Arts and Crafts Utopia on a Budget: Parallels Between William Morris’ Ideal Home and My Own Apartment

Alice Stratford-Kurus

“If I were asked to say what is at once the most important production of art and the thing most to be longed for, I should answer a beautiful house.”1 

This statement was made by William Morris, one of the founders of the British Arts and Crafts movement. This movement is often associated with high quality, visually appealing as well as practical objects made by skilled craftspeople using natural materials. It is interesting that Morris chose a house rather than a specific object for the quote above. The adjective of “beautiful” in his comment is also significant. This paper will look further into Morris’ ideas about the home. In her book, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Home, Pamela Todd observes that, “Although Morris called himself for preference ‘designer’, it is his ideas, not simply his designs, that have found broad and lasting appeal. Perpetuating what he stood for is more about rejecting dross and encouraging real craftsmanship than about choosing ‘Willow Bough’ for your bedroom curtains”.2 I believe that many concepts of the Arts and Crafts movement extend beyond specific objects, particularly those that Morris expressed in relation to the home,. I will argue that Morris’ ideal home is accessible in a contemporary context and that his ideas can be successfully applied to interior decoration by someone with modest means. I will investigate this subject by using my own apartment as a case study. Morris’ suggestions of attaining the ideal home through interior decoration will be outlined and discussed. The relevance of Morris’ guidelines to contemporary practice will also be noted. The accessibility of the ideas of the Arts and Crafts movement will be explored. The movement championed everyday aesthetics for ordinary people and yet only the wealthy could afford the objects produced. The production and consumption of objects was a central concern for Morris. The current as well as the historic states of mass-production and excessive consumption will be reviewed. The methodology of material culture will be outlined because it is integral to my discussion of ideology and the home. Finally, I will apply the above concepts to the decoration of my own apartment. The home will be considered in parts and as a whole. Ideas of quality, beauty, and personal values are present throughout the text.

Over the years, Morris offered decorating guidelines to the supporters of the Arts and Crafts movement. Rather than recommending certain “must-have” accessories or colour schemes, Morris’s suggestions for the home are broad and general, thereby allowing for individual preference. His suggestions are often abstract concepts rather than concrete objects. This approach has allowed for his ideas to transcend time and place. Morris’ thoughts on what a home should be continue to be relevant today. Several of his ideas for the home will be briefly outlined and discussed. Morris proclaimed that, “All rooms ought to look as if they were lived in, and to have, so to say, a friendly welcome ready for the incomer.”3 He also said that, “No room of the richest man should look grand enough to make a simple man shrink in it, or luxurious enough to make a thoughtful man feel ashamed in it.”4 These two comments recognize the home as a place of social interaction where guests are entertained. Morris considered the comfort of both the guest and the host in the home. Despite the ways in which decoration can vary, Todd notes that, “There is a warmth and welcome in an Arts and Crafts interior, a celebration of the domestic and the practical.”5 Morris urged his followers, “Don’t think too much of style.”6 Truth to materials, quality, artistry, and beauty were requirements Morris considered crucial to home decoration.7 These ideas are largely subjective. Beauty can be found at every price point, throughout time and space because it is a quality specific to the values of the individual. Morris wanted people to delight in their homes.8 He advocated “lighter, brighter, more functional interiors that encouraged a more rational use of space”.9 Morris’s statement that, “Every man’s house will be fair and decent, soothing to his mind and helpful to his work” appeals to all.10 The room that Morris describes as ideal includes a number of books, some pictures, and one or two vases filled with flowers.11 This suggestion is timeless. Books, pictures and flowers are simple pleasures compared to elaborate textiles and custom-made wardrobes. It is the significance of simple things that Morris champions. The key characteristics of simplicity and individuality can be seen in Morris’s famous and beloved quote, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”12 Notably, Morris prefaced this quote by first saying, “If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it.”13 Morris was aware that his feelings about the home could be taken up by many different people in a variety of ways. This was a conscious effort on Morris’s part; he sought to be inclusive in an attempt to influence large parts of society. Morris admits that, “With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with beauty.”14

