Christopher Dresser: Industrial Design Pioneer

Considered by some to be the first industrial designer, Christopher Dresser (1834-1904) was a contemporary of William Morris and is best known for popularizing Japanese minimalism in the West. A designer who had also been trained as a botanist, Dresser was drawn to the simplicity and natural inspiration of Japanese design. Like Morris, Dresser was dissatisfied with the excessive ornamentation used in Victorian design. However, when it came to applying technology to design, Dresser and Morris parted ways.  
As you may recall, Morris was highly suspect of any sort of technology that removed production from the hands of the craftsman. While Morris’ low-tech approach can be considered more romantic by some, it is interesting to note that Morris himself struggled with the necessarily high price of his designs. It was not until companies like Liberty began mass producing Morris’ work that it became affordable to the general public.  Dresser, on the other, saw that technology would play a crucial role in design. His dedication to industrial production methods made his work more accessible and affordable.

A quick review of Dresser’s design portfolio reveals numerous products that were far ahead of their time. Many appear strikingly modern, and it is difficult to believe that designs like this watering can (pictured above) were produced 134 years ago! 

In addition to his brilliant industrial design work, Dresser was an early champion of the notion of neutral backgrounds in interior design. After his tour of Japan, Dresser became convinced that walls and flooring should be done in neutral tones, and that bright splashes of colour should be reserved for accessories and accent pieces (Rompilla, 52).

A true innovator, Dresser’s designs still seem fresh and new today. His design mantras, like “maximum effect with minimum means” continue to inspire contemporary industrial designers. Today, one of Dresser’s philosophies–that design should address current needs with cutting-edge technologies–is more relevant than ever.  It’s surprising, then, that (unlike Morris) Dresser is not particularly well known outside of design circles. Nevertheless, his work is worth revisiting, and I hope that museums will take note! It would be wonderful to see an exhibit of his designs. Please contact me if you know of one in the works!

Photo courtesy Please visit their website for more information, and for many more photographs of Dresser’s work.

See also: Ethel Rompilla, Color for Interior Design (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2005).

“Blood, Absinthe, and Aphorisms: New Currents in Aestheticism and Decadence”

If you’re lucky enough to be in New York city at the end of this month, be sure to check out “Blood, Absinthe, and Aphorisms: New Currents in Aestheticism and Decadence.” The conference is being held free of charge with no prior registration required at the City University of New York, New York, NY from April 30- May 1, 2009.

The conference will be bringing together scholars from various academic backgrounds “to examine aestheticism and decadence in late Victorian literature, art, theater, politics, and popular culture.” Reginia Gagnier will be this year’s keynote speaker and the opening roundtable will examine “What’s New in Decadence and Aestheticism.” Other speakers include Dennis Dennisoff, Joseph Bristow, Linda K. Hughes, Richard Dellamora, and Margaret D. Stetz. Topics covered include presentations on C. R. Ashbee and British utopias, Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, and romanticism; Aubrey Beardsley and the art of the poster (that one sounds like a lot of fun!); Edward Carpenter and domestic interiors, and Black decadence in the work of M. P. Shiel.

The conference will be held at the Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY.

For more information, check out the conference’s website.