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
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 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
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.
Tags: arts and crafts, community, East London in Flux, regeneration, William Morris