Morris’ wish to “transform the world with beauty” illustrates the Arts and Crafts movements’ sentiment of art for all. Morris proclaimed, “I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.”15 Todd observes that his message was universal, loud, and clear, and it is still relevant, accessible, and available to us today.16 Accessibility to arts and crafts was central to the ideology of the movement. Morris asked, “Is art to be limited to a narrow class who only care for it in a very languid way, or is it to be the solace and pleasure of the whole people?”17 The Arts and Crafts movement was concerned with the quality of life.18 It was thought that one’s quality of life was ameliorated if one had a beautiful home. Morris passionately believed that beautiful surroundings promoted creativity and happiness.19 It is therefore fitting that Morris would deem a healthy and beautiful house so important that it be included as second in his list of things that, in a properly ordered state of society, every willing man should be ensured.20 Honourable and fitting work, as well as full leisure for rest of mind and body were the other two things.21 Morris felt that everyone was deserving not of a minimal shelter, but rather of a “beautiful” house. It is clear that the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement recognized everyone and not just the elite. As explored previously, Morris did not merely direct his comments about decoration to the wealthy. He stated that, “Simplicity of life, even the barest, is not a misery, but the very foundation of refinement. This simplicity you may make as costly as you please or can.”22 He explicitly acknowledged the wealth divide in stating, “Simplicity everywhere, in the palace as well as in the cottage.”23 Todd observes that, “Morris’s strongly held belief that everyday items were worthy of an artist’s or designer’s attention had the effect of elevating the status of ordinary objects and bringing beauty into the lives of ordinary people”.24 Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement advocated everyday aesthetics. Accessibility to the Arts and Crafts ideals is perceived as a point of contention for many art historians. Although the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement, in general, and Morris, specifically, include people of all social classes, in actuality, only the very rich could afford the goods that were produced. Todd articulates that, “Despite their best intentions, the insistence on the handcrafting of artefacts meant that most pieces by Arts and Crafts designers were beyond the means of the very people they hoped would benefit from their ‘improving’ presence in their homes.”25

Production and consumption of objects are important concepts to explore in relation to the ideals and accessibility of the Arts and Crafts movement. These ideas are pertinent to my investigation of art historical concepts in contemporary practice because there are many parallels between the adverse reaction to the industrial revolution and the current counter-movements to the technological revolution. The Arts and Crafts movement was formed in opposition to the production and consumption of low quality mass-produced objects. Morris problematized consumption and advocated that people voice their beliefs and values through the purchases they made. This idea resonated with me and has influenced the decoration of my home. I will explore this idea in more detail shortly, in connection to the methodology of material culture. Todd notes that, “While Morris’s interiors appear comfortable to the modern eye, they seemed shockingly stark to his Victorian contemporaries, brought up in an age of conspicuous consumption to parade their wealth and taste by surrounding themselves with more and more emblems of it.”26 Conspicuous consumption is also widespread today. Morris asserted that, “We need to do away with…the toil which makes the thousand and one things which nobody wants.”27 Todd discerns the relevance of Morris’ ideas to our contemporary context, “Morris believed that the accumulation of useless things had dulled the public’s capacity to appreciate and value beauty and – in a lesson that we might well profit from today -lectured against the acquisitiveness of the fortunate classes, referring to them, scathingly, as ‘digesting machines’.”28 Morris observed that, “Almost all goods are made apart from the lives of those who use them; we are not responsible for them, our will has had no part in their production, except so far as we form a part of the market.”29 A large majority of the products currently consumed in North America were manufactured elsewhere. Historically, as well as currently, profit has been prioritized in production and so quality and working conditions suffered. Objects mass-produced in this way are often more affordable than those that are locally handcrafted with skill and high grade materials. It is important to note, however, that there are many environmental, health and other costs not included in the price tag of a mass-produced object. Significantly, Morris said that, “You will soon find when you get to know a work of art, that slavish work is undesirable.”30 I have gotten to know a “work of art” and so I have adapted my consumption processes so that I can achieve a beautiful home within my budget while negating mass-production and excessive consumption.

