Christopher Dresser at the V&A

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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.

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