Christopher Dresser: an Industrial Designer

Christopher Dresser (1834-1904) is recognized as one of Britain’s most skilled and innovative 19th century designers of glass, metalwork, ceramics and furniture.  His work coincided with the Industrial Revolution (18th and 19th centuries), in which he saw an opportunity to expand his market.  Mr. Dresser recognized the potential for manufactured design and aimed to create functional, well-designed objects; his contemporaries, such as William Morris, favored handcrafted pieces associated with the Arts and Crafts movement.

Mr. Dresser’s work is associated with the design reform movement: when the British were concerned their manufactured goods lacked the quality found in goods produced by countries in Europe and the United States during the 19th century.  Thus, Mr. Dresser’s work reflects his eclectic interests, from engineering, to science to decoration, and parallels his Western and non-Western inspiration.  This diversity proved fruitful.  He created designs for a range of products in cast iron, silver plate, carpet and wallpaper designs for manufacturers in the United States and in Europe.

Despite his design contributions, Mr. Dresser’s work has been largely overlooked for nearly a century.  But a current selling exhibition at the The Fine Art Society, New Bond Street in London, England, Truth Beauty Power: the Designs of Dr Christopher Dresser, acknowledges one of the first industrial designers.  The exhibition features the collection of John Scott; over 1,000 items representing over 50 years of collecting are on sale, including Mr. Dresser’s renowned metalwork, furniture, glass, cast iron and ceramic pieces.

Mr. Dresser began studying at the Government School of Design in London at age thirteen.  He specialized in botanical science and was exposed to leaders in the industry: Richard Redgrave, Owen Jones and Henry Cole, among others.  But a trip to Japan during the later part of his career (1876/77) was particularly inspirational.

Although exposed to Japanese decorative arts during his studies, Mr. Dresser’s trip to Japan culminated in a keen awareness towards surface, form, material and manufacturing techniques, the Metropolitan Museum notes.  His own knowledge of botany fused with his interest in Japanese art—their craftsmanship and minimalistic style.  Consequently, he incorporated the motifs from Japanese art into his own designs, as the vertical and diagonal struts in the back of Chair (1880-1883) demonstrates.

A large number of the 230 objects on display at this exhibition have been been displayed around the world, including at a 2004 exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, England.  Of which Mr. Dresser’s teapots are particularly noteworthy: they merge design and innovation.  Teapot (1891-1894) underscores this Japanese influence, as the V&A notes: the wicker handle and its positioning, above the pot with the ability to fold down for packing purposes.

The V&A exhibition marked the centenary of Mr. Dresser’s death.  The sheer number of objects demonstrated the range of his work: from his decorative designs to his minimalistic work.  “Dresser embraced industrialisation and was at the forefront of design reform,” the exhibition curator, Michael Whiteway stated in the press release.  “He used his knowledge of the possibilities of machine production to make beautiful designs for the expanding middle class market. No-one else in Europe was doing anything like it.”  While Mr. Dresser’s contributions may have been lost, as the V&A exhibition and the one currently on show at The Fine Art Society denote, they have not been forgotten.

‘Truth Beauty Power: the Designs of Dr Christopher Dresser’ is on show at The Fine Art Society, London, until October 2, 2014.