CHRISTOPHER DRESSER: Reimagining Designs for Silver

Tea service designed by Christopher Dresser, 1879 - photo by The National Gallery of Victoria

Christopher Dresser, a British designer and the pioneer of modern industrial design, was born on July 4th, 1834, in Glasgow, Scotland and died November 24th, 1904, Mulhouse, Alsace, Germany, now in France. He was an English designer whose knowledge of past styles and experience with modern manufacturing processes made him a pioneer in professional design.

Christopher Dresser’s Education

Dresser studied at the Government School of Design in London between 1847 and 1854, where he studied botany, teaching and writing several books, after completing his studies. Dresser contributed floral designs to Owen Jones’s Grammar of Ornament in 1856. In 1858, he was appointed the professor of artistic botany.

Dresser’s Books and papers

Teapot by Christopher Dresser, made by James Dixon and Sons – photo by Victoria and Albert Museum

His two books’ submissions; the Unity in Variety, as Deduced from the Vegetable Kingdom and The Rudiments of Botany, Structural and Physiological, which were both published in 1859 and a short paper on morphology, “Contributions to Organographic Botany”, to the University of Jena, Germany, resulted to him being awarded a doctorate in 1859. In 1862. Then, he wrote ‘The Art of Decorative Design’, which marked the turning of all his attention to design. His other books include Principles of Decorative Design in 1873 and Japan, Its Architecture, Art and Art Manufactures in 1882.

As early as 1865, the Building News reported that in the early part of his career, he had been active as a designer of wallpapers, textiles and carpets, and the most active changer in the decorative art of the day. The list of books on design and ornament included; The Art of Decorative Design (1862), The Development of Ornamental Art in the International Exhibition (1862), and Principles of Design (1873), which was addressed in the preface to “working men”. In 1899, The Studio magazine found it was possible to quote this book “page after page and not find a line, scarcely a word that would not be endorsed by the most critical member of the Arts and Crafts Association today.” In effect, Dresser set the agenda adopted by the Arts and Crafts movement at a later date.

Teapot by Christopher Dresser, 1878 – photo by Victoria and Albert Museum

In 1876, en route to Japan, he delivered three lectures in the Philadelphia Museum and School of Industrial Art and oversaw the manufacture of wallpapers to his design for Wilson Fennimore. He was also commissioned by Messrs Tiffany of New York to form a collection, whilst in Japan, of art objects both new and old that should illustrate the manufactures in Japan.

Dressers interest in Japanese design

In four months, between 1876 and 1877, Dresser travelled over 2000 miles in Japan, making a recording of his impressions in Japan, its Architecture, Art and Art-Manufactures, about which later he wrote a book. He represented the South Kensington Museum whilst in Japan, and was received at court by the Emperor who ordered Dresser to be treated as a guest of the state; all doors were open to him. He was requested by the Japanese Government to write a report on ‘Trade with Europe’. His pioneering study of Japanese art is evident in much of his work which is considered typical of the Anglo-Japanese style.

Toast rack by Christopher Dresser, 1881 – photo by The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1863, Dresser lectured on “The Prevailing Ornament of China and Japan,” and still in that same year, he collaborated with Owen Jones on the decoration of the Indian court and the Chinese and Japanese court at the South Kensington Museum, now the Victoria and Albert Museum. Between 1876 and 1877, he delivered a gift of art manufactures that included ceramics, glass, lace, metalwork, textiles, and a carpet, to the newly established institution that today is known as the Tokyo National Museum, which was later presented to the emperor.

Dresser successfully introduced to British design elements from many cultures across the world especially Japanese, where he had travelled in 1876. Eschewing the overly ornamental, he created ceramics, metalwork, silver, glass, textiles, wallpaper, and other items; most of them are seen as sleek forerunners of modern design. In contrast to his contemporary William Morris, who shunned the mass-produced, Dresser was notably important in introducing modern industrial techniques by working directly with manufacturers to produce elegant and affordable products.

Sterling Silver Teapot by Christopher Dresser, 1882 – photo by The Pear Tree Collection

His Art of Decorative Design in 1862, in which he further expressed his theories of design and botany and liberated design from historicism, ramifies that he supplied many designs for the 1862 International Exhibition in London. In the exhibition, he examined the first large European exhibit of Japanese art, a subject he had studied for many years and on which he had become a reckoning authority. Design reform and Eastern, especially Japanese art, were essential elements of the Aesthetic movement, and Dresser played a pivotal role in the movement’s development.

Much of Dresser’s philosophy of design is clearly explained in a series of articles in the Technical Educator of 1870 and 1872, which were later published as Principles of Decorative Design in 1873. These presented a design manifesto adopted by the Arts and Crafts movement 15 years later, and in the books Studies in Design of 1874 and 1876, explaining the interior decoration of the period and Modern Ornamentation in 1886.

Conical Sugar Bowl by Christopher Dresser, 1885 – photo by Lyon & Turnbull | Lot 48

In the years 1879 to 1882, Dresser went in partnership with Charles Holme (1848–1923) as Dresser & Holme; they were wholesale importers of Oriental goods, with a warehouse at 7 Farringdon Road, London, neighbouring the American inventor and abolitionist, Thaddeus Hyatt (1816–1901).

During the period between 1879 and 1882, he was the Art Superintendent at the Linthorpe Art Pottery, in Linthorpe in Middleborough where he designed over 1,000 pots. If his ceramic works from the 1860s onwards, made for firms such as Mintons, Wedgwood, Royal Worcester, Watcombe, Linthorpe, Old Hall at Hanley and Ault, were to be considered, he is for sure amongst the most influential ceramic designers of all time.

Apart from the wallpaper designs for American, and textiles for French and German manufacturers that were recently discovered, much of his work is yet to be located. A large of the Dresser’s collection is held by the Dorman Museum in Middlesbrough, which is a Heritage Lottery Funded project that has much attention to his work.

Dresser’s influence today

Toast rack designed by Christopher Dresser – photo by Alessi

A lot of Dresser’s metalwork designs are still in production today; these include designs such as his oil and vinegar sets, and toast rack designs, which are now manufactured by Alessi. Alberto Alessi was quoted saying that Dresser ‘knew the techniques of metal production better than any designer who has come to Alessi’.

One of his Old Hall designs is thought to have inspired Alan Garner’s 1967 novel ‘The Owl Service’.