Morris Founds Design Firm

When William Morris and his partners established Morris & Co. in London, they created what would become one of the most influential decorating and design firms of their time and pave the way for the later Arts and Crafts movement. The partners shared a fondness for the society and arts of the Middle Ages and rejected the mass-produced factory culture of nineteenth century industrialism in favor of applied, handcrafted arts.

Summary of Event

In 1861, William Morris and six partners established what would become the most famous decorating and design company in late nineteenth century England. Originally known as Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, & Co., and later as Morris & Co., the firm had an influence that spread to both the European continent and North America. The partners, who described themselves as “Fine Art Workmen in Painting, Carving, Furniture Furniture design , and the Metals,” promised to provide for the needs of those interested in the well-designed and crafted decorative arts. Morris, William
Arts and Crafts movement
Burne-Jones, Sir Edward Coley
[kw]Morris Founds Design Firm (1861)
[kw]Founds Design Firm, Morris (1861)
[kw]Design Firm, Morris Founds (1861)
[kw]Firm, Morris Founds Design (1861)
Morris, William
Arts and Crafts movement
Burne-Jones, Sir Edward Coley
[g]Great Britain;1861: Morris Founds Design Firm[3420]
[c]Art;1861: Morris Founds Design Firm[3420]
[c]Architecture;1861: Morris Founds Design Firm[3420]
[c]Marketing and advertising;1861: Morris Founds Design Firm[3420]
Marshall, P. P.
Faulkner, Charles
Brown, Ford Madox
Burne-Jones, Sir Edward Coley
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel
Webb, Philip

The son of a wealthy businessman, Morris had attended Oxford University, where he met painter Edward Coley Burne-Jones. They became fast friends, traveled together in France, explored the great medieval cathedrals, and immersed themselves in the poems of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and the essays of artist and social critic John Ruskin. During the 1850’s, Burne-Jones designed cartoons for stained glass Glass;stained windows and Morris published The Defence of Guenevere (1858), a volume of Arthurian-inspired poems. The company’s dedication to medievalism also was reflected in Morris’s London residence, Red House, designed by architect Philip Webb.

The company was inspired by an artistic trend in Great Britain. In the 1830’s, Parliament supported the establishment of art schools dedicated to design and craftsmanship. This support, in turn, inspired the founding of several business firms in the 1840’s committed to artistic design and manufacture. Most influential to the company was the emergence of the Pre-Raphaelites, Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood[PreRaphaelite Brotherhood]
Art;Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood[PreRaphaelite Brotherhood] a group created in 1848 by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti to counter the artistic dominance of Great Britain’s Royal Academy and of Renaissance art’s classical subject matter and poses. The group took its name from the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael, Raphael adding “pre” as a countermeasure.

One aim of the Pre-Raphaelites was to specialize in many art forms, although most members of the brotherhood were mainly painters. The exception was Rossetti Rossetti, Dante Gabriel , who also excelled in poetry. Ford Madox Brown Brown, Ford Madox was asked to join the brotherhood but declined, although he was sympathetic to the anti-establishment Pre-Raphaelites. By the early 1850’s the brotherhood disbanded, but its influence lingered, and both Rossetti and Brown were among the original partners in Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., along with Burne-Jones and Webb Webb, Philip . Surveyor and sanitary engineer P. P. Webb and Charles Faulkner, a mathematician, were the other two partners.

William Morris.

(Library of Congress)

Morris, who borrowed one hundred pounds from his mother to finance the endeavor, was the major force in the company. Each of the partners held a twenty-pound share in the company, or “the firm,” as it also was known, and it was intended that each partner would produce works to be sold through the company. The artistic input of the partners, or the lack of it by some, eventually led to bitter disputes. Although the partners were friends, and male bonding was particularly important to Morris, the company was run in a professional manner. Morris and Faulkner Marshall, P. P.
Faulkner, Charles were the two regularly salaried members, with Faulkner as the general manager and Morris as the business manager, each initially receiving a salary of £150 per year.

The prospectus that was distributed in April, 1861, emphasized the diverse abilities of the partners to satisfy the varied needs of its clients and pointed out both the artistic and the financial benefits that grew out of the communal nature of the firm. Webb was a noted architect and Rossetti was well known for his painting and poetry. Brown Brown, Ford Madox , the oldest partner in the company at forty years of age, was celebrated for his paintings and stained glass Glass;stained , although Burne-Jones had even more experience in stained glass. Interestingly, Marshall and Faulkner, the two listed partners other than Morris, had little in the way of artistic accomplishments.

