Review: The Business of Beauty at the Art Institute Displays William Morris’ Genius in Home Textiles and Design

“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” English textile designer William Morris said in 1880. The statement represented his business mission in promoting true craft and persuading the masses that they should not settle for cheap, mass-produced junk. That quote still represents William Morris’ artistic vision, 140 years later, and now appears on everything from coffee mugs to wallpapers and t-shirts. 

Morris and Company: the Business of Beauty is an elegant exhibit now in the textile galleries at the Art Institute of Chicago through June 13. Morris was an important figure in the Arts & Crafts Movement; he promoted the principle of handmade production in the Victorian era when the focus was on industrial “progress.” 

The exhibit of about 40 works, drawn primarily from the Art Institute’s holdings, explores the company’s design tenets and displays the vision, designs and manufacturing processes used by the company and its designer/creators. It also notes the Chicago-area sites where the work of Morris and his contemporaries appeared. 

Pomona. After designs by Sir Edward Burne-Jones and John Henry Dearle, woven by Walter Taylor and John Keich at the Merton Abbey Tapestry Works, London. Pomona, figure design 1882, background design 1898, made 1906. The Art Institute of Chicago, Ida E. S. Noyes Fund.

Morris founded the business In 1861 and it existed until 1940; the founder died in 1896. His aesthetic vision remains alive today because the textile and wallpaper designs of Morris & Co. have been continually reimagined in new forms over the years. The firm's designs are still sold today under licenses to Liberty of London and Sanderson & Sons, part of the Walker Greenbank wallpaper and fabrics business (which owns the "Morris & Co." brand).

Morris himself was an intriguing figure. We’d call him a polymath today. Artist, designer, poet, novelist, book designer, publisher, political activist and socialist writer/lecturer. He was born into a wealthy family and studied classics at Oxford University; he also was influenced by medievalism. He married Jane Burden; his circle of friends included pre-Raphaelite artists Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti and neo-Gothic architect Philip Webb. Morris’ artistry in home fabrics was heavily influenced by plant and floral forms and by medievalist detail, intense colors and complex patterns. 

Textile design examples from William Morris collection.

Morris’ political and artistic views converge in this quote from 1877 when he said “I do not want art for a few  any more than I want education for a few or freedom for a few.” (Morris’ views about the value of handmade home products didn’t recognize that such products were not affordable for the average worker, then or now.)

The exhibit opens with a view of the entry wall with its explanation of Morris and Company and an introduction to exhibit highlights. That room features an armchair upholstered in a Morris fabric and a large tapestry portrait of Pomona (the goddess of abundance in Roman mythology) from designs by Edward Burne-Jones and John Henry Dearle.  

Most of the exhibits display original Morris materials, including wallpapers, upholstery and other domestic fabrics and floor coverings. Both embroidery and wood block fabric printing were important forms of creation for the Morris company, all of it hand-produced. 

Vine Leaf. Designed by May Morris, produced by Morris & Co., London. Design 1896. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Crab Tree Farm Foundation. Image courtesy of the Art Institute.

Both Morris’ wife Jane and their daughter May were accomplished embroiderers. May began to embroider at an early age, introduced to it through her mother’s handmade decorations for their home as well as the firm’s activities. By the time she was 23, May was the supervisor of the Morris company’s embroidery division and held this role until her father died. 

Embroidery kits were one of the most popular products of her department; these kits contained fabric marked with a design and recommended embroidery threads. (When I was a young girl, my mother, in an effort to make me more “ladylike,” pressed me to join her in this tedious activity. Eventually I was old enough to rebel.)  

Later May Morris taught, wrote, lectured and founded the Women’s Guild for the Arts to support and provide networking opportunities for British women designers who were, of course, excluded from the male Art Worker’s Guild. 

Original carpet from Glessner House entry hall.

One gallery in the exhibit features textiles from a Chicago museum house that you can visit today. The Glessner House, a National Historic Landmark on historic Prairie Avenue, was designed by Henry Hobson Richardson in Richardsonian Romanesque style and completed in 1887. John Glessner was an executive with a farm manufacturing firm that later became part of Chicago-based International Harvester (now known as Navistar International). His wife, Frances Glessner, a patron of the arts and an artisan herself, was introduced to Morris’ work in a lecture in 1883. Later she purchased textiles, a grand entry hall carpet and other materials as well as new and antique furniture in the arts and crafts style.  

The highlight of the Glessner gallery is the original entry hall carpet (now replaced in the house by a reproduction). The Glessner House is open for timed tours on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Buy tickets in advance.

Morris and Company: The Business of Beauty continues at the Art institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave., through June 13. The exhibit is located in the lower level textile galleries. The museum is open 11am-5pm Thursdays through Mondays with 10-11am open for members only. Admission is $14-$25, depending on place of residence; discounts are available for students and seniors. Note that checkrooms and food service are closed for now. 

All photos by Nancy Bishop, except where otherwise noted.

Did you enjoy this post and our coverage of Chicago’s arts scene? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation by PayPal. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!

Picture of the author
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.