Strange Harvest
Architecture / Design / Art
StrangeHarvest is written and collated by Sam Jacob.

Christopher Dresser at the V&A


Unless you're a junkie, an aristocrat (or both), what you sentimentally think of as your home is furnished with products of complex industrial production.

Before the Industrial Revolution objects were either roughly moulded out of mud or beautiful, bejewelled glittering and almost priceless. Though consumer products seem as natural to us as sunsets, they were only invented about 150 years ago. Part of the Victorian era which transformed the world so fast they had to invent science fiction to make sense of it.

The most radical of Victorian inventions was the middle classes: A new kind of people with new politics doing new kinds of jobs with a new kind of money - money that had been earnt not inherited. This new money meant a new way of living. Self-reliant and more socially mobile they lived in a new kind of place they called the suburbs.

The middle class felt a sensation of individuality which manifested itself with a desire to express their new wealth, status and power. Which is where the designer product comes in. There was a sudden need for many THINGS. But things needed to be given form, which meant a new kind of designer.

The V and A bill Christopher Dresser as the first Industrial Designer. Born in the same year as William Morris, he studied at the Government School of Design. His early acclaim though was through botanical research, scientifically studying the growth of plants. Turning to design, his products exploited modern industrial production methods and materials for companies including Wedgwood, Minton and Coalbrookdale. Drawing together some of the 50 or so firms he'd worked for, he set up a shop - The Art Furnishers Alliance, which advertised itself as providing 'whatever is necessary to the complete artistic furnishings of a house', everything selected by Dressers tasteful eye.

Dressers role included designer, art director, entrepreneur, importer, retailer, promoter. His own description is quaint but precise: Ornamentalist.

The extreme experience of the 19th century polarised politics. The same kind of industrialisation and factory production that produced Dressers products horrified William Morris. For Morris, designer objects were really a kind of direct political action. A manifesto that happened to take the form of wallpaper and fabric: No Logo as Icanthus leaf pattern. The trailing fronds of Morris wallpaper suggest your immersion into a new agrarian utopia.

Dressers wallpaper and textile patterns are geometric and abstracted. Recalling his work as a botanist, they celebrate objectivity over romanticism. Floral designs which are about pattern making - loops of hypnotic cyclic rhythms -rather than evoking the natural.

As Paul Warwick Thompson points out in the forward of the exhibition catalogue, Morris' hand crafted design meant it was too expensive to to be popular. Dressers consumerist approach meant cheaper products and more sales. Radical chic, then as now, was the luxury of the wealthy.

Dressers designs are characterised by combinations of rustic, primitive or exotic combined with brand newness. Shapes that bulge, spiky angularity, cubes and spheres. Every time doing more than you could expect of an object. Dressers work seems to synthesis a bold moment - when the world opened up, when influence began to stream around the world. When the industrial revolution liberated designers from physically making things. And mass production democratised design - making it available to a much wider population. These unexpected juxtapositions find form in an almost-grotesque-eleganance. Chopped, truncated, extended, upside down, unfinished coupled with overt decoration. As though the dramatic changes in the world meant things just couldn't look like they used to.

Stickish chairs black and shiny like plastic, bulbous ceramics, cubist metalwork, glazing like abstract spills of graduated fill they are things which give off modern sensations - sensation that we would see again in the socialist/utopian bauhaus, the atomic 50s, the space age 60s. But also in the 20s pureist art, the existential voids of Rothko, and superflat colour of Pop art. Dressers forms still look fresh and direct.

The forms warp recognisable technique - or technique warps familiar form. All kinds of references are made but through the distorting lens of Victorian optimism. As though the forces that were changing the world so dramatically were also warping his objects. Like the moons gravity pulling the sea into tidal patterns.

There are the odd collapsed shapes for the Ault Pottery, somewhere between bottle and wilting plant. The coloured glassware for James Cooper and Sons which exploit materials soft state before they set into a freeze frame moment.

Patterns which using the skeletons of birds arranged like a freak accident of symmetry by the bins outside Kentucky Fried Chicken. Or palaeontology doing the Can Can.

The weird work for Linthorpe Pottery which allies rustic earthenware with bizarre distorted forms and bold glazes like a souped up primitivism.

