Christopher Dresser

Influential British designer and theorist Christopher Dresser was born in 1834 in Glasgow, Scotland. When Dresser was thirteen years old, he started to study at the Government School of Design in London. In 1855, Dresser became a professor of artistic botany at the same institution. Not long after, he began selling designs for textiles, wallpapers, and carpets and publishing books on botany. In 1862, Dresser elaborated his theoretical framework with Art of Decorative Design, which argued that design theory and botany should be liberated from historicism. Dresser also produced several designs for the 1861 International Exhibition in London, the first major showing of Japanese art in Europe. As an expert on Eastern art and design, Dresser drew significant inspiration from this exhibition and incorporated many Japanese concepts into his evolving "art for art's sake" design theories that would underpin the burgeoning Aesthetic Movement and British Art Nouveau style.

Dresser was also widely celebrated for his elegant, original designs of furniture, glass, ceramics, metalwork, and silver. He was a prolific and versatile creator of works across a range of mediums in the mid-to-late 19th century. Painted on the door of Dresser's studio was the motto, "Truth, Beauty, Power." It was imperative for Dresser to live up to this tripartite design ethos. He insisted on using only quality materials and striving to make useful objects beautiful to reveal their true essence. Simultaneously, Dresser continued to expand upon his initial theoretical formulations. Principles of Design, published in 1873, was geared toward a broader audience and Dresser's ideas found wide acceptance, such that English Arts & Crafts figures would eventually quote from Dresser or borrow his themes. While Dresser was nearly as vital an influence as his contemporary William Morris, Dresser was not averse to leveraging the new technologies of the Industrial Revolution; whereas Morris stressed the moral and creative importance of handcrafted design.

In the 1870s, Dresser enlarged the scope of his influence through different commissions. The American government asked him to write a report on the design of household goods in 1873 and three years later he delivered lectures at the Philadelphia Museum and School of Industrial Art. Prior to leaving for Japan in 1876 as a British emissary, Tiffany & Co. of New York hired Dresser to assemble a representative collection of art and design objects. On his trip, Dresser traveled all throughout Japan, made many business contacts, kept a journal that was later adapted into a book, was received as a guest of honor by the Emperor, and hired by the Japanese government to write a report on trade with Europe.

After returning from Japan, Dresser formed a London-based partnership with Charles Holme to import wholesale goods from Asia. Dresser also became the Art Superintendent at the Linthorpe Art Pottery in Linthorpe in Middlesbrough, where he designed over 1,000 pieces of pottery. Considering Dresser's fine ceramic works for Linthorpe, Wedgwood, Mintons, Royal Worcester, and other firms, he was one of the foremost designers in clay during the latter half of the 19th century. Dresser died in 1904 in Mulhouse, France, but his legacy lives on today. Although not all of Dresser's extant designs can be confirmed with absolute certainty, his wallpapers and metalwork have mostly been identified. The Dorman Museum in Philadelphia has a large Dresser collection and the Kirkland Museum in Denver recently exhibited a selection of Dresser works, including a dramatic, five-leg Aesthetic Side Chair with peacock-style upholstery attributed to Dresser. Some of Dresser's decorative designs are also still in production, such as oil and vinegar sets and toast racks for Italian maker Alessi.

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