Adding artistic touch to household goods


April 25, 1993|By Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writers Solis-Cohen Enterprises

Christopher Dresser's name isn't a household word today even though this late 19th-century British designer created enough furnishings and decorative objects to fill houses from London to Los Angeles.

He pioneered modernism decades before the term was coined and a generation before Germany's Bauhaus academy popularized it in the 1920s and '30s. Many of Dresser's designs, particularly for metalwork, are as fresh and appealing today as they were revolutionary a century ago.

Considered the world's first industrial designer, Dresser (1834-1904) created highly original, functional, organic and often whimsical designs for everyday objects mass-produced by over 50 manufacturers. There are Dresser teapots, tablewares, vases, chairs, drinking glasses, tureens, candlesticks, trays, decanters, coat racks, and even watering cans. Many of the finest are on display from Wednesday to May 29 in an intimate yet important exhibit, "Christopher Dresser: The Power of Design," at Kurland-Zabar Gallery, 19 East 71st St., New York; (212) 517-8576. It's the first Dresser show ever in the United States and is certain to reignite tremendous interest in his work and taste. An illustrated catalog costs $12 postpaid.

Dresser, whose motto was "Truth, Beauty and Power," "was a genius whose wonderfully eccentric, modernistic designs are delicately balanced and have a unique kind of humor," said dealer Catherine Kurland. Some of the objects displayed at the gallery she runs with Lori Zabar are on loan from private PTC collections and museums; about 50 others are for sale. Prices range from $425 for a circa 1886 earthenware "Persia" pattern plate manufactured by Old Hall of Hanley, England, to $8,500 for a rare silver-plated toast rack made by James Dixon & Sons in Sheffield, circa 1880. The toast rack, an architectonic design of triangular trusses, suggests both a bridge and a greenhouse frame. Dresser reduced this functional object to its purest geometric form, creating sublime elegance rarely found even in luxurious sterling silver.

Powerful beauty

"We made every effort to show a wide range of objects by as many makers, and in as many media, as possible," Ms. Kurland observed. "Unfortunately, wallpaper is too ephemeral to survive. known largely from Dresser's drawings."

His textiles are almost as rare. There is plenty of Dresser metalwork and pottery to collect, and his design vocabulary was so broad it can please many tastes. Some pieces are marked "Dr. Dresser" (he held an honorary doctorate in botany), while others have been attributed from manufacturers' archives. Many Dresser designs have turned up in American households, several marked with the names of both the English manufacturer and the American retailer. Among the firms that produced Dresser's goods were the Minton and Wedgwood potteries, and Coalbrookdale Co., famous for its cast iron household objects and garden furniture.

Influential designer

Dresser's legacy also is important because of his considerable influence on English theoreticians and American designers. Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) was a friend, fan and patron whose late 19th-century mixed-metal Japanesque designs reflect Dresser's influence. Dresser also inspired furniture designed by Philadelphia architect Frank Furness in the 1880s, Chicago architect Louis Sullivan's geometric ornament in the 1890s, and 20th-century designs by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Dresser, who wrote and lectured extensively, was a staunch proponent of Japonis, the fashion for Japanese-inspired painting and design that developed into a cult in England, France and the United States in the 1860s to 1890s. He visited America in 1876, en route to Asia, where he was to advise the Japanese government about modernizing its art industries. While in Philadelphia attending the Centennial Exposition, Dresser patented several wallpaper designs for Wilson & Fennimore, lectured at the newly formed Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art, and accepted a commission from Tiffany & Co. to purchase goods in Asia to sell in its New York emporium. Dresser stopped briefly in San Francisco on the way to Japan, leaving his mark on a city in which a strong Arts and Crafts design tradition would emerge.

The doctrines of the late 19th- and early 20th-century Aesthetic Movement and Arts and Crafts Movement emanated from Dresser's writings. In England, Dresser influenced his friend Arthur Lasenby Liberty, a popularizer of the British Arts and Crafts Movement, who founded Liberty & Co., the department store still thriving on Regent Street. Charles L. Eastlake's writings and furniture also reflect Dresser's concepts.

Like social philosopher and designer William Morris (1834-1896), the best-known British reformer of the excesses of Victorian taste, Dresser preached art for the masses. Although Morris' reputation might be more enduring, scholars now assert that Morris never matched Dresser's output of mass-produced designs.

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