The overly decorative neo-gothic wrought ironwork products which exploited the new materials strength to create a lace-like translucency. They refer to a historical style yet stretching the possibilities of new techniques.

Bizarre Siamese twin necked vase for Watcome. Odd mixtures of materials like terracotta with silver or gold.

And the most famous of his work - the space age electroplated tea sets for James Dixon and sons that still look as though they'd be more at home on a space ship than a parlour. The Platonic solids are stunning but they are really objects which revel in the effect of a material. The reflections reveal their surroundings in a Futurist vortex.

Like some other late Victorian designers, he's been claimed as a one of their own by Modernists. But really he's part of the eclectic futurist/rustic/internationalist Victorian school which spans from Ruskin to Lutyens via the futurism of HG Wells and the luddite historicism of William Morris. Work which revels in the possibilities of wonder and horror of new kinds of wealth, big engines and a shrinking world.

Posted by anothersam at September 13, 2004 9:57 PM.


More Scenes In Cartoon Deserta

Eiffel X-Rays

Beyond: Values and Symptoms

Sub Plan

Shenzhen: Window of the World

White Power

Generic Powerpoint Template: Delivering Bad News

Duplicate Array

The Best New Building In London

Book Review: The Infrastructural City

A Balloon in the Pantheon

Letters From The Pantheon

Henry Moore in Motion

On My Steel Horse I Ride

The Michael Jackson Monument Design Competition

Now Showing: John Baldessari Sings Sol LeWitt

Obscure Design Typologies: Life Guard Chairs

Osama bin Laden Cigarette Lighter: Novelty Products as Congealed Culture

Absurd Car Crashes: A Eulogy for J.G. Ballard

Candy Pistol

Now Showing: Dan Grahams 'Rock My Religion'

This Concrete 'O': On Serotonin, the M25, and the Motorik Picturesque

Church of the Literal Narrative

Philadelphias Floating Architecture

Now Viewing: Married To The Eiffel Tower

Le Corbusiers Image Hoard: Poeme Electronique

Giant American Signs: Original Learning from Las Vegas Footage

Giant Soviet Signs Cut Into Forests

Bricks Melted Into Icicles: Napalm Decorative

C-Labs 'Unfriendly Skies' & 'Bootleg' Volume

2 The Lighthouse: Self Storage & Architectural Hallucinations

Ceci N'Est Pas Une Pipe: Infrastructure as Architectural Subconcious.

Viva Sectional Cinematography!

Now Showing: The Installation of an Irreversible Axis on a Dynamic Timeline

Plug: Junk Jet

Sim Seasons Greetings! The Rise of Neo-Winter

Geography in Bad, Festive Drag.

The Ruins of the Future

High Tech As Steampunk ...

On The Retro Infrastructural

Simulations of Industry: High Tech Architecture and Thatcherism

David Greene: The Big Nothing

From The Factory to the Allotment: Tony Wilson, Urbanist

Koolhaas HouseLife / Gan Eden: The Revenge of Architectural Media

Ruburb-ric: The Ecologies of the Farnsworth House

The Architecture of Divorce

Flagrant Delit: The Movie

Landscape as Clothing

Telly Savalas Looks At Birmingham Redux

Acts of Un-Building: Timelapse Demolitions

Yard Filth: Next Years Hot Look

Stonehenge: A Black Hole At The Heart Of British Architecture

The Popemobile: Mechanised Robes & Motorised Architecture

Tarmac Adam, Tarmac Eden

The Secret Language of Surface

Some Housekeeping

Information Fields: Agriculture as Media

My Bloody Valentine: Sound as Substance

A Cubist Copse: Gehrys Serpentine Pavilion

Olympic Model Protest

Spouting Off: Some Thoughts On The Fountainhead

Form Follows Dysfunction: Bad Construction & The Morality of Detail

Floating Homes

Vintage Tradeshow Surrealism: International Grune Woche

Moving Houses: Buildings In Motion

Desktop Study: The Strange World of Sports Studio Design

Married to the Eiffel Tower: More Objectum Sexuals

60 Years of The Crazy Horse Memorial

Married to the Berlin Wall: "The Best and Sexiest Wall Ever Existed!"