The methodology of material culture is integral to the exploration of Arts and Crafts ideals for the home. This approach emphasizes the importance of concrete objects in relation to abstract ideas such as style, taste, and aesthetic preference.31 Notably, an object can convey more than simply formal concerns. Within the methodology of material culture, objects can be interpreted as giving material form to the rules and belief patterns of those who trade, purchase, or use them.32 In his text Understanding Material Culture, Ian Woodward elaborates:
Objects are polysemic, meaning they contain a variety of messages and (within limits) can be interpreted flexibly by their users. Objects within the home are not merely functional, but tied to broader narratives about oneself, one’s life and one’s personal tastes…Objects, through the activity of home decoration, allow people to grapple with larger questions about their personal values, outlooks, and desires.33

This quote demonstrates the intimate relationship between possessions and their owners. Personal value is only one set of possible meanings that an object can transmit. In The Cultural Biography of Things, Igor Kopytoff explains, “We accept that every person has many biographies- psychological, professional, political, familial, economic, and so forth -each of which selects some aspects of the life history and discards others. Biographies of things cannot but be similarly partial”.34 An object can be assessed in terms of how it was made, where it originated and has since travelled, what the purpose of the object is, what its use value is, and how it is regarded in society. Janet Kardon applies material culture methodology to her study of Arts and Crafts interior decoration in A Centenary Project: Stage One – The Home as Ideological Platform to reveal information specific to the era rather than the person:

Objects created for the home were often vehicles for ideology […] The age’s commitment to reform, to change, could be easily observed in the home’s contents […] The title The Ideal Home reflects the role of the home as an avatar for the social, political, and aesthetic ideologies of the period.35 

Viewing objects in direct relation to consumption practices reveals more information about the objects and the consumer. Woodward wrote that, “The organizing themes which frame consumer practice are centered on notions of political and economic power, choice, and constraint.”36 An example of the strong connection between material culture methodology and the Arts and Crafts movement can be seen in the discussion of an Arts and Crafts necklace. It is declared that, “We can only understand this necklace when we put it in its antithetical context. It is as much a statement as a necklace. It says, ‘I am not about money. I am about colour, and craftsmanship, and art’.”37 Morris also asserted that, “In buying these things, ’tis the lives of men you buy!”38 His statement reflects Marx’s perception that the commodity object is congealed labour.39 It is in this intersection of ideas and objects that I can explore the parallels between Morris’s ideal home and my own home.

Considerations for the decoration of my apartment can be aligned with Morris’ guidelines for the ideal home. I strive to make my home look lived-in, to be welcoming and comfortable. My apartment is not ostentatious. In an effort to avoid a sterile or overcrowded environment, I celebrate the domestic and the practical. For example, pretty plates are used in the serving of mundane snacks. Artistry and beauty are prioritized in the acquisition and arrangement of objects since I like to be surrounded by beautiful things. Natural materials and simple forms are qualities that can be seen in the majority of my possessions. Several of my baskets are made of wicker; this material is emphasized through the weaving technique and the overall form of the objects. Truth to materials is also apparent in my wooden chairs and hardwood floors. I always inquire about windows when I am apartment hunting because an abundance of natural light improves my experience within the home. An efficient use of space is necessary in my apartment because it is quite compact. For instance, my toboggan is stored under the couch. Morris’ suggestion that the home be soothing to the mind and helpful to work resonates with me because my apartment must be somewhere that I can relax but also where I can complete schoolwork. I enjoy the simple pleasures that Morris promoted. Many books fill my home, as well as an abundance of pictures. My roommate works at a florist so we are fortunate to have flowers in our apartment on a regular basis. The things in my apartment are either useful or beautiful, or, ideally, both. While my fridge is not visually appealing, it does serve a purpose and I have decorated it with postcards so that it can display beautiful things. I have acquired plush wool blankets in lovely colours such as plum; the blankets are coherent with my decorating scheme and provide warmth. Individuality is another central concern of my interior decoration. My possessions range from different time periods and locations and bring many narratives together. Unique and original parts combine to make a whole that is special and reflects my personal taste.

