Friday, 7 May 2010
Genius of Design
The BBC2 programme on the ‘Genius of Design’ tonight was an excellent survey of issues around design, craftsmanship and industry from the eighteenth century on to our own post-Fordist economic moment. We saw so many memorable objects, heard from so many thoughtful craftspeople and designers; and William Morris took his appropriately eminent place in that complex aesthetic history.
But I found myself most stirred, not by Morris fabrics or Sussex chairs, but by the extraordinary tea-pots of Christopher Dresser (1834-1904), of which the programme showed us so many. Designed for industrial manufacture rather than Morrisian hand production, Dresser’s tea-pots have a zany, angular, almost science-fictional energy to them; many of them, indeed, look more like miniature robots or space-ships than anything you might decorously pour a cup of tea from!
Why should a Morrisian like myself be so taken by these deeply non-Morrisian artefacts? I think that fact might partly indicate how thoroughly a steampunk aesthetic has now penetrated our sense of, and response to, the nineteenth century; for Dresser’s weird teapots are certainly steampunk contraptions avant la lettre. They would not be in the least out of place in the new Dr Who’s revamped steampunk Tardis, for example.
But partly too because I certainly want more science-fictionality to come through in Morris himself. When Fiona MacCarthy writes of Morris’s late romances that ‘these are fantasy stories, early science fiction’ or that they resemble ‘some more recent American writers of science fiction’, I think: hang on; no, they are not; no, they don’t! If only they were science-fictional, and had as much of H.G. Wells as of Tolkien about them; and that perhaps is our task now, a task for both creative writing and criticism: the science-fictionalising of William Morris, so that the inhabitants of his utopia will be using high-tech Dresser tea-pots as well as elaborately hand-crafted Japanese-style pipes.