Inflatable Icebergs: Sublimated Guilt Has Never Been So Fun

The Cinderella Effect: Phantom Architectures of Illumination

Two Deaths and a Retirement: The Strange Shape of British Architecture

If London Were Like New York: Antique Schizo-Manhattanism

If London Were Like Venice: Antique Geo-Poetic Speculations and Hydro-Fantasy

41 Hours in an Elevator: The Movie

NASA: Mapping the Moon with Sport

Lemon Squeezy: Design Tendencies after the Juicy Salif

Stadium Seat Mosaics

The Nihilistic Beauty of Weapons Arranged in Patterns

Light Vessel Automata

Dogs: Britains Greatest Design Obsession

Madison Avenue Modern

Detroit Sucks: The Motor Shows Last Gasp

Mies' Grave: Cut Out Model

All You Can Eat

Valentine Machine

The Tools of Re-Geography

Floating in a New Town Sky

Authentic Replicas: Football and the Franchising of Place

Folk Football: Landscape, Space and Abstraction

Haystack House

A Wishing Well with a Fat Up Pipe

The Camoufluers and the Day-Glo Battleship

Pseudoccino: Instant Coffee Foam

Yesterdays Technology, Today

Blown Up: More Inflatable Military Stuff

On Christmas Trees, Folk Forests and Staples Office Supplies

Hampton Courts Shrouded Sculptures

Named Fabric: 20 Sponsored Pieces of Architecture at the New Museum

Form Follows Felony: The Secret Home of the Un-Dead Canoeist.

Architectural Magazines: Paranoid Beliefs, Public Autotheraphy - More on Clip/Stamp/Fold

Little Magazines Seen Today

James Bond Lives Next Door: Suburban Imagery as Industry

The Ghost of Christmas Futurism

Petrified War Machine

Military Deceptions

Chapters for an Imaginary Book About Architecture

Shrouded Plinth - Urban Striptease

In the Night Garden - Surreal Landscape of Nostalgia

Kim Jong II, The Great Architect

Pill Box Picturesque

Un Clear Monument

Place Faking: Instant Heritage for the Thames Gateway

The Marc Bolan Memorial Crash Barrier.

Warped Domesticity

The Nuclear Heritage Coast

Enjoy The Silence: Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones

The Story of O (2)

Telly Savalas Looks At Birmingham

X100: A Design Exercise

How to Plan A New Town

Carpet Bomber

In Search of Britains Vehicular History

Scenes in Cartoon Deserta

Scary Suburbanism: Why Horror is at Home in the Suburbs

Re-Make Re-Model

I Like Your Manifesto, Lets Put it to the Test-o

How to Become a Famous Architect

Northampton - Sci-fi Pop Planning Promotion

Advertising Central Milton Keynes

Baltic Exchanged

Festival of Nostalgia

The Clapham Trainwash

Airports as Music

Test Card Dummies

The Velvet Underground at the Glass House

Duplikate: Kate Moss on the Production Line of Individuality

The Museum that Ate Itself

Hollow Inside: Starbucks Foam and the Rise of Ambiguous Materials

Revisions to the Architecture of Hell

Crufts: Dogs, Design and Aesthetic Genetics

Eos Airlines: Executive Bubbles over the Atlantic

London's Ugliest Buildings

1.51 Miles Of String

Google Earths Vertiginous Mapping

Church of the Ascension and Descension

Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles

Replica Bombs

The Invisible Bungalow

House / Boat

Reading Lines: Skateboarding and Public Space

Mountain Sculpting

Sint Lucas in BD

Bat House Competition

Old Walton Bridge

Kiruna: The Town That Moved

Spray On Magnetic Defense

Chris Cornish: Prototyping History

The Jubilee Gestalt Vase

The Most Visited Location in the UK

Anything to Feel Weightless Again: The Cargo Lifter and the Tropical Island Resort

'Its beauty will know no season'

2000 Years of Non Stop Nostalgia. Or How Half Timbering Made Me Whole Again.

Inside-out Aldwych

Backpeddling into the Future: The Historical-Futurism of British Architecture

Miss Selfridges' Feeling for Fake Snow. The Oxford St. Lights and Why We Need Artificial Winter