I am currently a full-time student and have two part-time jobs. I am a person of modest means. Like Morris, I firmly believe that art and beauty are not relegated to the upper classes. I also support the Arts and Crafts notion that exposure to beauty improves quality of life. It is possible that engaging with beautiful things assists the viewer to be open to beauty and recognize it in different contexts. For instance, if it is sought out, aesthetic merit can be found in the shadow that a tree casts on the sidewalk. Everyday aesthetics can foster a richer life. Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement promoted quality over quantity. This translates to my home decoration. Instead of buying seven mediocre pillows, I will buy two that I really like for the same amount of money. Accessibility to quality objects sometimes means making sacrifices. Through the decoration of my apartment, an effort is made to integrate art into the everyday. Accessibility to art may require shifts in the perception of art. For instance, art is not just abstract oil paintings in a gallery, but can also be beautifully shaped bottles repurposed as vases. Beautiful colours, shapes, and patterns are not only found in expensive things, sometimes expensive things do not have any of these qualities. The formal qualities of picture frames and curtains can be beautiful.

I consider myself to be a conscientious consumer. I am opposed to excessive consumption. Due to budget and space constraints, as well as concerns for finite natural resources, I ask if I really need something before I decide whether or not to buy it. In an effort to reduce overall production and consumption, I have acquired an overwhelming majority of my possessions second hand. Craft fairs provide opportunities to purchase objects directly from the craftsperson. In these instances, I appreciate the object I bought for its beauty and quality but also because I was supporting someone in my community. On some occasions, I will make things myself rather than buying things such as paper snowflakes to decorate my apartment. I also make an effort to have things repaired instead of immediately replaced. Recently, I took my boots to the cobbler to have the heels fixed. Repairing things is often more cost effective then buying new things. My consumption is driven by the belief that there are already more than enough mass-produced things on this planet. I negate mass-production through processes of exchange and reuse. My home is decorated with objects sourced from: estate sales, garage sales, the curb (i.e. for free), church bazaars, clothing swaps, craft fairs, antique stores, vintage shops, second hand stores, as well as gifts or cast-offs from friends and relatives. While I recognize that Morris’ wallpaper was highly expensive and out of reach for many people, I do not think that the same can be said of his guidelines for the home. I have acquired many beautiful and useful things of high quality material, and craftsmanship for relatively small amounts of money through alternative avenues of consumption.

Material culture methodology is integrated into the discussion of my apartment thus far in terms of identifying with Morris’s guidelines for the ideal home, the accessibility of beauty, and processes of production and consumption. I will now explicitly apply the methodology to a couple of objects within my apartment to further examine the relation between Morris’ ideology and my interior decoration. The first example is a framed embroidery of flowers that my grandmother created. She gave it to me as a gift. It is special because of the connection between us that it represents. A considerable amount of time and effort were involved in its making. The piece demonstrates craftsmanship. It also shares some of the colours with the couch that it is hung above. It makes me happy to look at it every day. By displaying this piece in my home, I am conveying an appreciation of her production methods as well as the aesthetics of the piece. I treasure my quilt for similar reasons. I acquired the quilt at an estate sale. The hand-stitching is evident in many parts. The fabrics used are beautiful and they are arranged in a visually appealing way. The quilt is practical. It is slightly worn as I use it every day to keep me warm. I am reusing something that belonged to someone else. These objects convey my values about aesthetics, accessibility, production and consumption. These values parallel those that Morris outlined for his ideal home.

Morris’ ideal home still inspires today. He catered his comments to the whole of society by providing suggestions that could be interpreted in different ways and applied broadly. Morris advocated for beautiful useful items. He critiqued excessive consumption. He championed quality production methods that benefited both the maker and the user. The ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement were intended for everyone. I think that aesthetics of the everyday for ordinary people is an admirable concept. Morris’ abstract ideology can be concretized in objects. Like Morris, I understand that decoration of the home can convey aesthetic concerns, personal values, as well as social and political ideologies specific to time and place. As I have demonstrated through comparisons between my apartment and Morris’ ideal home, beauty, art, quality, and craftsmanship are not confined only to a wealthy few. The Arts and Crafts ideals are accessible to many, even though their products may not have been. The concepts can be applied to a variety of objects in numerous contexts. My apartment is just one example of this. Art can be a part of the everyday by recognizing the aesthetic merit of household items. Alternative modes of consumption can be taken to ensure that things within the home are useful, beautiful or both. Morris considered a beautiful house to be the most important production of art. In this idea he both encourages and validates the home as a space filled with creativity and meaning. 

