As one of the preeminent design historians of the mid-20th century, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner was astonished to discover an object he had never seen before during his research into the origins of modernism: a cruet set “of surprisingly high standard.” Eventually, he identified the designer as Christopher Dresser, and proceeded to unearth as much information as he could about him.
No easy task. “Not even the dates of his birth and death were known,” Pevsner wrote of Dresser in a 1937 essay on “minor masters of the 19th century.” “Minor” though Dresser may have seemed in the 1930s, only a few decades before he had been hailed as a pioneer of the new profession of industrial design. Not only did Dresser devise thousands of products for scores of manufacturers, becoming immensely wealthy in the process, he also developed a nuanced and ingenious approach to design that imbued those objects with a subtlety hitherto unknown in factory wares.
As visionary as Dresser was in so many aspects of his work, his most intriguing project was the pottery he co-founded in 1879 on the site of an old brickworks at Linthorpe, a tiny village in northeast England. As well as designing some of his most unusual and beautiful objects for the Linthorpe Art Pottery, Dresser strove to establish it as a model workplace, which would create new jobs in an area of high unemployment. The employees were to be highly trained and fairly paid—regardless of gender—to operate the latest machinery in clean, light, and airy workspaces.
Dresser’s concern for the welfare of the workforce was rooted both in the deep respect he had gained for the quality of workmanship produced by the skilled employees he had encountered as a designer, and from his personal experience. The son of a tax collector, Dresser was sent at the age of thirteen to study at the Government School of Design in London, where clever, creative boys from modest backgrounds were trained to design for Britain’s booming manufacturing industries. A star student, Dresser taught at the school after completing his studies and also opened a design studio. Having married at nineteeen, he felt compelled to accept whatever projects were offered to support his expanding family, which would eventually include thirteen children.
By the time Dresser agreed to establish the Linthorpe Art Pottery, he was in his forties and had designed a remarkably eclectic range of products in such diverse fields as glass, metalware, wallpaper, textiles, and cabinetry, as well as ceramics. He had also spent four months in Japan in 1876, becoming the first European designer to study the country’s rich culture of craftsmanship and fabrication. Dresser’s experience there encouraged him to develop a painstakingly refined, geometric, formal language for his products that clearly articulated how they were made. Jarringly iconoclastic though his language must have seemed at the time, to a contemporary eye, it looks like an alluring foretaste of modernism.
As art superintendent for the first three years of the Linthorpe pottery, Dresser was responsible for the design of its wares, and for ensuring that it was appropriately staffed. He suggested appointing the artist Henry Tooth as pottery manager and hiring skilled modelers from the Staffordshire potteries, along with a dozen or so artists to decorate the pots.
By 1885, Linthorpe Pottery had employed nearly a hundred people, and its ceramics were renowned for the strange beauty of their fluid forms and surreally colored glazes inspired by Dresser’s Japanese research. Originally, he had hoped that Linthorpe might nurture a British market for sophisticated yet reasonably affordable art pottery. Sadly, he made the grave error of overestimating his compatriots’s appetite for innovation, and many of Linthorpe’s pots were exported to Japan. Some of them eventually found their way back to Britain, where they were sold as “Japanese” wares.
Alice Rawsthorn is a London-based writer on design. She is the author of Hello World: Where Design Meets Life published by Hamish Hamilton, and her latest book, Design as an Attitude, published by JRP|Ringier.