Nelsons Cavern

Foam Gargoyle

New Tory Logo: A Hazy Shade of Politics

Jeff Koons, Rem Koolhaas, Hans Ulrich Obrist at the Serpentine

Souvenir Empire

Celebrity Scents: The Bittersweet Smell of Success

Imperfect Pitch - Football, Space and Landscape

Product Placement: Making the Impossible Possible

Suburban Growth: Matthew Moores Field of Dreams

Perfect Sound Forever: The Secret Function of High End Stereos

Picture of the Week 1

A Little Light Product Placement

Some Advice To A Young Designer

London and on and on

In the Gallery of Ice Creams

Useless Proclamations for a Beautiful City

Mini Mies Chair

Topsy Turvy VSBA: Inverted Heros of an Upside Down Avant Guard

Harvest III: Buried Things

The Harvest II

The Harvest I

Estuary Urbanism

The Royal Families Trees

Everything Flows: ideological cartography

How Geostationary Was My Valley?

The Psychotic Utopia of the Suburbs and the Suburbanisation of War.

LegoLand London Cluster

In a Lonely Place - Under Construction

Design Will Eat Itself

Mach 3 Nitro Gel - Design that's foaming at the mouth.

Marchitecture. Architectural things to do in London this March

Metallic Jet Powered Cloud

"When we got married I had no idea he would do something like this, he just said he was going to do some decorating."

The Electric Cenotaph

Russian Rok

Commitment ...

Dinner in the Iguanadon


What happens when you cross a pen with a car?

Leg Table Leg

Florentine Building Sites

Good Morning Britain

Football Pitch: Best of British

The Sad Photographer

The First Cut is the Cheapest - Blenheim Palace: pop architecture that goes for the jugular

Book Now For Christmas

Requiem for a Toilet Seat

Architecture that Destroys

TomTom Mobile 5 / GO 700

Winning Design

Another Croydon

Holiday Snap II : Giant Glowing French Balls

Holiday Snap: Canadian War Memorial, Vimy, France

Pecha Kucha London

Anatomy of an Architectural News Story

Big Bens

First Cut - Case Closed

The Texas Tower

Its All About the Big Benjamins

G8 Security Tower

White Cubed Blues

Poundbury, unexpectedly, in the rain

The Exploding Concrete Inevitable. Lou Reed and the Casa da Musica


Untitled (Plastic Sack and Timber)

Berlin 1945 - The Obscene Picturesque

Pizza Planet

Goal Sculptures

Interview: Jeremy Deller & Alan Kane

Previewing Cedric Price

The Mardas Touch

Building a Lionel Richie Head

Ornament is Grime 2

An Incredible Smell of Roasting Coffee

Flatpack Frenzy at New IKEA

Langlands & Bell - The House of Osama Bin Laden

Labour is kind of working

Happy Death Men

Build to Let

Architectural Criticism gets Sharp

Niagara Falls

Ornament is Grime

FA(ke) Cup

Q&A: Wouter Vanstiphout

X-treme urinals

Unigate Cowscape

Spray-on Snow

From the Baffler ...

One in a Taxi

The Queen Machine

The Knork

Venturi, Scott Brown and my love that dare not speak its name.

Polictical Placards

The Ketchup Conumdrum

Douglas Coupland: Design and Fiction

It's a Small World

Images de Parfums

Soft Carcass

Christopher Dresser at the V&A

Blow up Pub

Municipal Mummification

The Matt and Ron Show

Semi - detached

Half Timbered Van

Feltham Future

Favorite Things

Fugitives and Refugees' - Chuck Palahniuk

The Pop Vernacular

Design by Chefs

Just What is it That Makes Yesterdays Homes So Different, So Appealing?

Archigrams Pastoral Futurism

Sorry Mies

The Flaming Lips - Live.

Everything Counts - The Sound of Geography Collapsing.

Carlton Terrace Extension




Flip Flop Flyin'
Arts & Letters
Bldg Blog
City of Sound
Design Observer
Limited Language
Kieran Long
Arts Monitor
Loud Paper
Dwell Blog
David Barrie
Super Colossal
sit down man, you're a bloody tragedy
The Sesquipedalist
Architecture & Hygiene
Kazys Varnelis
Infranet Lab
Life Without Buildings
Landscape & Urbanism
HTC Experiments
Deputy Dog
The Dirt
Art Fag City
Triple Canopy
NL Blog