The company was originally located at 8 Red Lion Square in London’s Bloomsbury area, where Morris and Burne-Jones lived and worked beginning in 1856. By the mid-nineteenth century Bloomsbury became a center for writers and artists, a role it would continue to play well into the twentieth century. In 1862 the company had twelve employees and by 1871 it had eighteen salaried workers. Morris, more than any other partner, was involved in the entire process of the firm’s manufactures, from artistic design to weaving tapestries and carpets. In 1865, the company relocated to nearby 26 Queen Square; Morris and his family used the building as their residence.

The company’s major clients included churches and their architects and restorers. The Anglo-Catholic movement within the Church of England Church of England;Anglo-Catholic movement which evolved out of earlier Romanticism and its sometimes neo-Gothic emphasis, led to a renewed interest in traditional ritualism, leading to the construction of new churches as well as church restoration. The design and production of ecclesiastical art, including stained-glass Glass;stained windows and painted screens, became the firm’s earliest and most financially rewarding projects. At the London International Exhibition of 1862, a world’s fair, the firm’s stained glass was featured along with medieval-like furniture Furniture design , painted tiles, embroideries, and jewelry. Morris-designed wallpapers first appeared in 1862 as well. Morris’s numerous wallpaper designs, including “Trellis,” “Fruit,” and “Pomegranate,” were extremely popular among the rising middle classes and remained in demand throughout the twentieth century.

Churches were not the firm’s only clients. Wealthy businessmen, members of the aristocracy, England’s public schools England;public schools , and even royalty sought the firm’s services. From the 1860’s through the early 1880’s the company redecorated rooms in London’s St. James’s Palace, even though Morris, who became a Marxist Museums socialist, had little admiration for Queen Victoria. London’s South Kensington Museum had the company create the museum’s Green Dining Room.

The partners envisioned from the start a community of artists living and working together in a sort of medieval guild. This guild concept had considerable influence on the later Arts and Crafts movement in Britain and the United States, but it was difficult to turn the ideal into reality, especially for Morris and his colleagues. Personal rivalries came into play, as did family responsibilities. Rossetti Rossetti, Dante Gabriel became the lover of Morris’s wife, Janey, communal aspirations disappeared, and Burne-Jones and his family suffered debilitating medical problems during the 1860’s.

By the early 1870’s, Morris’s salary had been increased to two hundred pounds per year plus a bonus of 10 percent of the net annual profits of the firm; he did not believe the money was enough, however, considering his efforts as the major figure in the company. After long discussion, not entirely amicable, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. officially disbanded, as Morris bought out the other partners for one thousand pounds each; Burne-Jones, Faulkner Faulkner, Charles , and Webb Webb, Philip , however, declined to accept payment. The old company was reorganized as Morris & Co., with Morris as the sole owner.

With William Morris in control, Morris & Co. became more successful than its predecessor. The product line was expanded to include carpets and tapestries; a retail outlet was established on Oxford Street, one of London’s premier shopping locations; and Morris decorations and products were made available in various European countries and in the United States.

Morris’s philosophy was to “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” His vision, however, that every person, regardless of class, should have access to useful and beautiful works of art was not entirely realized. Most of his clientele came from the wealthier middle and upper classes, or, as he once expressed in frustration, he was “ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich.”


The formation of Morris & Co. was a deliberate move to produce works designed to counter the excesses of industrial capitalism and mass production. Although Morris was not entirely against machines or machine-made products, he was disheartened by what he saw as industrialism’s lack of attention to the details of what makes a thing beautiful, which no machine could truly provide. Consequently, human-made objects made up the beautiful and artistic and well designed.

Morris & Co., and the Arts and Crafts movement, continues to influence design culture around the world. Art nouveau evolved from the movement, and, in the United States, the Arts and Crafts aesthetic can be seen in the architectural and design works of, perhaps most famously, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Further Reading

  • Henderson, Philip. William Morris: His Life, Work, and Friends. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. An insightful account of Morris and his associates.
  • MacCarthy, Fiona. William Morris: A Life for Our Time. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. The definitive biography of Morris, and excellent on the operation and philosophy of Morris & Co. and its predecessor.
  • Naylor, Gillian. William Morris, by Himself. Boston: Little, Brown, 1988. A full-color, lavishly illustrated art book including a full history of Morris, his philosophy, and the Arts and Crafts movement. Includes excerpts from Morris’s writings and an appendix of quotations on Morris by his contemporaries.
  • Parry, Linda. William Morris. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996. A series of essays by eminent scholars. A catalog accompanying the Morris exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
  • Waggoner, Diane, ed.“The Beauty of Life”: William Morris and the Art of Design. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2003. Published to accompany an exhibition presented at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, and the Yale Center for British Art. Contains essays about Morris’s stained glass, interior decoration, and book making, and his influence on British design and the Arts and Crafts movement in the United States.

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