ne of the most innovative and radical designers of the Victorian age was Christopher Dresser. "Dresser stressed the importance of function, simplicity and mechanical skill" (Halen 9) while creating his elegant pieces. Dresser's concern for creating functional art work set him apart from other Victorian artists. Most of his work, characterized by basic geometric shapes and clean, uncomplicated designs, are remarkably simplistic in comparison to elaborate pieces typical of the time.
Not constraining himself to a few artistic routes, Dresser worked with a wide variety of materials and experimented with several different styles. Furthermore, he took a bold step that his many of his contemporaries refused to take: he took full advantage of the modern industrial production methods available to create his pieces.
With his urge to experiment, Dresser created some of the most unique pieces during the Victorian era. The originality of his designs was so ground-breaking that some of his pieces today could fit into the decor of a modern-styled home with ease.
Dresser, Botanist to Designer
Dresser was born in Glasgow on July 4, 1834. An intelligent young man, Dresser studied at Government School of Design at Somerset House at the age of thirteen. There he studied botany and design. He followed a traditional method of study for the development of this latter interest. Young Dresser decided to focus on botany, receiving his doctorate in the subject from the University of Jena. However, Dresser decided to become a designer, and he set up his own studio. He designed for more than 50 manufacturers in his career, most notably Wedgwood, Minton and Coalbrookdale (VAM). In 1880, Dresser started a retail business, The Art Furnishers Alliance, where he sold his items (Victorian Web)
Thus began the artist's prolific career. Dresser published several literary works about art and design. His first book, The Art of Decorative Design, was published in 1862 (Victorian Web). Throughout his career, Dresser would write about design. It is, however, his artistic creations that elevated him as an important figure in the art world.
Dresser died on November 24, 1904 in France (Victorian Web).
Ceramics and Pottery
Tall Split Handle Jug by Christopher Dresser
Carafe by Christopher Dresser
From 1876 to 1877, Dresser visited Japan. He was greatly influenced by the simplicity and elegance of Japanese design. (VAM) Dresser's ceramic work exhibit a strong Japanese flavor in particular, as can be seen in one of his vases (located at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art) and a carafe (see above).
Dresser once said that pottery "should be perfectly adapted to meet all requirements of the work to which it was assigned, and that in the easiest and most simple manner" (Halen 119). Does Dresser achieve his goals in these examples? If so, in what ways do these pieces fulfill his intentions?
Dresser also worked extensively with glass. Again, Dresser focused on functionality when creating his glassware. Concerning the art of glass blowing, Dresser said "if a material is worked in its most simple and befitting manner, the results obtained are more beautiful than those which are arrived at by any roundabout method of production" (Victorian Web). He also viewed usefulness of his glassware in a different respect: he utilized the loveliness of glass to beautify the home. (Halen 191)
Among many items, Dresser created vases from glass. Looking at these two vases from the ictoria and Albert Museum (http://www.vam.ac.uk/vastatic/microsites/1324_dresser/enlargedobjects/jamescouper2.html) and another vase (http://www.vam.ac.uk/vastatic/microsites/1324_dresser/enlargedobjects/jamescouper1.html), how would these pieces enhance a typical Victorian home? What influences, from Dresser's background as a student and explorer of different cultures, are present in his glasswork? In what ways does Dresser make these pieces uniquely his own?
Perhaps Dresser's most revolutionary art was his metalwork (Victorian Web). His metal pieces are composed in the most basic geometric forms, but his style is far from impersonal industrial design -- it "is more organic and reflects his studies of plant and animal forms" (Halen 145). His work is astoundingly sleek and clean-cut. Again, Dresser's admiration of Japanese design is reflected in his pieces, particularly with the oval shape of his teapots, the straight handle, and Japanesque decorative engravings. Dresser worked extensively in silver and experimented with different methods when manipulating the material (Halen 145).
Dresser's metalwork is striking in appearance, and his pieces, such as his teapots and other creations bottle stand and toast rack look so modern that it is hard to believe they were created in the Victorian period. What aspect(s) of Victorian (material) culture might Dresser be protesting by creating such pieces?
Not surprisingly, Dresser did not limit himself to three-dimensional design. He also worked extensively in textile design. Dresser felt strongly about interior design, and he "strove to raise interior decoration and furnishing to the status of fine art" (Halen 78). Again, the concern for usefulness of his art took top priority in Dresser's textiles. He felt that interior design was functional because it beautified the home, making occupants happier and more comfortable (Halen 80).
Dresser wished to achieve the feelings "cosiness, or snugness" within the home (Halen 80). How therefore do his textiles (http://www.vam.ac.uk/vastatic/microsites/1324_dresser/enlargedobjects/wallpapertextiles1.html and http://www.vam.ac.uk/vastatic/microsites/1324_dresser/enlargedobjects/wallpapertextiles2.html) achieve this feeling? Although Dresser's interior designs appear more complex than his three dimensional pieces, in what ways are they similar? Does Dresser promote his inclination for simplicity through his textiles?
Dresser was an innovative genius in Victorian design, which he revolutionized Victorian thought by steering material culture toward elegant simplification. His designs in everything from teapots to wallpaper helped bring about the contemporary movement for improved functionality and straightforward style still alive today.
Halen, Widar. Christopher Dresser: A Pioneer of Modern Design. London: Pahidon Press, 1993.
Materials on Christopher Dresser from the Victorian Web.
Materials on Christopher Dresser from the Victoria and Albert Museum website (VAM).
Image from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art website.
The Fine Art Society Story. Part I. London: The Fine Art Society, 2001. Catalogue Number 36.
Last modified 20 November 2004