By a fluke -- a happy combination of capitalist zeal, the will to conquer, and good design sense -- the Art Gallery of South Australia holds the largest Morris & Co. collection outside of Britain. The best families in the colony insisted on Morris furnishings in all their homes, so that a "superb wealth of material was shipped to South Australia -- and much remains."
Probably even if you know little or nothing about William Morris, you have seen at least one of his designs -- as wallpaper or upholstery perhaps, or more likely as the face of a greeting card. Even if you haven't seen the real thing, or a picture of it, you've seen faux Morris, maybe on a web page. If none of the above, you need to get out more.
Often imitated, Morris & Co. was the industry of the brilliant eponymous graphic designer who considered much of what he did "humble, but as things go, useful art." Morris loved nature and nearly all of his wallpapers and fabrics are shot through with birds and flowers -- roses, peonies, acanthus, or simply, daisies. Morris turned his attention, detailed always, to tile design, pillow covers and fire screen embroideries. His daughter May inherited her father's eye and carried on the business, adding to it the skills of a diarist and biographer. Her "Table cover" is one of the most striking pieces in the book, perhaps because we can see it in its entirety.
One of the charms of this "coffee table" offering is that each design is rendered both in color (demonstrating the predominance of muted and sometimes monochromatic patterns over strong multi-colors) and in black and white. For the artists among us, the black and white side is like a roadmap into the original drawing as Morris himself might have envisioned it: the grace of "meandering" stems and vines in pieces named for rivers ("Evanlode," "Medway"), the preponderance of roses, both softly twined and formal, as when they replace Italian crowns in the bright "Rose and lily."
Leaves overlap so naturally that, almost Escher-like, the beginning and end of any given set is hard to locate and the viewer almost believes that there is no repetition. Paradoxically, Morris & Co was "one of the great masters of the flat repeat-pattern wallpapers," laboriously hand-finished "very slowly, each block used being dipped into pigment and then firmly pressed onto the paper." Such craftsmanship is almost unimaginable in this age of Walmart dicor.
Morris & Co. flourished in the years of the grand expansion of the British Empire, and reflected the emerging aspirations of a rising middle class and the far flung dreams of the common man. Patterns imitating royal motifs ("Peacock and dragon," "Crown Imperial") are mixed in good measure with the homey "Brer Rabbit," "Apple," and "Honeysuckles," suggesting the encroachment of one onto the other and a blending of shades of difference.