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During the Industrial Revolution, in the middle of the 19th century, different industries were developing, economic growth was impressive and a huge new world of cities was emerging. However, it took its toll on both people’s working conditions and their morale as well as on arts and aesthetics. However, not all artists were affected by these external and massive unsightly changes. It was William Morris, a man of genius, one the 19th century’s most appreciated designers who strived to alter the world with beauty and believed that it could facilitate labourers’ working conditions. The artist’s chief desire was to make beautiful things and to express his own values in the making of them as well as to unite art and labour so that they could serve society.
The history of working classes in the 19th century started with the invention of a steam machine and textile machinery of the raw materials. It is noted that these inventions stimulated the genesis of the Industrial Revolution, which changed the life structure of the middle-class society. A huge expansion of industrial plants and their output forced all the middle-class society that was based in cities to go to work in factories. Not only were working condition harsh, but also all workers had to work excessive hours. On average they worked six hours of overtime per week, some workers were left in factories to work on Sunday or even on public holidays. The aftermath was a poor quality of workers‘ lives, they lost the joy to life and the joy to work. It is hard to imagine what the workers themselves became under the given conditions, what type of people they were, what their moral, physical and mental position was. As they lost their enjoyment in life, all the work that they did began to be ugly, not because of perverse expansion only but because of poor workmanship, low quality of materials, and deprivation of all designing power. The society was suffering from the vast growth of cities, which little by little merged with the cities of the former ages when their own handiwork increased the charm of nature or was, at least, in ideal harmony and wonder at it as a secret which they had lost. Indeed, it all meant that the society was sick of the ugliness of its own time and dreamed of making a leap back into the past as if for a change of air and platform. But initially this weariness was quite unconscious. Men were not aware that the art of their time was saddened with an illness, they had no notion that illness was social.
Not everybody turned away from the suffering working-class, a few public figures understood and tried to heal the disease of the society. One of them was William Morris, a man who was finding happiness in every work that he was doing. However detestable the world around him was, he could surround himself with a wordly Paradise only understood by him and could enjoy all the happiness of work. From his own experience he knew that beauty was a sign of happy work while hideousness revealed unhappy work. Morris heard the scream of unhappiness outside there, therefore he put away his happiness to rebel. His, as socialist’s, values were to make everybody believe that art is everybody’s business, whether they are artists themselves or not, that joy should be evident in every product and labour should not degrade labourers. William Morris did not want to rest until he had tried to indicate other men the happiness they had lost. Nature of the work was mandatory for most poor men; and this was the main reason why Morris rebeled.
“By art, I do not mean only pictures and sculpture, nor only these and architecture, that is a beautiful building properly ornamented; these are only a portion of art … in other words the human pleasure of life is what I mean by art.” Indeed, in the case of Morris it seemed to many that he argued with the world on a trivial matter. He was unsatisfied with the current state and the system that industrialism brought to Britain. Moreover, Morris developed themes that posterity did not even dare to face, no doubt for fear of appearing naive, poorly aligned: the desire to create a world where work is joy and artistic creation, the nonchalant criticism of the overwhelming power of science and technology, the revaluation of the natural environment, the other great victim, along with the man, of capitalist degradation and exploitation. One of his great admirers, Oscar Wilde, recounted a confidence given to him by Morris himself: “I tried to make each of my workers an artist, and when I say an artist I mean a man”. What characteristics should, instead, possess the work to give hope to a man, instead of causing him pain and suffering? It should guarantee him the hope of rest: no matter how pleasant it may be, it still entails a certain animal suffering in putting his energies into motion. Rest should be long enough, longer than necessary for the recovery of strength, and should be free of worries and anxieties.
Having chosen to diminish the social, moral and aesthetic chaos caused by the Industrial Revolution as his life‘s work, William Morris made his mark. His philosophical points are focal to the expression of design style and practice nowadays.
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