• Crawford, Alan. “Ideas and Objects: The Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain.” Design Issues 13, 1 Designing the Modern Experience, 1885-1945 (Spring 1997): 15-26. 

• Davey, Peter. Arts and Crafts Architecture: The Search for Earthly Paradise. London: The Architectural Press, 1980. 

• Grassby, Richard. “Material Culture and Cultural History.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History. Vol. XXXV/4 (Spring, 2005): 591-603. 

• Kardon, Janet. “A Centenary Project: Stage One- The Home as Ideological Platform.” In The Ideal Home: 1900-1920 The History of Twentieth Century American Craft, edited by Janet Kardon. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1993. 22-29. 

• Kopytoff, Igor. “The Cultural Biography of Things.” In The Social Life of Things, edited by Arjun Appadurai. New York: Cambridge University, 1986. 64-95 

• Marsh, Jan. William Morris & Red House. London: National Trust Books, 2005. 

• Morris, William. On Art and Socialism: Essays and Lectures. London: John Lehmann Ltd., 1947. 

• Todd, Pamela. The Arts and Crafts Companion. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2004. 

• -, -. William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Home. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2005. 

Woodward, Ian. Understanding Material Culture. London: SAGE Publications Ltd., 2007.

1 Pamela Todd, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Home, (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2005), 7.
2 Ibid., 127.
3 Ibid., 37.
4 Ibid., 39.
5 Pamela, Todd, The Arts and Crafts Companion, (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2004), 130.
6 Todd, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Home, 46.
7 Ibid., 127.
8 Ibid., 125.
9 Ibid., 54.
10 William Morris, On Art and Socialism: Essays and Lectures, (London: John Lehmann Ltd., 1947), 37.
11 Todd, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Home, 123.
12 Ibid., 46.
13 Ibid.
14 Jan Marsh, William Morris & Red House, (London: National Trust Books, 2005), 65.
15 Todd, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Home, 125.
16 Todd, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Home, 125.
17 Morris, On Arts and Socialism…, 115.
18 Peter Davey, Arts and Crafts Architecture: The Search for Earthly Paradise, (London: The Architectural Press, 1980), 212.
19 Todd, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Home, 18.
20 Morris, On Arts and Socialism…, 111.
21 Ibid., 111.
22 Todd, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Home, 46.
23 Morris, On Arts and Socialism…, 34.
24 Todd, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Home, 115.
25 Todd, The Arts and Crafts Companion, 28.
26 Todd, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Home, 38.
27 Morris, On Arts and Socialism…, 52.
28 Todd, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Home, 38.
29 Morris, On Arts and Socialism…, 221.
30 Ibid., 100.
31 Ian Woodward, Understanding Material Culture, (London: SAGE Publications Ltd., 2007) 167.
32 Richard Grassby, “Material Culture and Cultural History,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. XXXV/4 (Spring, 2005), 592.
33 Woodward, Understanding Material Culture, 161.
34 Igor Kopytoff, “The Cultural Biography of Things,” In The Social Life of Things, edited by Arjun Appadurai, (New York: Cambridge University, 1986), 68.
35 Janet Kardon, “A Centenary Project: Stage One- The Home as Ideological Platform,” In The Ideal Home: 1900-1920 The History of Twentieth Century American Craft, edited by Janet Kardon, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1993), 26.
36 Woodward, Understanding Material Culture, 165.
37 Alan Crawford, “Ideas and Objects: The Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain,” Design Issues 13, 1 Designing the Modern Experience, 1885-1945 (Spring 1997), 18.
38 Morris, On Arts and Socialism…,100.
39 Woodward, Understanding Material Culture, 35.