mill and spoke very highly of its community-led ethos. Perhaps this type of model is the way forward? Unfortunately Mo Gallaccio from the Mill was unable to join us but we look forward to visiting and learning more about this model in the future. Another very effective grass-roots initiative is Up Your Street, which has the simple but ambitious goal of getting local people out to all the free events offered across the Olympic boroughs. We have Up Your Street to thank for steering many long-term East London residents to our East London in Flux events, where they have made invaluable contributions to our discussions and debates.

East London In Flux is a partnership between Fundamental Architectural Inclusion and Birkbeck.

Further events in the East London in Flux series will be taking place throughout the summer. Tickets are free but places are limited so if you are interested in attending please reserve you place here.

The following are links to some of the other projects we considered  during our discussion: